Vandover and the Brute by Frank Norris

Vandover and the BruteInformation

Goodreads: Vandover and the Brute
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: 1914


A young man in nineteenth century San Francisco slowly loses his connection to society and lets “the brute” inside take over.


Vandover and the Brute has an interesting publication history.  It was considered too scandalous to be published in the late 1800s but today often just gets pegged as “historically significant” (Dana Seitler).  So which is it: fascinatingly salacious or academically of interest?

Personally, I think Vandover is likely to appeal to more academic readers than to those looking for an entertaining read. The novel touches on a number of themes common to naturalist writing; it’s quite a treasure trove for those who may wish to explore social determinism, biological determinism, race suicide, degeneration, masculinity, etc.  Plot-wise, it’s a bit dull.

The dullness is partially a result of intentional authorial choices.  Protagonist Vandover is stuck in the rut many scholars see as part of naturalist writings; he cannot really progress.   So, while on one hand a large of amount of things happen in the book (which I won’t specify to avoid spoilers), it’s also possible to say that nothing happens at all.  Imagine a graph of Vandover’s life as an oscillation, like a sine curve.

However, Vandover is only stuck in some parts of his life.  In others, he’s actively degenerating.  This is what attracts many people to the book: the story of a man regressing into animal.  However, I found the description of this more exciting than the actual execution of it in the book.  Norris takes a rather strong narrative role and actively comments on what he wants readers to think/know.  He’s pretty explicit about the man turning to brute plot point.  I didn’t think there was much to interpret here; one just observes that it’s happening and moves on.

I enjoyed reading Vandover somewhat because I did it for class, and the discussion was fairly interesting.  However, I don’t think it’s something that would have appealed to me if I’d read it on my own.

Have you ever read a book for class you liked but didn’t think you would have finished on your own?

3 stars Briana

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