Chapter V, part 4. Chapter VI, part 1. Chapter VI, part 2. Chapter VI, part 3. Chapter VI, part 4. Chapter VII, part 1. Chapter VII, part 2. Chapter VII, part 3. Chapter VII, part 4. Chapter VIII, part 1. Chapter VIII, part 2. Chapter VIII, part 3. Chapter VIII, part 4.
The Octopus | Open Library
Chapter VIII, part 5. Chapter IX, part 1. Chapter IX, part 2. Chapter IX, part 4. Chapter IX, part 3. Chapter X, part 1. Chapter X, part 2. Chapter X, part 4. Chapter X, part 3. He was one of the local political bosses, but more important than all this, he was the representative of the Pacific and Southwestern Railroad in that section of Tulare County. As the railroad representative, Behrman is responsible for the ruin of Dyke, first because of his layoff and later because he changes the rates Dyke would have to pay to get his grain to market.
Dyke tries to kill Behrman as a last desperate act before he is captured, but his gun misfires. Frustrated, Presley throws a bomb through the window of Behrman's house, but it does not injure him. The railroad gives him Magnus Derrick's farmland for a cheap price in exchange for his loyalty, and he ends up taking possession, evicting all of the characters that have survived the tragic gunfight.
To add insult to injury, he humbles Magnus by offering him an assistant clerk position if he will swear allegiance to the railroad. After getting Magnus to grovel, Behrman says that he will think it over and get back to him, adding, "you're getting pretty old, Magnus Derrick. Behrman's end comes when he is looking over a ship that is to take his grain to India.
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Too cheap to spend four cents a bag to have the grain packaged, he instead has it poured into the ship's hold, but, tripping, he falls in with it and is smothered under tons of wheat. Saloon owner and communist, Caraher encourages his customers to stand up against the railroad with violence. Dyke spends weeks at Cara-her's bar, drinking and listening to his ideas, before he becomes a train robber; Presley learns from Caraher how to build a bomb.
One of Presley's connections among the social elite of San Francisco, Cedarquist owned the Atlas Iron Works, but closed it because it was not making enough money. By the end of the book, he has started a new venture, exporting American wheat to other countries. Annie is Magnus' wife, the mother of Lyman and Harran. She is a cultured woman, educated at the State Normal School in the teaching of literature, music, and penmanship.
Annie insists that Magnus stay out of the League's blackmail scheme, but he eventually joins them anyway. In the end, Annie is left—somewhat reluctantly—to watch over her half-insane husband, supporting him by teaching literature at the seminary where she worked long ago. Harran is Magnus and Annie's son; he looks and acts more like his father than his mother. He has a great share of the responsibility for managing the day-to-day operations at Los Muertos.
He is one of Presley's closest friends. Harran's main problem is that he is a little excitable, jumping at the opportunity to bribe the Board of Railroad Commissioners, and all too willing to engage the opposition from the railroad in a gun battle. When shooting does occur at the irrigation ditch, Harran is shot, and he later dies in his parents' home. Magnus and Annie's younger son is seldom present in the novel. He lives in San Francisco, and is active in political circles.
When the league of wheat growers needs someone to represent their interests on the Railroad Commission, they pay to get Lyman elected. They feel cheated by him when he announces the new reductions in shipping rates and find out that, despite their support, none of the reduced rates apply to them. At the meeting announcing this, he denies it. Later, though, when he is threatening to blackmail Magnus, Genslinger explains that Lyman had been on the railroad's payroll for two years, that he was the person that they wanted elected to the board, even though it had been the farmers' money that had elected him.
After all of the death and misery caused by the railroad's pressure on the San Joaquin Valley farmers, Lyman ends up as a candidate for governor of California. One of the novel's key figures, Magnus is a proud, successful wheat farmer, the proprietor of the Los Muertos ranch. He comes from the old school of California gold miners, having been a prospector in his younger days. Magnus sold his share in the Corpus Christi mine just before the famous Comstock Lode of , one of the richest mining deposits ever found. Magnus' mining background has formed his character, making him a man who is willing to take risks, and to sink all that he has into an uncertain prospect if there is a possibility of a huge payoff at the end.
He is a leader of men, and he called "the Governor" by the people who know and respect him. Having lost money on bad crops in the past two years, Magnus gambles heavily that the current year's crop will more than make up his losses. He invests in irrigation ditches and equipment.
