Coming to Terms with the Murderer

July 7, 2016

Written by guest blogger, John Dale

My essay grew out of work undertaken at York University on American novels with protagonists who were murderers. I found myself interested by the degree to which the reader became sympathetically engaged with the murderers and by the variety of methods employed by different authors to achieve this engagement; these methods demonstrating, to some extent, a historical dependency.

In determinist novels with murdering protagonists like Frank Norris’s  McTeague and Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy genetic or sociological influences can be appropriated to ‘excuse’ the criminal protagonist. Explanation, of course, reduces horror. The first reaction to news of a grisly murder or ghastly air crash is to ask ‘why’ and ‘how’; once this question is satisfied the shocking event can be more readily absorbed into our experience. But even in these determinist novels there is a significant subtext. McTeague and Clyde Griffiths (the ‘hero’ of An American Tragedy) are no mere cold exemplars of deterministic effects. As the novels unfold narratological means are deployed to increasingly tip the balance of sympathy in the direction of the murderer. In McTeague, for example, this is particularly noticeable in the strangely nuanced account of the murders. Just before the first murder, the victim, Trina, McTeague’s wife, is described in such deprecating terms that sympathy with her is minimized, and the actual deed of murder is hidden from the reader’s gaze. It is also significant that Collins, the real-life murderer on whom Norris based McTeague, was arrested almost immediately after his crime. McTeague, on the contrary, embarks after Trina’s murder on a wandering journey through the Californian mountains in the course of which the reader develops empathy with him as a survivor.

By the mid twentieth century the status of the deterministic world-view was reduced and environmental influences were no longer available to ‘explain’ the transgressions of such proto-existential fictional murderers as Frank Chambers (in James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Humbert Humbert (in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita). Nevertheless these characters succeed to engaging the reader to the point of complicity. The sheer dominance of their characterizations, and the appeal of their wit, derails criticism of their transgressions. This is the subtext of McTeague and An American Tragedy writ large. It is also an inversion of the classic (though much criticized) explanation of the appeal of detective fiction—that the detective is a figure of majestic autonomy who restores order to a troubled world. Frank and Humbert are indeed figures of majestic autonomy, but their efforts are devoted to their own survival and success in despite of the world.

John Dale’s article, Coming to Terms with the Murderer: Explanatory Mechanisms and Narrative Strategies in Three American Novels with Transgressive Protagonists, will be published in the Canadian Review of American Studies. Read it today at CRAS Online –

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