The Canary in the California Coal Mine:
Cautionary Symbolism in Frank Norris’s McTeague
by Robert Russell
The etymology of the common idiom “the canary in the coal mine” is firmly rooted in the emergence of modern industrialization. Late nineteenth-century Scottish physician and physiologist John Scott Haldane–whose scientific legacy is founded upon breakthrough experiments with poisonous gases, many which were self-tested–is credited with producing the solution that, even a hundred years later, still serves as inspiration for the alliterative expression. When he began to notice a pattern in the common symptoms among deceased coal miners, a flushed redness in the face, he discerned the cause of death to be carbon monoxide poisoning and suggested that the miners take a canary into the coal mines to act as a gas detector. The little bird’s fragile anatomy made them especially vulnerable to the gas, inviting quickened symptoms and death, which in turn allowed the miners to ascertain if there was an immediate danger and allotted them enough time to escape before it was too late (Inglis-Arkell). The sentinel animal served as an indicator for present but invisible danger and later became a metaphor for any signal of impending catastrophe.
The canary plays a subtle yet prominent role in Frank Norris’s 1899 novel McTeague: A Story of San Francisco, in which the titular character McTeague carries around the tiny golden bird in a gilded cage as his most-prized possession. But while it seems that McTeague’s canary is just a tiny companion, a less-than-minor character whose role and function provides nothing more than a descriptive quirk to its owner, the canary actually serves an important role in the novel. In McTeague, the canary is the symbolic monster which simultaneously depicts the possession and dispossession which plights the characters. As McTeague’s small and subtle pet whose presence lurks quietly in the background, a mere observer of the interactions which arise between characters, the events that ensue, and the atrocities that evolve, the golden canary stands as a locus which emphasizes both the greed and lust for possession that overwhelm McTeague and Trina, as well as the fear and dispossession that hinder Old Grannis and Miss Baker. The bird exemplifies scholar Jeffrey Cohen’s assertion that “the monster’s body is both corporal and incorporeal” (Cohen 5) since it is at once a present, tangible entity and a symbol for the repercussions that the onslaught of a burgeoning modernization threatened to impose upon the American working class. The golden canary as a warning symbol defines the novel McTeague as a cautionary tale, alerting the reader that the animalistic instincts that lie buried in the breast of man are at constant risk of escaping, especially when lured from the depths by greed.
From the onset of the novel, golden imagery pervades narrative description, underlining the central motif of money, greed, and the inevitable consequences which result from the intersection of the two. Set shortly after the advent of the California Gold Rush, a new sense of wealth permeates society, especially in San Francisco, introducing a mentality centered around the opportunity and success to be found in astronomical amounts of money, in particular gold. In his chapter “Frank Norris: The Beast Within,” scholar G.R. Thompson writes about the repeated use of golden imagery:
“[O]bvious is the imagery of gold, revolving around the oppositions of dim aesthetic perceptions and greed…For example, golden dreams, gold mines, gold coins, a gold tooth, a goldcolored canary, a gilt cage, golden songs and old golden music, a gilt concertina – even the golden colors of beer and whisky – and of course Mac’s tangled mop of golden hair” (Thompson 97, 107).
The golden imagery serves not only to underline the themes of wealth and greed inherent in the contemporary society of the time, but also the themes which affect each character and their respective developments throughout the novel. Money touches every single character, influencing their decisions, attitudes, and perspectives, and in turn, inspiring a grander, cultural perception of American society at the time. Scholar Sarah Quay expounds upon such a notion in her essay “American Imperialism and the Excess of Objects in McTeague”; she writes, “Whether focused on gold coins or junk, these characters' efforts to establish themselves in the structure of American society completely depend upon the acquisition of particular material things” (Quay 216). The characters foremost entangled in their “efforts to establish themselves” are McTeague and Trina. However, while for Trina, it is the acquisition of her lottery winnings which foments a deadly descent into avarice, for McTeague, it is his possession of the canary, an ownership which he can never surrender, and which inevitably works to incite his own demise.
