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McTeague: 01/19/07

McTeague: A Story of San Francisco

Frank Norris's 1899 novel, McTeague: A Story of San Francisco was the inspiration for the Erich von Stroheim film Greed. Greed is probably best known for being the film that was nine hours long until the studio forced Stroheim to edit it down to something manageable (either 2 hours or 4 hours; there are two extant versions). I used to think that the 9 hour version must have been wonderful before it was butchered but now I'm not so sure having read the book that inspired the film.

McTeague is a book filled with fundamentally broken characters who have little or no redeeming qualities. The one vice they all seem to share is (surprise!) greed. Their ideal little world begins to fall apart just as everything appears to be going well at the winning of the lottery and a prize of five thousand dollars.

The greed theme is laid on too thick throughout the book. McTeague wants to live off his wife's winnings rather than work. Trina fears losing their nest egg and turns miserly. Old time friend Marcus covets both the money and Trina (Mrs. McTeague).

Since so much time and energy is spent on this one theme, little is left for character development. McTeague remains a dull, lazy, stupid and somewhat infantile character. He somehow transforms from gentle and bashful giant to a violent drunk. Meanwhile Trina devolves from being an industrious (albeit somewhat dishonest) toy maker to a wretch who does nothing but count her hidden earnings. The only reason given for these sudden changes of character is money and that alone isn't enough to carry a book through twenty-two chapters.

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