Wednesday, March 24, 2010

the junk dealer.

In Frank Norris’s novel, McTeague, Maria Macapa takes all the miscellaneous items she has accrued to the junk dealer, Zerkow, to exchange for money. “Absorbed at once in the affair,” Zerkow presents an excitement for the revelation of Maria’s things (28). The narrator continues on to describe the contents of her pillowcase:

Then a long wrangle began. Every bit of junk in Maria's pillowcase was discussed and weighed and disputed. They clamored into each other's faces over Old Grannis's cracked pitcher, over Miss Baker's silk gaiters, over Marcus Schouler's whiskey flasks, reaching the climax of disagreement when it came to McTeague's instruments (28).

Most of Maria’s “junk” surpasses Zerkow’s interest, except for the gold fillings — this grabs hold of his utmost desire. It is crucial to notice his sexually suggestive language conveyed in his reaction as they reach the “climax” of disagreement over McTeague’s gold:

Zerkow drew a quick breath as the three pellets suddenly flashed in Maria's palm. There it was, the virgin metal, the pure, unalloyed ore, his dream, his consuming desire. His fingers twitched and hooked themselves into his palms, his thin lips drew tight across his teeth (Norris 28).

In this passage, Zerkow is lusting for the gold, the “virgin” metal. As Maria “shut[s] her fist over the pellets,” she consequently denies Zerkow the object of his desire (Norris 29). Yet Zerkow would stop at nothing to have it, and the tone of their haggling reveals aggression.

After the bargain was complete, Zerkow offers Maria a drink and asks her about the gold dishes her father owned in Central America. In his anticipation to hear the story, Zerkow “was breathing short, his limbs trembled a little. It was as if some hungry beast of prey had scented a quarry. Maria still refused, putting up her head, insisting that she had to be going” (Norris 29). This is an explicit example of his consuming desire for gold. However, it appears to me as though gold is replacing the female body as an object of sexual desire, and the quarry symbolizes the female body acting as a barrier in which men must violate to claim the gold that’s hidden from them.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

you reap what you sow.

Pudd’nhead Wilson contains all the elements of a nineteenth century mystery: swapped identities, role reversal, masterful disguises, a terrible crime, a detective, a courtroom drama, and a surprising, rather twisted ending to the novel. However, the bigger picture radiates from the southern culture, and the skewed moral codes of society. Mark Twain writes, “To all intents and purposes Roxy was as white as anybody, but the one sixteenth of her which was black outvoted the other fifteen parts and made her a Negro. She was a slave, and salable as such. Her child was thirty-one parts white, and he, too, was a slave, and by a fiction of law and custom a Negro” (29). The real criminal is not a character in Pudd’nhead Wilson. The real criminal is society— racial prejudice, slavery, and the undercurrents of the savage treatment inflicted upon fellow human beings.

In the beginning of the novel Mr. Driscoll’s slaves are lined up and questioned about the money that had gone missing on more than one occasion. After being threatened to be sold down the river, all three of them cry out in fear: “I done it! I done it! I done it!—have mercy, marster—Lord have mercy on us po’ niggers!” (33). This is the catalyst that causes Roxana to switch the babies; she would rather die than see her son sold down the river. After having done so, Roxy justifies her action by thinking of the story about the queen. She exclaims, “Dah, now—de preacher said it his own self, en it ain’t no sin, ’ca’se white folks done it. Dey done it—yes, dey done it; en not on’y jis’ common white folks nuther, but de biggest quality dey is in de whole bilin’” (37). A black child (according to the “one-drop” rule) became a king, while the queen’s own child was sold down the river; thus, fair is fair. The white people are being whipped by their own inhumane laws. So my question, which is rather a more philosophical question of ethics, is simply this: does this make it right?