December 9, 2010
A Barbaric look and a Compassionate Nature
The sun is setting over the vast rolling hills of the New England landscape. The smell of a warm summer’s day still lingers in the air as the… As mankind discovers more and more ways to detach themselves from their origins in nature, our personal identifications as members of the animal kingdom are slowly left by the wayside. When comparing the two literary works, The Land of Little Rain, by Mary Austin, and, McTeague, by Frank Norris, it is clear that the authors have very different views of the landscape and humans when compared to being animalistic.
Nature is an unavoidable aspect of life. This is a view indirectly presented by both authors throughout their works. Whether it be through an unfortunate circumstance or by choice, people cannot avoid their roots in the circle of life, however people can choose to limit the allotted time within nature. Austin’s approach to nature is one of empathy and compassion. Austin sees the usefulness and wonderment of nature. To her nature is beautiful and the idea of man using it for one thing or another doesn’t make the land any ‘happier.’
“It is a still field, this of my neighbor’s, though so busy, and admirably compounded for variety and pleasantness, - a little sand, a little loam, a grassy plot, a stony rise of two, a full brown stream…” (Austin 54).
Austin has a fondness of simplicity, which is made clear in this passage. It is when there is an imputation of human activity that the simplicity is disrupted. The mankind that imposes an agenda of our own on nature is different from the agendas of the Shoshones, another group of humans that coexists and cooperate with nature. During that last part of this passage, which leads to the end of the chapter, Austin asks herself how she thinks the field will welcome this change to its life.
“… it occurs to me that though the field may serve a good turn in those days it will hardly be happier. No, certainly not happier” (Austin 55).
Norris’s McTeague takes a far different approach to nature and its uses. The descriptions of nature are in the gold mines or used to ranching. This rape of the land seems to be the only thing it is useful for. Either you are in control of nature or it is in control of you. In Norris’s novel, Marcus, one of the more major characters, makes the decision to leave him home and start ranching. This is a clear example of man’s control of nature for his benefit. Another example discussed during the reading is the idea of gold mining. The gold rush of 1849 was a huge reason for settling in California during this time. Though the novel for written fifty years later, gold was still being mined in parts of the state. This is just another example of man bending nature to his will and for personal gain and agenda. Austin tends to give more merit to the style of living that does not result in gains only on the side of man.
At the end of Norris’s story, nature is the one that gets the best of man. Since the control of their fate was left up to harsh environment of Death Valley, both men were doomed to perish under the blazing heat of the mid-day’s sun. Whether or not this was an intentional idea of Norris’s, it is interesting that he either shows man in control of nature or the other way around. It seems that he is showing this struggle between the things that occur naturally as opposed to things that can be influenced by the abstract thought of man.
The analysis of animalist characteristics is a second and very large part of each authors’ analysis of the human psyche. To Norris, it appears that the embrace of our animalistic tendencies is a digression in mankind’s evolution. McTeague is described as a person with these negative animal inclinations that are harmful to mankind. “It was the red flag in the eyes of the bull” (Norris 235). McTeague is a brutish man who is driving by passion and lust. This individual rarely uses the use of thinking skills and his ambitions are inward and selfish. Even the love of his wife is something for his own gain. He does not seem to care much for the woman that has entrusted her love and life to this man. Norris attributes most of the selfish behavior in his book to being selfish and self-centered. Each person that displays these walks of life (the three main characters) live stressful and horrible lives and all meet a violent or torturous demise.
“But her resistance was the one thing to drive him to the top of his fury. He came back at her again, his eyes drawn to two fine twinkling points, and his enormous fists, clenched till the knuckles whitened, raised in the air” (Norris 285).
This description of one human taking another’s life is very different form the approach the Austin gives her readers. Norris describes an animalistic killing as brutal and excessively violent. Austin however, gives a very different look at killing and a respect that goes along with it. In Austin’s version of an animalistic killing, the Shoshone people see that a member of their tribe has not been able to perform his task. Because he has lost his purpose he is to be executed as punishment. Even though death is a severe punishment, it is not done with a sense of distain or resentment but with love and compassion. It pains these men of nature to have to dispatch one of their own.
“So much has the Indian lost of savageness by merely desisting from killing, that the executioners braved themselves to their work by drinking and a show of quarrelsomeness. In the end a sharp hatchet-stroke discharged the duty of the campoodie” (Austin 40).
There are no fists that were brought down upon this medicine man. For the natives, living things should be met with a quick and painless death. McTeague on the other hand, beats his foes to death with his own hands. Using his tremendous size to overpower his enemies. Trinia, his wife, was not the only person to meet his fists of fury. At the end of the tale, McTeague turns his brutish strength on his friend Marcus as the two fights over a sack of money. Though the two are trapped in an inhospitable environment, they are still driven by their own pride and selfish egos. When the Shoshone people decided to kill a person it is with reason and purpose, never for personal gain.
Comparing people to animals in never a bad thing if Austin is the one giving the analysis.
“Very clean and handsome, quite belying his relationship in appearance, is Clark’s crow. That scavenger and plunderer of mountain camps. It is permissible to call him by his common name, “Camp Robber:” he has earned it” (Austin 23).
The crow is described not as a mangy scavenger but as brilliant and resourceful. He takes advantage of the was provided by man and fills himself with nourishment. Thus, being animalistic in this sense would be seen as she described: clean and handsome. He has earned his title.
A bit later in the text, the Shoshone are compared to the coyotes. Though this is a blatant comparison, no harm is meant by it. Back on the same page as the quote from above, the coyote is described as a “lazy dog,” that will eat that which has already been killed. This shows the same resourcefulness as Clark’s crow. This resourcefulness does not leave anything wasted and is a characteristic of those who are clean and handsome.
We have established that in Norris’s text, either man takes control of nature or nature takes control of man. It also important to remind the reader that Norris often compares and characterizes his main brutish character, McTeague, to an animal and having animalistic characteristics. It is then interesting to realize that the man who sets himself after McTeague, post the murder of Trina, would be a man who is a rancher (Someone that, as a profession, presides of a large expansion of land). This is another example of man (Marcus the rancher) needed to try and take control over a natural opponent (McTeague). In the end he lets nature get the best of him and is killed by McTeague.
Selfish animalistic behavior is seen to be something negative in the eyes of Norris. In a harsh environment such as the one Norris’s tale takes place, it is easy to see how the people themselves become harsh and self-centered. This is not seen in the same way Austin sees it, probably due to the unforgivable conditions Norris’s characters have to live with. In Austin’s environment, there is a much more abundance of life and life sustaining environment. Austin is able to express her fascination far more easily than Norris because of this reason. There is not the same stress for her characters to live under.
To Norris, the environment is something to fear and respect because of that fear. Those who inhabit that land need to live with the same ferocity to live otherwise they will perish. If they are not strong others who are fighting for that same right to live in that landscape will overcome enough them. For Austin the environment is something to be in awe of and respect because of the awe. She was able to observe a landscape fit for a peaceful life. In contrast to Norris, Austin’s subjects are not subjected to test of strength and survival like Norris’s characters, rather they can live off the land as scavengers if need be, not brutish killers.
Norris and Austin differ on views of landscape and nature because of the environment in which their stories take place. It is due to these different landscapes that there are differences of opinion. When comparing the two literary works, The Land of Little Rain, by Mary Austin, and, McTeague, by Frank Norris, it is clear that the authors have very different views of the landscape and humans when compared to being animalistic. Norris does not see nature as reliable as Austin; to him she is a harsh mistress. To Norris, the environment is something to fear and for Austin the environment is something to be in awe of.