Initially, the canary serves as a contrast to McTeague’s general demeanor, a constant locus emphasizing the reticence, oafishness, and lack of emotion that marks his character. As Norris writes, “The canary made up for his silence, trilling and chittering continually, splashing about in its morning bath, keeping up an incessant noise and movement that would have been maddening to any one but McTeague, who seemed to have no nerves at all” (Norris 18). Rather than explicate positivity and strength of the companionship between bird and man, the description of the bird reveals McTeague’s absence of nerves. That the canary lives “in its little gilt prison” (Norris 19) furthers a description of McTeague’s perspective towards his little pet: his lack of nerves and emotionlessness offer a glimpse into his relationship with the bird, one founded nearly entirely upon a sense of possession. Though not explicitly detailed, one can assume that McTeague had taken up the bird during his time working the coal mines as a young man, having forged a certain connection with the sentinel animal; but now, as he resides in his tiny apartment, practicing dentistry, the bird serves as nothing more than a teetering companion, a vestige of a former life, and a symbol for a desired sense of affluence.
Once McTeague and Trina are married and her lottery winnings begin to carve a rift between the two, the canary becomes an object to which McTeague vents his frustration. After a heated quarrel about a down payment on house, McTeague shouts at Trina, “Miser! You’re worse than old Zerkow” and then retreats to his Dental Parlors, “finding solace in…swearing frightful oaths at his canary” (Norris 207). The little bird undergoes a transformation from the quiet companion in his gilded cage to a locus for McTeague to unleash his pent-up aggression. Here, the commodity of the canary changes; the bird goes from that of a prized-possession to an object of vicious beratement which echoes scholar Mary Papke’s assertion that “American naturalism is itself a by-product of commodity culture because it is simultaneously a diagnosis of it” (Papke 2). Here, the pervasive culture of current society has influenced McTeague, subconsciously afflicting his relationship with his prized-possession. Moreover, such an instance also foreshadows the climactic events later in the novel, wherein Trina, feeling trapped in a cage-like marriage, unable to escape both the wrath of McTeague and her indomitable avarice which precludes her from spending even a dime of her winnings, replaces the canary as the locus for McTeague’s aggression which entails deadly consequences.
Trina’s avarice and obsession with possessing her winnings foments the couple’s descent into poverty. After McTeague is disbarred from practicing dentistry, the two are forced to sell most of their belongings in order to afford housing and paying their bills. Trina confronts McTeague, ushering him to sell his concertina and canary; she says, “The concertina, and–oh yes, the canary and the bird cage,” to which McTeague, unwavering in his answer, replies “No” repeatedly against her rebuttals, “Mac, you must be reasonable. The concertina would bring quite a sum, and the bird cage is as good as new,” but McTeague does not relent (Norris 276-77). Even in the direst of times, McTeague cannot part with neither his concertina nor the canary; he cannot commodify the two, despite recognizing the economic value in their gold. Like Trina and her winnings, McTeague cannot depart from his two possessions which, at this turning point in the novel, have effectively taken on the symbolic value of money, of gold.
Trina also undergoes a certain transformation as it pertains to her growing obsession with her lottery winnings. After McTeague steals her accumulated savings and abandons her, Trina then begins to withdraw her winnings which she had heretofore invested with her Uncle Oelbermann. Before long, she has withdrawn all of her winnings, converting an invisible value into a tangible mass of gold coins and bills. As Norris describes,
“She opened her trunk, and taking thence the brass match-box and the chamois-skin bag added their contents to the pile. Next she laid herself upon the bed and gathered the gleaming heaps of gold pieces to her with both arms, burying her face in them with long sighs of unspeakable delight…McTeague became a memory–a memory that faded a little every day–dim and indistinct in the golden splendor of five thousand dollars” (Norris 359-60).