When the railroad threatens to take the property that he has cultivated, he finds himself faced with two horrible prospects; either lose his land, or compromise his moral standing by involving himself in a shady bribery scheme. Under pressure, he opts for bribery. His sufferings increase when the people whom he bribed, one of them being his own son Lyman, tell Genslinger the newspaper editor about the bribes. Genslinger blackmails him for a huge sum of money. After Magnus' other son Har-ran and others are killed in a shoot-out with railroad officials, Genslinger prints the truth about the bribe.
Magnus ends up scorned by the people who had once looked up to him. He becomes penniless, half-insane, babbling, and unable to think. As the ultimate indignity, S. Behrman, the railroad employee who takes over the Los Muertos ranch, offers Magnus a humiliating job as an assistant in the freight manager's office. At the beginning of the book, Dyke is an engineer for the railroad, but he receives news that he has been fired. He shifts his focus to growing hops, which he has heard would be a good, profitable crop to grow in the region. He leases a field and plants a crop, checking with the railroad to determine the rates for shipping his product, feeling assured that he can make a decent profit.
Dyke is concerned about money because he has a daughter, Sydney, that he dotes on, and he wants to send her to a good school. When the crop is ripe, he prepares for the harvest and he goes to the railroad, only to be told that in the six months since he asked, the rate for shipping hops has more than doubled. At those rates, his profit margin is ruined, and he does not even bother to harvest the hops. Devastated, Dyke takes to hanging around in Caraher's saloon, drinking and listening to the bartender's talk about anarchy.
He eventually robs the Pacific and South Western train, using his knowledge of railroad operations to take over the engine and to go straight to the safe. For weeks, Dyke is a fugitive from justice, with a high reward on his head. He is finally chased down by a posse. Before they take him into custody, he draws aim on S.
Behrman, the railroad agent who is most responsible for his ruin, but his gun misfires. They take Dyke into custody, and word later comes to Presley that Dyke had been sentenced to life imprisonment. Genslinger is the editor of the local newspaper, the Mercury. It is well known that Genslinger is on the railroad payroll, that he will report news in a way that is favorable to the railroad. After Magnus Derrick arranges to bribe members of the Board of Railroad Commissioners, Genslinger goes to him and explains that the commissioners have given signed affidavits, explaining Derrick's crime.
Genslinger agrees to not print the news in his paper for ten thousand dollars. After the shoot-out, which leaves Magnus' son Harran and others dead, Genslinger destroys Magnus' reputation by printing the information about the bribes in his newspaper anyway. Hooven is a character of German origin, easily recognizable when he speaks because his dialogue is written with a thick accent. He is a tenant on the Los Muertos ranch who is able to keep his position because he asks Harran Derrick if his family can stay when the other tenants are dismissed.
He dies during the gun fight between the farmers and the railroad employees. Much earlier in the novel, when he and Harran are discussing Minna, Presley observes, prophetically, that she is the kind "who would find it pretty easy to go wrong if they lived in a city. Osterman is one of the wheat farmers. He is a man with a sense of humor who dresses peculiarly and is willing to act like a buffoon for a laugh.
Presley is the most prominent character in the book: he is not really the protagonist because much of the action has nothing to do with him, but he is the novel's conscience, observing what happens and understanding the significance of it. Presley is the character at the beginning and at the end of the story, first travelling across the countryside to neighboring ranches in a sequence that introduces other main characters and finally leaving on a wheat-laden ship bound for India.
Because he has connections in San Francisco high society, he is able to see characters on both sides of the central dispute. Presley is thirty years old and is a poet who graduated with honors from an Eastern college. He came to live on the Los Muertos ranch for his health after nearly dying of consumption tuberculosis. At the beginning, his artistic inspiration is dried up:. He was in search of a subject; something magnificent, he did not know exactly what; some vast, tremendous theme, heroic, terrible, to be unrolled in all the thundering progressions of hexameters.
After witnessing Dyke's destruction because of the railroad company, Presley returns to his room at Los Muertos and works on "The Toilers," a poem that he started once and abandoned. When it is finished, he sends it to a San Francisco newspaper, which publishes it; it is then reprinted in other newspapers around the country and in a glossy national magazine, making Presley's name famous nationwide. Shelgrim, the railroad president, is familiar with the poem and is unimpressed with it, not because it takes a pro-labor stand, but because he finds the painting that inspired it to be more complete.
