At first McTeague has a simple but satisfying life, surrounded by three symbolic possessions: a caged canary, a concertina, and a gold-plated molar he wants to use as his shop sign. McTeague can be seen as the canary, imprisoned in his gilt cage by the forces of society and heredity; the concertina represents his pleasure in plebeian culture and the molar, his crude profession. Norris also shows the effects of striving for social status. McTeague comes from a family of poor miners; as a dentist, he is barely on the cusp of professional respectability. Described as "hopelessly stupid," he reverts to his innate brutish roots. His wife, Trina, comes from equally humble origins, but apes what she perceives to be the habits of those higher up the social scale.
The novelist Frank Norris is almost forgotten today, but in books like "McTeague," published in 1899, he paved the way for a whole generation of American writers--a generation that included Theodore Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis and, less directly, Hemingway and Fitzgerald. McTeague is a dentist saddled with a grasping wife, and the book chronicles his rise and fall in awkward but powerful prose. This type of social realism, so contrary to the uplifting entertainment of the day (and to Mark Twain's more fanciful, comic novels), provided turn-of-the-century America a disturbing mirror in which to view itself.