Trina’s obsession with her money has ballooned into a passion which not only borders on sexual, as the setting of the bed alludes, but existential too–that in her ecstasy, all other aspects of life are expelled from her mind, including her husband. Quay writes, “Trina gradually begins to fixate on collecting gold coins. Standing for the sameness that the process of assimilation pursues, possession of the identical golden-hued objects becomes the purpose of her life” (Quay 223). If Trina has found the purpose of her life through the acquisition of money, it is a purpose founded upon possession itself. Because her obsession lies not in what she may obtain by spending the money, but actually on the physical possession of the money itself, such a passion reflects that of McTeague’s possession of the little canary. The two characters are not concerned with what monetary value into which their possessions may be converted, but are solely enthralled in the possession itself.
However, as possession keeps McTeague and Trina confined in its unescapable grasp, oppositely a sense of dispossession keeps two other characters confined in an unescapable grasp: Old Grannis, “a gentle, simple-minded old man,” and Miss Baker, “the retired dressmaker” (Norris 12-5). The two, other tenants in McTeague’s apartment building, are characters, single in their old ages, marked by a certain reservation, reticence, and unwavering routine in their respective lives. Miss Baker lives a solitary life in her apartment adjoining Old Grannis’s, every afternoon taking a seat “in her room, her hands idle in her lap, doing nothing, listening waiting,” and “Old Grannis did the same, drawing his armchair near to the wall, knowing that Miss Baker was upon the other side, conscious, perhaps, that she was thinking of him” (Norris 16). Invariably, Old Grannis takes “down his little binding apparatus…and beg[ins] his favorite occupation of binding pamphlets” (Norris 17). Mutual admiration and respect persist between the two characters; “it was current talk amongst the lodgers that the two were in love with each other” and yet “never a word had passed between them” (Norris 15). Old Grannis and Miss Baker, despite residing in close proximity to each other, live confined to a state of hesitancy, incapable of mustering up the courage to converse and confess their feelings to one another, lest the vulnerability required in such a conveyance threaten to impinge upon their daily routines and familiar solitudes.
Like McTeague and Trina, Old Grannis and Miss Baker are heavily reliant upon materials and objects to provide for them a sense of identity, autonomy, and fulfillment in their lives. They go about their days following a strict structure and never wavering from their routines, each of which centers around a specific item; for Miss Baker, it is tea, and for Old Grannis, it is his pamphlets. About such a dynamic, Quay writes,
“[T]hey depend on material objects for their sense of self…Miss Baker's objects are primarily domestic, marking her social standing and self within the world of the home. Indeed, Miss Baker defines herself through the daily ritual of drinking a cup of tea in a teacup specially used for that purpose. Like the other male characters in the novel, Old Grannis…finds his sense of self through the objects that define him professionally” (Quay 228).
Old Grannis and Miss Baker maintain connections to their possessions which inspire, like the canary for McTeague and the lottery winnings for Trina, relations upon which is founded a sense of structure and purpose to their lives. However, unlike McTeague and Trina’s relations to their possessions which foment a downward spiral into avarice and violence, the connections Old Grannis and Miss Baker share with their possessions deprive them of agency in relation to one another. Their fixed routines–Miss Baker’s tea-making and Old Grannis’s bookbinding–work to effectively dispossess the two, obstructing them from acting upon their feelings for each other.
