McTeague is a novel by Frank Norris, first published in 1899. It tells the story of a couple's courtship and marriage, and their subsequent descent into poverty, violence and finally murder as the result of jealousy and greed. The book was the basis for the films McTeague (1916) and Erich von Stroheim's Greed (1924). It was also adapted as an opera by William Bolcom in 1992.

AuthorFrank Norris
CountryUnited States
PublisherDoubleday & McClure
Publication date

Plot summary

McTeague is a dentist of limited intellect from a poor miner's family, who has opened a dentist shop on Polk Street in San Francisco. (His first name is never revealed; other characters in the novel call him simply "Mac.") His best friend, Marcus Schouler, brings his cousin, Trina Sieppe, whom he is courting, to McTeague's parlor for dental work. McTeague becomes infatuated with her while working on her teeth, and Marcus graciously steps aside. McTeague successfully woos Trina. Shortly after McTeague and Trina have kissed and declared their love for each other, Trina discovers that she has won $5,000 from a lottery ticket. In the ensuing celebration Trina's mother, Mrs. Sieppe, announces that McTeague and Trina are to marry. Marcus becomes jealous of McTeague, and claims that he has been cheated out of money that would have been rightfully his if he had married Trina.

The marriage takes place, and Mrs. Sieppe, along with the rest of Trina's family, move away from San Francisco, leaving her alone with McTeague. Trina proves to be a parsimonious wife; she refuses to touch the principal of her $5,000, which she invests with her uncle. She insists that she and McTeague must live on the earnings from McTeague's dental practice, the small income from the $5,000 investment, and the bit of money she earns from carving small wooden figures of Noah's animals and his Ark for sale in her uncle's shop. Secretly, she accumulates penny-pinched savings in a locked trunk. Though the couple are happy, the friendship between Marcus and Mac deteriorates. More than once the two men come to grips; each time McTeague's immense physical strength prevails, and eventually he breaks Marcus's arm in a fight. When Marcus recovers, he goes south, intending to become a rancher; before he leaves, he visits the McTeagues, and he and Mac part apparently as friends.

Catastrophe strikes when McTeague is debarred from practicing dentistry by the authorities; it becomes clear that before leaving, Marcus has taken revenge on Mac by informing city hall that he has no license or academic degree. McTeague loses his practice and the couple are forced to move into successively poorer quarters as Trina becomes more and more miserly. Their life together deteriorates, with McTeague escalating in his abuse, until McTeague steals all of Trina's domestic savings (amounting to $400 or roughly $10,000 in 2010 values) and abandons her. Meanwhile, Trina falls completely under the spell of money and withdraws the principal of her prior winnings in gold from her uncle's firm so she can admire and handle the coins in her room, at one point spreading them over her bed and rolling around in them.

When McTeague returns, destitute once more, she refuses to give him money even for food. McTeague beats her to death. He takes the entire hoard of gold and heads out to a mining community that he had left years before. Sensing pursuit, he makes his way south towards Mexico; meanwhile, Marcus hears of the murder and joins the hunt for McTeague, finally catching him in Death Valley. In the middle of the desert Marcus and McTeague fight over McTeague's remaining water, and when that is lost and they are already doomed, over Trina's $5,000. McTeague kills Marcus, but as he dies, Marcus handcuffs himself to McTeague. The final, dramatic image of the novel is one of McTeague stranded, alone and helpless. He is left with only the company of Marcus's corpse, to whom he is handcuffed, in the desolate, arid waste of Death Valley.


  • A 1916 film adaptation titled Life's Whirlpool (also known as McTeague) starred Holbrook Blinn and Fania Marinoff. No copies of this film are known to exist.
  • Greed, Erich von Stroheim's film version of McTeague, was made in 1924. In its original form, it lasted approximately eight hours but was cut drastically by the studio, MGM, and most of the excised footage has been lost.
  • Karen Kearns produced a radio drama version of McTeague in 1989, under a fellowship for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The program featured Stacy Keach, Carol Kane, Hector Elizondo, JoBeth Williams, Michael York, Katherine Helman, Ed Asner, Joe Spano, and many other well-known actors.
  • McTeague was the basis of an opera of the same name by composer William Bolcom and librettist Arnold Weinstein, which premiered on October 31, 1992.

Further reading

  • Bender, Bert (1999). "Frank Norris on the Evolution and Repression of the Sexual Instinct," Nineteenth-Century Literature, Vol. 54, No. 1, pp. 73–103.
  • Campbell, Donna M. (1993). "Frank Norris' 'Drama of a Broken Teacup': The Old Grannis-Miss Baker Plot in McTeague," American Literary Realism, 1870–1910, Vol. XXVI, No. 1, pp. 40–49.
  • Collins, Carvel (1950). "Introduction" to McTeague. New York: Rinehart.
  • Cowley, Malcolm (1947). "Naturalism's Terrible McTeague," New Republic, Vol. CXVI, p. 31–33.
  • Dillingham, W.B. (1977). "The Old Folks of McTeague." In: Donald Pizer (ed.), McTeague. New York: Norton.
  • Freedman, William (1980). "Oral Passivity and Oral Sadism in Norris's McTeague," Literature and Psychology, Vol. XXX, pp. 52–61.
  • Graham, Don (1980). "Art in McTeague." In: Critical Essays on Frank Norris. Boston: G.K. Hall and Co., pp. 75–84.
  • Hochman, Barbara (1986). "Loss, Habit, Obsession: The Governing Dynamic of McTeague," Studies in American Fiction, Vol. XIV, No. 2, pp. 179–190.
  • Hug, William J. (1991). "McTeague as Metafiction? Frank Norris' Parodies of Bret Harte and the Dime Novel," Western American Literature, Vol. 26, No. 3, pp. 219–228.
  • Kaplan, Charles (1954). "Fact into Fiction in McTeague," Harvard Library Bulletin, Vol. VIII, pp. 381–385.
  • Lardy, Leonard Anthony (1959). "McTeague: A Study in Determinism, Romanticism and Fascism," (M.A. Thesis) Montana State University.
  • Litton, Alfred G. (1991). "The Kinetoscope in McTeague: 'The Crowning Scientific Achievement of the Nineteenth Century'," Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 19, No. 1, pp. 107–712.
  • Mahin, Sarah Jane (1944). Formative Influences on Frank Norris's Novel McTeague. (M.A. Thesis), University of Iowa.
  • McElrath, Jr., Joseph R. (1975). "The Comedy of Frank Norris's McTeague," Studies in American Humor, Vol. II, No. 2, pp. 88–95.
  • Miller, Edwin Haviland (1979). "The Art of Frank Norris in McTeague," Markham Review, Vol. VIII, pp. 61–65.
  • Morris, Ethiel Virginia (1928). Frank Norris' Trilogy on American Life. (M.A. Thesis), University of Kansas.
  • Johnson, George W. (1962). "The Frontier behind Frank Norris' McTeague," Huntington Library Quarterly, Vol. XXVI, No. 1, pp. 91–104.
  • Pizer, Donald (1997). "The Biological Determinism of McTeague in Our Time," American Literary Realism, Vol. 29, No. 2, pp. 27–33
  • Shroeder, John (1981). "The Shakespearean Plots of 'Mcteague'," American Literary Realism, 1870–1910, Vol. XIV, No. 2, pp. 289–296.
  • Spangler, George M. (1978). "The Structure of McTeague," English Studies, Vol. LIX, pp. 48–56.
  • Ware, Thomas C. (1981). "'Gold to Airy Thinness Beat': The Midas Touch in Frank Norris's McTeague," Interpretations, Vol. XIII, No. 1, pp. 39–47.
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