Article Expert: Walter Benn Michaels “The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism”

Walter Benn Michaels – The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism

Article Expert: Kara Falknor


The essay utilizes the gold standard debate to evaluate the various characters’ relationships with gold and money.


The Gold Standard – the idea that a country’s monetary system should be based on a fixed amount of gold


Background Information (gathered from Congressional Research System and from the article):

  • Prior to the Civil War, the U.S. used both gold and silver as a basis for money.
  • During the Civil War, the government printed paper money (“greenbacks”) that was not based on either gold or silver (fiat system).
  • In 1879, the government returned money to a metallic standard, but only gold.
  • The gold standard debate pitted those who supported a return to the bimetallic system against those who supported using only gold.
  • Those against a fiat system referred to paper money as a representation only. One journalist who wrote widely about the money debate stated of paper money, “it could no more be money than ‘a shadow could be the substance, or the picture of a horse a horse, or the smell of a good dinner the same as the dinner itself’” (146).

Analysis of McTeague:

  •  Trina is “dissatisfied with the ‘paper’ that ‘represented five thousand dollars’ given her by Uncle Oelbermann” because she does not view paper as currency (146).
  • Both McTeague and Trina are “united in their distaste for ‘representative’ paper. This can be seen when they at first do not think that McTeague will actually be barred from practicing dentistry simply for not having a piece of paper (diploma).
  • “McTeague dies for the gold standard” when he takes all of Trina’s gold to the desert and then fights over (and ultimately dies from) it (151).
  • According to Benn Michaels, “As Norris’s plot works to remove all gold from circulation and so authenticate it as nature’s money, his language pulls in the opposite direction” (151).
    • The novel contains various references to gold imagery, such as the gold tooth, Trina’s gold pieces, Maria Macapa’s gold serving dishes
    • Norris uses the term “golden” several times to describe sunlight
  • Zerkow likes to collect junk because it represents money and also likes gold because it is money. This is why he ultimately kills Maria in an attempt to get her gold.


1. The essay both refers to Trina as a “miser” and a “spendthrift,” arguing that on one hand, she stores money for the power it represents; on the other hand, she is a spendthrift (one who spends her money) because even though she is not purchasing objects, she is effectively “spending” her money to buy money. Which is she, and why?

2. Maria Macapa spends much of the story discussing her family’s gold serving dishes, and then later doesn’t recall them or saying anything about them. Does this fit in with the gold standard debate, and if so, how?


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