From the Dental Parlors: Dentistry and Masculinity in Frank Norris’s “McTeague”

John Carranza // In his introduction to Frank Norris’s turn of the century novel McTeague: A Story of San Francisco, Eric Solomon poses the question, “Still, a novel about a dentist?”[1] In response to this question, Solomon cites Norris’s desire to have a main character that had not yet been written about. In many ways, being a dentist is what sets the action of the story in motion and keeps it on a forward trajectory past the midpoint of the book. Nevertheless, the novel is a story not just about McTeague, but also San Francisco and the American West, and their intersections with greed, masculinity, and medical authority.

The San Francisco that McTeague lives in is, at the turn of the century, still a growing urban center that included minority groups—Mexicans, Chinese, Germans—among the majority white population. The California Gold Rush of 1848 and 1849 created a frontier city that was predominantly male. McTeague[2] is frequently characterized as a masculine character that borders on brutishness. Physically, he is over six feet tall, has ropy musculature, and “suggest[s] the draft horse, immensely strong, stupid, docile, obedient.” At any provocation McTeague’s hands can quickly turn to “mallets” and his sheer size and strength have the capacity to kill. McTeague’s mental capacities are also called into question, as his mind is often slow to comprehend the implications of his and others’ actions. McTeague could be viewed as a holdover of a previous time, when men were required to be tougher to deal with the harsh realities of life on the frontier. Over time, McTeague softens, but never totally loses that rough individuality.[3]

The reader learns that McTeague attained his dental training as a young man not from any professional organization or school, but as an apprentice to a traveling dentist who was characterized as a charlatan. Despite not having a professional education as we would think of it today, McTeague displays some semblance of belonging to the profession, which is visible in his office where he keeps copies of The American System of Dentistry and Allen’s Practical Dentist. The Dental Parlors, his office, quickly becomes one of his crowning achievements, with clients such as butcher boys, shopgirls, drug clerks, and car conductors. The clients belong to the working and lower-middle classes, and like other Americans at the time, are concerned with dental care usually only when pain is present. Medical professionals’ increasing awareness of “oral sepsis,” or the ability for bacteria to enter the bloodstream and infect other parts of the body, made caring for patients all the more important. Dentists’ ability to relieve pain from infected or decaying teeth gave them a large amount of medical authority, and the mouth’s importance as the beginning of the digestive system meant that the dentist’s job was just as crucial as that of the physician’s.[4]

The Dental Parlors is the setting in which the reader first meets Trina Sieppe. She comes at the insistence of her cousin, Marcus Schouler, who is in love with her and best friends with McTeague. Upon introduction, Marcus tells Trina that McTeague can pull teeth with his bare hands, which reinforces the image of his strength and capability with his hands. When McTeague is left alone with Trina, “the male, virile desire in him tardily awakened, aroused itself, strong and brutal.” The trust that Trina had placed in her cousin’s friend is quickly violated, as McTeague gives in to urges that the author characterizes as distinctly male and uninhibited, and kisses her on the mouth while she is unconscious. When she regains consciousness, McTeague proposes. Trina’s initial reaction is to scream and vomit, but over a period of time she gives into McTeague’s insistence and says yes. Trina frequently gives into McTeague’s demands because of his intimidating strength and size.[5]

When Trina later wins $5,000 in the lottery, her relationship with McTeague intensifies for the worse. Trina hoards her winnings and severely cuts back on the amount of money that the couple spends. Trina refuses to support both of them when it is discovered that McTeague must suspend his practice because he never received a formal university education. McTeague’s sense of entitlement to her money is never hidden from the reader or from Trina. The more Trina refuses to spend the money that she has saved from her lottery winnings, the more his system of abuse escalates, from squeezing her close to him, to pinching her, to biting her fingers until she gives him money. McTeague’s authority ultimately results in the maiming of his wife, as the bites on her fingers become infected and lead to the partial amputation of three fingers. As a result, she is constantly reminded of the harm that her husband caused her. She has to give up the job that she worked for years whittling children’s toys out of wood, and must clean people’s homes much like that of Maria Macapa, the Mexican woman who sold her the winning lottery ticket.[6]

McTeague’s precarious situation at the end of the novel gives the reader a sense of justice, but it ultimately does not feel like it is enough considering the damage he has done to Trina and others in his life. One might read this book as a cautionary tale against greed, but it is also useful for understanding the role of authority and what is today called toxic masculinity. Read as a historical novel, McTeague gives much insight into life at the turn of the century, and can see how a society that initially began with few women could breed a masculine environment that devalued women to the point of being disposable.

Much has changed in the century since McTeague was first published. San Francisco has grown as a city and is no longer a frontier city. We know much more about dentistry as a field of health and its associated practices, and the chances that anyone would practice without licensure is nonexistent. However, one theme that seems to persist is the sense of entitlement that many men feel that they have over money and women. Power can mean many things—physical size and strength, money, specialized knowledge—but what remains the same is that it continues to be used for the benefit of those who hold it.  Men exercise their authority because they get away with it. However, one hopes that, like McTeague, they remain handcuffed to their past.

[1]Eric Solomon, introduction to McTeague: A Story of San Francisco, by Frank Norris (New York: Signet Classic, 2003), xi.

[2]McTeague is never given a first name. Norris and the other characters refer to him as “dentist” or “Mac.”

[3]Frank Norris, McTeague: A Story of San Francisco, by Frank Norris (New York: Signet Classic, 2003), 2-3.

[4]Norris, 2; Alyssa Picard, Making the American Mouth: Dentists and Public Health in the Twentieth Century (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2009), 2-3; CLZ Vieira and B. Caramelli, “The History of Dentistry and Medicine Relationship: Could the Mouth Finally Return to the Body?,” Oral Diseases, 15 (2009): 538-539.

[5]Norris, 21, 24-25, 67.

[6]Ibid., 141-142; 261-262; 276-278.

 

Recommended reading:

Sears, Clare. Arresting Dress: Cross-Dressing, Law, and Fascination in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco. Durham: Duke University Press, 2015.

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