The first warning in the Frank Norris’ novel McTeague that the central character of Trina suffers from a profound psychological drive that would today be diagnosed as obsessive compulsion disorder comes as the point that in which also becomes clear that she is utterly unaware of the presence of this subconscious urge. The revelation takes places in the McTeague’s dentist office in the wake of her arrival with a need for his professional services. McTeague presses Trina on the subject of marriage and the fact that her negative reaction is driven by some mystery lying deep within her subconscious is made manifest by the omniscient powers of the author. Norris informs us not only that Trina is driven to veritably shout out a firm “NO!” to the marriage proposal but that she is driven to refuse the offer “without knowing why.” The natural expectation, of course, is that deep down inside a woman knows why she refuses a proposal even if she says she doesn’t. The reality for Trina actually is that she doesn’t have a clue to why she doesn’t want to marry McTeague.
That this is the first indication of character trait that will slowly evolve over the course of the novel to present Trina as the portrait of a victim of OCD can be confirmed by virtue of the fact that this is the very first time Norris has used his omniscience to pry into the mind of Trina and reveal that she acts on impulse without being aware of the motivation. Throughout the novel can be found a repetitive motif of descriptions of Trina as a person conscious of the fact that she does or says things without being able to adequately explain why. In the particular case inside the dentist office where Trina refuses McTeague’s proposal without knowing why, the author reveals that perhaps he is as unaware of the deeper psychological motivation driving Trina as his creation. Norris offers a half-hearted, half-formed explanation for that which Trina cannot formulate herself: hers is the natural exhibition of the instinctual protective withdrawal from a male admirer perceived as a threat.
That instinct to protect herself clearly does exist, but future events will prove that at this point it does not exist in the form Norris suggests. Trina has not been given any genuine reason to fear McTeague as a physical threat to her safety or very life. As the reader gets to know Trina better and is provided full access to her explicit displays of a compulsion toward securing her future, the reason behind her impulsive refusal to marry McTeague becomes very clear. It is not his capability of physically harming her that unleashes her instinct to protect herself, it is the fear that marriage mean turning over the reins of securing that future to an unknown quantity. Trina trusts her own judgment implicitly; doubtlessly because that judgment is driven by her obsession. McTeague, on the other hand, simply does not measure up in her eyes to her own ability to manage finances.
Trina’s manifestation of obsessive compulsive behavior is manifested throughout the novel in ways that leave no doubt that her desire for control is the impetus behind that capacity for financial management. More importantly, that behavior also reveals that desire for control as one that becomes increasingly more irrational. Eventually, Trina’s obsession with saving money as a means of fostering absolute control over her life follows the textbook diagnosis of OCD to the point where the subject of her compulsion first becomes objectified into a personified entity capable of causing short-term destruction of her carefully constructed sense of control merely due to an overcharge payment request from the butcher. The next step after objectification is fetishizing and it is a short trip from one point to the next for Trina.
The fetishizing of the abstract quality of the money that represents control for Trina eventually reaches a highly sexualized level in one of the most unforgettable scenes in the novel That process of sexualizing money begins with an uncontrollable verbal expression of her need for control when she says to McTeague: “Oh, if you'll only come back you can have all the money--half of it. Oh, give me back my money. Give me back my money, and I'll forgive you. You can leave me then if you want to. Oh, my money.” In an instant, money has finally replaced her husband as the object of her lust and desire. The next step is inevitable: returning home with her collection of gold coins, she strips down to nothing and literally gets into bed with her money, sensually rubbing the coins over body and her naked body over the coins. It is precisely at that moment that Trina finally unleashes control of her sexuality and indulges in her rawest sexual pleasure. For it is at that moment that Trina has finally found the one thing which has eluded her so far: a lover every bit as capable as herself at providing her the security she craves.