Frank Norris (1807-1902)
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.
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
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
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.