Gerard, the wife of the railroad vice president at whose home Presley has an extravagant meal, is also familiar with the poem and says that she was inspired to join with other society matrons to start a relief organization for the starving people of India. She is oblivious to the suffering of the farmers in the San Joaquin Valley that provide her with the chance to be extravagant and generous.
Frustrated with all the suffering and distraught over the ruin and imprisonment of Dyke, Presley briefly decides to take matters into his own hands. With the help of Caraher, he builds a bomb, which he throws into S. Behrman's house. The railroad employee is unharmed. Later, when he takes over the Los Muertos ranch, Behrman mentions in a condescending way that he knows Presley threw the bomb.
Shelgrim is the president of the Pacific and South West Railroad. He is the man ultimately responsible for the farmers' misery. When Presley goes to Shelgrim's office, however, he finds Shelgrim to be a compassionate man. When an aid suggests firing an employee who constantly misses work because of alcoholism, Shelgrim wants the man's salary raised instead.
He is a cultured man, with intelligent opinions about art and a philosophical attitude toward the problems between the railroad and the farmers. His attitude is that the wheat will grow and the trains will move, regardless of the sufferings of individual people. Hilma is the nineteen-year-old daughter of a couple that lives on Annixter's ranch, Quien Sabe. Annixter notices her beauty one day, and he tries to kiss her, but she runs away, embarrassed, thinking that he was just making a pass at her. After a few months, he explains that he did not mean anything disreputable, and that he would like to become involved with her, but when she mentions marriage he complains that he has no intention of marrying, leaving her once more believing that he intended to use her sexually.
Hilma and her parents leave the ranch and move to San Francisco, where Annixter finds her and convinces her that, after her rejection, he became convinced that he loves her and wants her to be his wife. They have a loving marriage, but it is ruined when he is killed in a gun battle with the railroad people. In her grief, Hilma loses the baby that she is carrying. Venamee is a strange, mystic figure who has been away from the San Joaquin Valley for years. He is able to summon Presley to him by sheer mental energy, and later in the novel he does the same with Father Sarria, a mission priest.
His supernatural powers help Venamee cope with the grief of losing the one great love of his life. They would meet at night, by the old Mission. No one ever found out the identity of the man who did it to her, and she died months later, giving birth to the daughter of her assailant. Venamee finds happiness, and he is able to cope with all of the suffering of his life. His final advice to Presley is helpful in putting the whole tragedy of the wheat farmers in a larger perspective: "Evil is short-lived.
Never judge of the whole round of life by the mere segment you can see. The whole is, in the end, perfect. The Octopus appeared at a time when the character of American life was assumed to be defined by the opportunity for endless growth, symbolized by the millions of acres of hearty grain that grew abundantly from the country's fertile soil. Literature has traditionally used California to represent the country's growth potential because European settlers arrived on the eastern shores and expanded westward, making the west coast the last area to be developed.
Whenever it seemed that America's natural potential was in any danger of facing limitations, there was always the promise that California had to offer. From mineral richness to agricultural bounty, California remained, time and again, a land that promised greatness. In this novel, the farmers represent a natural culture. Not only do they work with soil and seed to produce nutritious wheat, but they also have a close-knit, moral society, willing to lend a hand to others who are temporarily down on their luck and careful to maintain traditional moral behaviors.
Their society is presented as being almost perfect, but it is threatened from without by heartless and amoral aggression of the railroad. The railroad, in this novel, represents a culture driven solely by profit, with no human concern. It is a product of technology, which allows it to be run from edicts passed far away, by people who make decisions affecting lives that they will never encounter.
Norris does not try to present this money-hungry culture as being inherently evil, or controlled, in all cases, by evil people. Most railroad employees, such as S. Behrman and Genslinger, are in fact liars, driven by greed and the head of the railroad, Shelgrim, is overly generous in the case of an employee whom he knows personally. He proves to be a cultured, thoughtful man who is powerless to stop the personal destruction that his railroad might cause: "Blame conditions," he explains to Presley, "not men.
The destruction of the farmers is thus presented as the destruction of a culture of honor and truth by a senseless machine that devours culture in the name of profit.
