Although otherwise ignorant and ineffectual, McTeague has managed to eke out a meager career as an unlicensed dentist. His dreary existence rapidly improves upon meeting and marrying Trina, whose possession of a winning lottery ticket further brightens their lives. But Trina's lust for money and parsimonious habits arouse a latent brutishness in her husband, as the couple's happiness gradually curdles into a quagmire of suspicion, jealousy, and corruption.
Inspired by a real-life crime that the San Francisco tabloids eagerly exploited, McTeague created a literary sensation upon its initial 1899 publication. Frank Norris's riveting depiction of avarice and moral degeneration ranks among the earliest works in American literature to offer a compelling, realistic view of human nature at its most basic level. Critic Alfred Kazin praised the novel as "one of the great works of the modern American imagination," and it was the inspiration for Erich von Stroheim's groundbreaking 1924 silent film, Greed.