Frank Norris (1807-1902)

    Contributing Editor:
    Joseph R. McElrath, Jr.

    Classroom Issues and Strategies

    As in Stephen Crane's overtly avant-garde works, Frank Norris's writings frequently seek to unsettle or disorient the "average" reader. The Norris canon includes some of the most conventional turn-of-the-century short stories possible in the realm of genteel fiction. More experimental fictions such as "Fantaisie Printanière," however, are conceived in radically different ways. "Fantaisie" is, from one point of view, clearly designed as a droll tale for a sophisticated, "elite" readership seeing itself as having risen above the ethos of petit bourgeois morality and jaded to Dickensian melodrama eliciting sympathy for the "lower classes." The Olympian perspective on the antics of the vulgar characters represented here (and in the first half of McTeague, 1899) is adopted and maintained by the patrician Norris--his sense of humor resembling that of Stephen Crane, especially in the conclusion of Maggie where Mrs. Johnson's lugubrious response to her daughter's death is rendered tongue-in-cheek.

    At the same time, decadent delight in an artifice featuring two women who take pride in their husbands' refined skills in wife-beating is not an experience accessible to more zealously humane and moral readers of late Victorian or modern society. In effect, Norris, like his male characters McTeague and Ryer, is deliberately abusive--toward these readers who, like their Victorian-era predecessors, maintain a high regard for the dignity of individuals of both sexes and cannot countenance so light-hearted a reaction on the part of Norris to the brutal behaviors described in detail and without censure here.

    The instructor will want to describe and invite discussion of decadence and the decadent sensibility inferable from this 1897 story; this, in turn, should be related to the general breakdown or questioning of traditional western values that is a hallmark of the emergence of the post-Victorian, naturalistic, and modern sensibilities. Also to be discussed-- undoubtedly with considerably more ease--is the moral perspective that the story is designed to test and, predictably, outrage. Clarification of the moral perspectives of the students who react negatively will perhaps be aided by a simple question: Is there any moment in the story where there is a genuinely successful comic development? If not, why not? If so, does one reconceive the risible moment upon later reflection? Those students who found the tale truly comic should also be encouraged to speak: how can so inarguably "tragic" a situation in real life be viewed in "comic" terms in literature?

    Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues

    Norris was writing at a time when, because of Darwin's influence and the advent of the naturalistic sensibility, human beings' animalistic characteristics--vestigial and active--were receiving much attention. A contemporary of Freud, Norris was also developing his major themes when the refinements made available by civilization were being considered by many as relatively superficial, veneer-like traits; speculations abounded at the turn of the century regarding a brute-like "second self" within the individual, as in Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886). Norris does not posit the existence of Freud's id, but like Jack London he does focus in McTeague and elsewhere on the emergence of the "brute" within. In "Fantaisie" the characters do not experience an "atavistic lapse" to a more primitive evolutionary state. They immediately stand forth as unredeemed primitives of the lower socioeconomic order, indicating Norris's opinion of human nature in its crudest condition, exacerbated by alcohol. Another fixed notion of the late nineteenth century relevant to the female characterizations in "Fantaisie" as well as in McTeague is that female love-behavior is characteristically expressed in active submission or dynamic passivity while males are typically more aggressive and dominating; the sado-masochistic relationships featured in the story thus have their roots in a popular assumption about a natural difference between males and females.

    Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions

    With the title he chose, Norris duplicitously specifies a literary form that he quickly turns inside out for the sake of a sensational effect. The title invites the reader to expect a conventional indulgence in a revery related to carefree springtime frolic, traditionally occurring in a pastoral setting and embellished by imagery related to rejuvenation, delight in lovemaking, and joyful procreation. Norris instead establishes in a frolicsome tone a squalid and malodorous urban setting, in which the sterility of the childless couples replaces fecundity, the apparently pathological dependence of the masochistic wives upon their sadistic husbands stands forth instead of wholesome love, and violence rather than "thrice times happy" lovemaking is the constant.