In this novel, there is no hope offered for the finer things in life: they are doomed to lose in an unfair struggle. The economic destruction brought about by unchecked greed forces a decay of morals in this novel. Minna Hooven, for instance, is left with no recourse after the financial destruction of her family. She starts out a sweet, bright-eyed country girl, but when her money runs out and she is faced with starvation, Minna sells herself as a prostitute. Having made the decision to do so, she embraces her new, wicked ways: "Oh, I've gone to hell," she says scornfully.
At the start of the story, he is a loving family man, entirely devoted to the upbringing of his young daughter, but when his dream of financial independence is shattered by the railroad's reorganized rate structure, he becomes a desperado, killing innocent railroad men for money. He ends up hunted and humiliated, crazed with thirst, fighting like an animal who has lost any semblance of humanity. The most obvious and disappointing example of moral corruption is Magnus Derrick, who begins the novel as a leader of men with uncompromising principles and ends up, after losing his ranch, a broken man.
The first huge step in Derrick's moral corruption comes when he decides to participate in the League's plan to bribe the railroad commissioners. His initial reaction to this scheme is to dismiss it immediately, as the sort of thing that is beneath him.
The Octopus: A Story of California (Epic of the Wheat)
Faced with the railroad's almost certain victory in the matter of rate hikes, he eventually gives in to pressure from his cohorts, who insist that bribery is a necessary evil, preferable to letting the railroad progress without any opposition. Magnus' "temporary" moral lapse has a continuing effect, however, as the bribery leaves him vulnerable to blackmail by Genslinger, making him spend any money he has left after his legal battles to pay for the newspaperman's silence.
After the shoot-out between the farmers and the railroad employees, his moral corruption is made public, and the supporters who had stood by him when they admired his self-control leave him almost immediately. The worst part of his downfall is that Magnus has no way of justifying his behavior to himself, even though a less moral person might easily excuse the moral complications that he goes through as being beyond his personal responsibility.
A political system can be seen as an equalizing force, gathering the electoral power of the masses to protect them from those who have all of the economic power. This is not, however, the vision presented in The Octopus. When the wheat growers feel that the railroad is taking advantage of their situation, they openly mock the idea that politicians might offer any help because they know that the railroad controls the state's political structure.
The only way they seriously consider political involvement is through bribing the politicians themselves. Any possibility of an honest judgement from the political forces is unthinkable. Political corruption is so bad that Lyman Derrick betrays the wheat ranchers, in spite of both the fact that they have bribed him and that his father, Magnus, is the president of the ranchers' commission.
For a long time, the wheat growers hold out the hope that the United States Supreme Court will rule in their favor and put an end to the railroad's battle to take away their land. The court is not a regional body so it would not be under the influence of the California railroad the way that most of the politicians considering the case are. It is expected to be beyond corruption, impartial of the merits of the case.
The fact that the Supreme Court rules against them indicates that, legally, the farmers' case is indeed weak, that the moral right that they see so clearly does not translate to a political system organized for the benefit of the rich. In the novel's conclusion, Presley, one of the few surviving characters, notices that Lyman Derrick is running for governor of California with a good potential for winning.
He has the support of the Republican party and the financial support of the railroad. He is also the man who betrayed his father and brother, sending them to ruin and to death, respectively, to support the railroad, which has him on the payroll. The book's final word on this subject, then, is that the relationship between politics and wealth is both undeniable and unstoppable.
Frank Norris' writings, especially his earlier novel McTeague , are considered by literary critics to mark the very first experiments in the American strain of naturalism. Naturalism is often spoken of along with realism because both came about as reactions to the same trends. Realism developed first, in the mids, a rejection of the unearned optimism that the romantic movement proposed.
If romanticism showed humans as innately kind and sympathetic, naturalism focused on the harsher elements of life. Realistic literature reminded its readership of the many social ills that humanity created for itself. Artists of the realist movement tried to capture all of the details of their subject, regardless of how unpleasant they may be, with a sharp focus that modern audiences take for granted because of the wide-spread ease of photography.
Writers who were realists strove to shock audiences with their frankness and honesty about the unappealing aspects of human behavior. Charles Dickens ' descriptions of poverty and pollution in London in his day present a good example of realism, as do Mark Twain's willingness to record the moral ambiguity that plagued his character Huckleberry Finn. Realistic writers presented misery while commenting on the ways that human suffering is terrible.