The Oxford English Dictionary firstly defines “canary” as “An Old World finch native to the Canary Islands”; however, there is a second definition to the word: “a prisoner” (OED). Old Grannis and Miss Baker encapsulate the imprisonment and stifled agency that McTeague’s canary symbolizes. But unlike the gilt cage which confines the canary, one of made material and reinforced by McTeague’s possession, the cage which confines Old Grannis and Miss Baker is one born of their own inaction and self-dispossession. Just as McTeague’s canary cannot break out and fly away, Old Grannis is unable to break free of his bookbinding routine, taking a seat in the same place by the wall every evening, never straying. The canary’s stifled freedom of movement echoes Miss Baker’s weakened agility– always clumsily dropping the spoon with which she stirs her tea (Norris 38). And just as the voice of McTeague’s canary is weak, limited only to “trilling and chittering” (Norris 18), Miss Baker’s voice is also stifled; she is unable to say a word, often growing nervous at the sound of Old Grannis’s name, even succumbing to “great agitation,” feelings also reflected in Old Grannis when in her presence, “annoyed beyond words that Miss Baker saw him thus. Could anything have been more embarrassing?” (Norris 116). The two old neighbors fall apart when encountering each other, becoming “like two children…fac[ing] each other, awkward, constrained, tongue-tied with embarrassment” (Norris 116-17). The entanglement of fear and infatuation, doubtless a renewed enkindling of the youthful feelings which time had so far buried, seizes and propels the two lonesome neighbors into anxiety, rendering them inert and passive to the circumstances, uncomfortable in each other’s company, and unable to break the pervasive awkwardness.
However, Old Grannis and Miss Baker, pressured by their friends and finally mustering up the courage at long-last, slowly begin to break out of their cages of fear. On the night that McTeague and Trina are married, at the dinner after the ceremony, the two share a few words, and each one undergoes a revelatory experience:
“The old dressmaker was in a torment of embarrassment…Suddenly the words had escaped her, he had answered, and it was all over–over before they knew it. Old Grannis’s fingers trembled on the table ledge…He had actually talked to the little dressmaker. That possibility to which he had looked forwards, it seemed to him for years–that companionship, that intimacy…that delightful acquaintance…How different he had imagined it would be! They were to be alone–he and Miss Baker–in the evening somewhere, withdrawn from the world, very quiet, very calm, and peaceful. Their talk was to be of their lives, their lost illusions” (Norris 171-72).
The brief moment provides for Old Grannis and Miss Baker a glimpse into a life unthwarted by their own feeble sensibilities, attachments to routine, and the resolute fear which has stolen from them years of possible encounters, conversations, moments of intimacy, and happiness. But over time the two begin to return into their routines and reticence, despite Trina falsely informing Old Grannis that “[Miss Baker] loves you. She told me so” (Norris 314). It is not enough to spur Old Grannis into action, nor enough to allow him to escape from his cage of fear: “Not only did an inexplicable regret stir within him, but a certain great tenderness came upon him” (Norris 323). However, Miss Baker, unwilling to surrender so easily, pays a visit to Old Grannis, thus breaking free from her cage, and the two are finally able to sit, converse, share tea, and bask in “the long retarded romance of their commonplace and uneventful lives” (Norris 330). Finally free from their self-inflicted suppression, the two neighbors are able to fly from their cages of fear, escaping the imprisonment which routine, familiarity, and inaction has so far imposed unto their lives.
But just as the canary is a cautionary symbol bestowing for miners a signal for impending danger, so too is the relationship between Old Grannis and Miss Baker a warning of the repercussions that come as a result of a living in fear. The two old neighbors have lived the greater part of their lives without the capability of breaking free from the fear-inspired restraints. The two, for decades upon decades, have had nothing outside of a life defined by indifference, inaction, and inadequacy. The happiness and fulfillment that have thus eluded the two characters lie just beyond the realm of routine and familiarity that keeps them confined, across a distance of their own creation. Old Grannis and Miss Baker, beyond representing a foil to McTeague and Trina, stand as a reminder that the greatest source of guilt and discontent to mark the end of an individual’s life comes not as a result of past actions, decisions, and events, but of inaction and a self-inflicted deprivation of the most important objectives in life, which for the two characters is love.
