Vandover and the Brute

June 27, 2009

vandover Plot summary (with possible spoilers): Vandover (readers are never told if this is a first or last name; the character is simply referred to as “Vandover” or “Van” throughout) is a budding artist who lives with his wealthy father (the Old Gentleman) in a good neighborhood in San Francisco. The Old Gentleman has routinely indulged Vandover since Van was a boy, giving him significant sums of money as rewards for creating nice drawings, letting the boy do whatever he wants, and promising him a trip to Paris to study art as soon as he graduates high school. Vandover neither appreciates nor takes the Old Gentleman’s gestures for granted. He realizes that his father is probably nicer than others, but at the same time, feels that everything he gets is deserved.

After high school, Vandover and the Old Gentleman head to the east coast so that Van might catch a steamer to Paris. But while there, the Old Gentleman has a change of heart and convinces Van to put off Paris for a few more years. Going to college would be a better move, he insists. Van acquiesces, and enters Harvard, where he soon hooks up with Dolly Haight and Charlie Geary, two friends from high school. It is while in college that “the brute” within Vandover — which is to say his baser appetites for bodily pleasure — begins to awaken. He overindulges in food and drink, begins to surround himself with expensive furniture and other items that he can’t afford, and generally debases himself whenever possible — much to the detriment of his grades.

Van does manage to graduate, and soon he, Charlie, and Dolly head back to San Francisco, where they do little more than sleep all day and carouse all night. This is when Vandover begins to develop an appetite for “loose women”, so he starts taking up with prostitutes at a supper club called The Imperial. Never mind that he’s practically engaged to a young woman named Turner Ravis; he obviously needs more than Turner is giving him.

Van’s seemingly charmed life takes a turn for the worse after a woman he slept with, Ida Wade, got pregnant and, after Van stopped seeing her, killed herself. This serves as a bit of a wake up call, and Vandover vows to change his ways. The brute within can only be tamed for a short period, however, and soon gets the best of Vandover again. The rest of the novel then goes on to chronicle Vandover’s steady decline from respectable gentleman to beggar over the course of a few short years.


  • Vandover was a pretty interesting character for the most part. I enjoyed reading about his exploits, even though I didn’t really sympathize with him. It’s hard to make a main character interesting without being likable, so kudos to Norris for that.
  • This story reminded me of The Picture of Dorian Gray, which was a terrific novella. The biggest difference between the two is that Van’s choices didn’t seem as deliberate as Dorian Gray’s. Vandover couldn’t really help himself and was consumed by his appetites, whereas Dorian Gray made a deal with the devil in order to lead a life of pleasure.


  • The ending was quite abrupt and didn’t feel like much of an ending at all. For a moment, I thought the work was unfinished, but it wasn’t. I did learn that it was only published posthumously, though.
  • I wanted to know what happened to Dolly Haight that made Turner Ravis break off her engagement to him. Norris’ language was so cryptic that I couldn’t make it out. Dolly cut his lip on broken glass at a party, then Flossie kissed him at the Imperial, which tore away the plaster that was on his lip to stop the bleeding. This is the story Dolly told Van, and Van seemed to understand what it meant. But I don’t! What happened to Dolly?!
  • I would have liked some more insight into how/why Charlie Geary turned into such a greedy backstabber. There was never any indication throughout the novel that he would turn on Van — indeed, Charlie was the one who helped Van get through Harvard. Why did Charlie end up treating Van so shabbily?


Vandover and the Brute had a lot of potential for being a good novel, but I think author Frank Norris lost his way from the middle to the end. The latter half is too uneven, with too many inexplicable actions on the part of the characters. As such, I give this novel 3 stars out of 5.

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