On the day that Trina and McTeague announce their engagement, Maria—who cleans the rooms of the people lodging in McTeague's building—surprised the couple by telling them that the lottery ticket Trina bought on a whim weeks ago won her $5,000. As Trina and McTeague share their first happy years together, Norris puts some storm clouds on the horizon. Marcus irrationally believes that the $5,000 should have gone to him, because he might have married Trina. There are several ugly incidents before Marcus heads south to work on a ranch. Before he goes, Marcus lets someone in the city government know that McTeague is practicing dentistry without a license. McTeague is forced to give up his practice. He thinks he and Trina will be all right, because of her nest egg. But Trina has become a miser. She refuses to touch her winnings or the money she has saved during her marriage. The couple retrench and retrench again, falling several rungs down the social ladder as they do. McTeague discovers a taste for whiskey and turns violent.
Norris contrasts the rise and fall of the McTeagues with two other couples in their building. Elderly Miss Baker and Old Mr. Grannis are clearly in love with each other but won't admit it, to the hilarity of the other lodgers. They are content to sit in their respective sitting rooms with their chairs pushed to the wall they almost share with each other. They do not strive. They are content with their lot. The other point of comparison are the Zerkows. Maria enchants the rag-bottle-sac man Zerkow with an apocryphal tale of a gold dinner set that her family may have owned. Zerkow asks her to tell the story over and over again; he is the only one who believes it. He asks Maria to marry him because—the other characters theorize—he wants her around to tell him the story of the gold whenever he wants. In actuality, it's because he wants Maria to tell him where the gold is. When Maria finally admits that the story isn't true, her part in the novel comes to a tragic end.
After Maria's murder, Trina and McTeague fall even further. One night, McTeague steals all the money Trina saved and abandons her. Trina finds work as a charwoman and becomes even more obsessed with saving money. She and McTeague become ever more desperate until the former dentist finally snaps. He steals everything Trina had and beats her to death. McTeague goes south and finds work at a mine. Because he insists on carrying his canary with him everywhere, it's not hard for the law to find him. The climax of the book happens on the edge of Death Valley, where Marcus and McTeague have their last confrontation.
Each of the characters in McTeague—except for Miss Baker and Mr. Grannis—is warped in a different way by their lust for riches. They want more and more of something. When they think they've achieved their goals, they're not satisfied. Their greed pushes them on into ruin. This is not a pleasant book to read. In addition to all the pathological acquisitiveness of the characters, there's casual racism, anti-Semitism, domestic abuse, murder, and suicide. Still, McTeague is a worthwhile read for the human tragedy Norris creates among his varied characters. This book made me laugh at the antics of Trina's Swiss family and gasp at the raw human greed and violence. I can see why von Stroheim didn't want to cut anything out.