    The response of the student readers to this horrendous account of suffering rendered in a waggish, tongue-in-cheek style may prove complex. The majority will, of course, be initially perplexed, resisting the conclusion that Norris is actually making light of so serious a social problem as wife-abuse, and expecting a finale in which Norris returns the reader to a more morally or socially acceptable perspective. When this "dark" fantasy ends without a readjustment of its amoral point of view, Norris will very likely be judged by many as an irresponsible commentator who, at twenty-seven years of age, is behaving like an especially immature artist and perhaps encouraging his readers to assume a like point of view on wife-beating. Three points should be considered, though, after the worth of such an observation is acknowledged. First, Norris was inclined toward parody, and he is deliberately employing the conventions of a pastoral fantasy in a parodic manner. Second, it should be noted--for better or worse--that Norris's tone is a consistently amoral one: The narrative voice is one that has, in effect, declared a moral holiday. The tale is, after all, a fantasy and not to be confused with a realistic depiction. Third, the story is not didactic, though some readers may infer that Norris is suggesting the "naturalness" of what is depicted as occurring in San Francisco. Note, however, that the tale implies the extraordinariness of the Ryers and McTeagues.

    Original Audience

    This story was not written for a national readership or for a mass-circulation popular magazine. It was published only once during Norris's lifetime, in the weekly San Francisco magazine, The Wave. Its readership was upper middle class; the weekly's tone was "smart," up-to-date, and decidedly patrician; several of its writers were markedly iconoclastic, associated with the local decadent magazine, The Lark, and a bohemian group, Les Jeunes. Editor John O'Hara Cosgrave allowed Norris to take liberties unthinkable in most respectable American magazines of the time, and Norris capitalized upon this, especially in 1897, by producing fiction in which various cultural taboos were stylishly violated with impunity. The novel Vandover and the Brute is another measure of how Norris pushed the limits of what was then acceptable in the publishing world; written in the 1890s, it could not be published until 1914 when tolerance for the "immoral" in sexually-focused fiction had expanded.

    Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections

    The amorality and insensitivity to the plight of the underclass in this story are signs of a mass rejection of Victorian values among American writers through the next generation. The narrator's point of view stands in marked contrast to, for example, Rebecca Harding Davis's compassionate and didactic tone in Life in the Iron-Mills (1861). Norris's distancing of himself from his characters and their peculiarities is characteristic of post-Victorian contemporaries such as Stephen Crane and Ambrose Bierce; like Bierce in "Chickamauga" (1889), Norris sometimes gives the impression of one insensitively toying with ungainly specimens of humanity for the sake of shocking the reader. Like his French mentor, Émile Zola, Norris did not hesitate to find "suffering humanity" comic as well as tragic; see chapter 3 of Zola's L'Assommoir (1877) for a model of the kind of "dark comedy" that Norris cultivated.

    Significant contrasts will be seen within Norris's canon, for Norris frequently reveals compassion for humanity at large, thus disclosing a very different side of his personality than "Fantaisie" does. The Octopus (1901) and "A Deal in Wheat" (1902), for example, feature sympathetic portrayals of the downtrodden; and McTeague offers in its second half a markedly more empathetic handling of the horrors of wife-abuse.

    Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing

    1. How and why does Norris seek to shock his conventional readers? Or, what kind of reader does Norris imagine as finding this story pleasantly comical throughout?

    2. How does Norris invert the conventions of pastoral literature? Or, to what degree is Norris a parodic author?

    3. Is a comic tone ever appropriate for subject matters such as wife-beating?

    4. With what gender-based popular assumptions is Norris working when characterizing the submissive wives and the violently aggressive husbands?

    5. What are the attitudes toward social class and "race" (the alcoholic Irish figure) inscribed in this text? How is Norris's status as an upper-middle-class Anglo-American male relevant at a time when the "immigrant problem" was a matter of national debate?

    6. Compare Norris's descriptions of sadism in Moran of the Lady Letty (1899) and sadomasochism in McTeague with those in this story. Contrast the ideal portrait of male-female relationships in Blix (1899) with the representations of the marriages in "Fantaisie."

    7. How does "Fantaisie" stand as a spin-off tale derived from Norris's then unpublished McTeague?

    8. How much was known about the extent of the wife-abuse problem in the United States in 1897? Do national circulation magazines and San Francisco newspapers reveal significant interest in the problem? Do women writers such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Frances Willard offer a perspective different from Norris's?


    See the secondary works listed in the headnote, particularly William B. Dillingham's Frank Norris: Instinct and Art regarding Norris's sometimes condescending attitudes toward his "lowly" characters. In Frank Norris Revisited, Joseph R. McElrath, Jr., gives close attention to Norris's attempts at fashioning sensational fictions designed to violate Victorian decorum and traditional moral values.