The cautionary implications inspired by the characters Old Grannis and Miss Baker, as well as the symbolism of the canary embodying in McTeague and Trina the repercussions of greed and avarice as byproducts of an obsession with possession, also echo similar themes found in one of most famous nineteenth-century works of short fiction: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 story “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The story follows a young, recent mother suffering from a “slight hysterical tendency” (Gilman 1) and her subsequent descent into madness, the narrative depicted from her perspective through a series of diary entries which the narrator writes in secret, confined to an attic and forbidden from physical and mental exercise as part of the “rest cure.” As the story unfolds, the narrator, falling deeper and deeper into psychosis, begins hallucinating a woman trapped in the wallpaper of the attic, and by the end of the story, strips away the wallpaper in an effort to free the phantom woman. Like McTeague’s yellow canary, the narrator in Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” is trapped in an unescapable treatment, confined to a room with yellow wallpaper whose “sprawling flamboyant patterns [commit] every artistic sin” (Gilman 3). By the end of the story, the narrator, believing herself to be the woman in the wallpaper finally freed – “you can’t put me back!” (Gilman 15) – has undergone a certain death of consciousness which similarly reflects the fate of the canary in the final moments of McTeague, “the half-dead canary chittering feebly in its little gild prison” (Norris 442). The symbolic connection between the two stories–the parallel between the narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper” and the canary in McTeague–reveals a warning signal to the reader thus defining the two works as cautionary tales.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote about what inspired her to write her famous short story in a short article entitled “Why I Wrote ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’” which speaks to the admonitory themes that, since its publication, readers continue to interpret. Drawing on her own experiences with post-partum depression and the harsh psychiatric treatment of the time effectively worsening her illness, Gilman writes,
“For many years, I suffered from a severe and continuous nervous breakdown tending to melancholia — and beyond. During about the third year of this trouble I went…to a noted specialist …[who] put me to bed and applied the rest cure…I went home and obeyed those directions for some three months…Then I cast the noted specialist’s advice to the winds and went to work again” (Gilman 265).
The result of disobeying her doctor’s instructions is a work of short fiction which has long stood the test of time, remaining to this day a work of great cultural significance. Gilman writes, too, that, “Many years later I was told that the great specialist had admitted to friends of his that he had altered his treatment of neurasthenia since reading ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’ It was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked” (Gilman 265). Her story, warning those individuals believed to be suffering from an illness of which contemporary medical science lacked a complete understanding, not only served as a cautionary tale against the horrifying and detrimental repercussions of the prescribed treatment but also as a saving grace to those inflicted individuals who yearned for a beacon of hope and sanity. The cautionary nature of Gilman’s story which pertains to human psychology and flaws in medical science echoes the cautionary nature of Frank Norris’s novel McTeague which pertains instead to the deadly repercussions that comes as a result of greed and fear.
Depictions of themes such as greed and fear follow a certain pattern in late-nineteenth century literature. The onslaught of modernization saw a widespread use of animalistic imagery to symbolize new technological advancement and, in particular, machines. As scholar Minsoo Kang asserts, “In many of the most polemical and imaginative responses to industrialization in the mid-century onward, machines are depicted precisely as living creatures, superhuman in size and power, and often dangerous and seemingly beyond human control and understanding” (Kang 8). However, in McTeague, the ever-present canary is small in size, unthreatening, weak, and vulnerable. As animal imagery, the canary serves not to symbolize the looming fear of machines but instead, the smaller, almost invisible monster, but unspeakably dangerous nonetheless–the monster born not of mechanical production but of the psychology of man. Because the canary, with its golden-colored feathers, remaining always in a gilded cage, reflects the downward trajectory of McTeague and Trina who succumb to the power of greed and avarice, as well as the nearly extinguished romance between Old Grannis and Miss Baker, the bird serves an immediate warning of the dangers that possession and dispossession threaten to disenfranchise the common man and propel him into a descent to madness and despondency. The inclusion of the canary in Frank Norris’s McTeague elevates the novel into a cautionary tale about the power that money, greed, possession, as well as inaction, reticence, and self-dispossession can have on an individual, thus serving as reminder to the reader of the imminent danger that quietly pervades the modern era.
"canary bird, n." OED Online, Oxford University Press, September 2021, www.oed.com/view/Entry/26907. Accessed 23 November 2021.
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