The difference that naturalism added was to step back from making any moral commentary whatsoever. At the same time that Charles Darwin's theories showed human evolu-tion as a mechanical progression of broader rules, and Karl Marx wrote about economical evolution that followed its own established rules, novelists tried to describe human behavior without judgement.
These writers assumed that every movement was neither bad nor good, just a reaction to the environment it occurred in. In The Octopus , the head of the railroad tries to make Presley see that his behavior is not his own, but the fulfillment of forces beyond his control. The place where Norris drifts away from naturalistic principles is in portraying other railroad functionaries, such as S. Behrman, as conniving and evil, giving them free will instead of showing them as products of nature.
A generation earlier, The Octopus may have been set in one of the plains states when the railroad was just crossing the center of the country and impeding on the land used for farming. There are several reasons why California is a more powerful location. California is located at the end of the country where economic development has nowhere to turn, backed by the Pacific Ocean.
A novel of this type taking place in Nebraska or Iowa would implicitly offer the downtrodden farmers open land to the west, where they could move and be free. In The Octopus , there is no free place to escape to, making the hard situation the farmers find themselves in more hopeless. Because California marks the end of westward expansion, an air of fatalism persists about the possibility for a fair settlement.
If, as the book presents, the interests of the farmers are inherently at odds with those of the railroad, then there can only be one winner. With the opportunity for expansion, both interests could go their separate ways, but locked in battle at the end of the continent like this means that there is only going to be one winner. The farmers lose because they are simple, land-loving people who are stranded in the middle of a big state with their crops, and they need the railroads to move their crops to distant consumers.
This novel follows the actions of its characters in full details, but it also uses large symbols. While not central to the human emotions that drive the story, these symbols still tell readers much about the characters' overall positions in the world. One clearly symbolic segment is the slaughter of jackrabbits at the Osterman ranch. Coming in the chapter following the capture of Dyke by railroad employees, and before the gun fight between the farmers and the authorities, it is clearly meant to raise readers' sense of frustration with the unfair way that the farmers are being driven off of their land.
The details of the rabbit hunt, and the language that is used, are more weighty than this segment would deserve if it were considered just for its significance to the plot of the story. The sheer scope of the rabbits, who are never mentioned as a significant part of the environment anywhere else in the book, gives them meaning beyond their role in the story. Suddenly, they are everywhere:. A panic spread; then there would ensue a blind, wild rushing together of thousands of crowded bodies, and a furious scrambling over backs, till the scuffing thud of innumerable feet over the earth rose to a reverberating murmur as of distant thunder, here and there pierced by the strange, wild cry of the rabbit in distress.
Men and boys, armed with clubs, go into the corral to beat the animals to death. It is a scene of horrifying violence, and it has nothing to do with the story except as a parallel to the merciless killing of the farmers by the railroad. The other segment that is clearly symbolic is the "drowning" of S. Behrman at the end of the book. This character's general villainy makes readers wish for his destruction, but when he gets away from all of the other characters it seems that this wish will go unfulfilled. The reason that his death is appropriately symbolic is that it does not come at the hands of another person: he performs his job in a soulless, mechanical way, and it is in just such a way that he dies.
Also, the image of Behrman being buried under a pile of wheat presents a neat reversal, since he has symbolically been "burying" the wheat farmers with bureaucracy throughout the whole story.
Unlike the jackrabbit segment, this aspect is fully integrated into the story: the torrent of wheat that falls on him happens because Behrman is too cheap to put the wheat in bags, and cheapness is a trait of his character that is clearly established throughout the book. The American economic system is based on the principle that anyone with enough determination can start a business, regardless of size, and with luck make a living out of it.
At first, the government encouraged Americans to settle in the West by giving away land, which in turn gave people an incentive to fight against the people who already lived there: poor families who owned practically nothing could cultivate a piece of free or cheap land and build their fortune. Similarly, in urban areas, a person starting with little could open a small business or a small manufacturing concern and make ends meet. This was the ideal of a capitalist democracy.
By the year , the small business model had given way to corporate growth. Investors found that they could pool their money in the stock market to create powerful industrial entities that would have greater control over all spheres of their business operation, including government. One good example is U. Steel: when it was incorporated in , it had investment capitol of over one billion dollars, more than twice the annual budget of the federal government that year.
The people who benefited from this growth were the people who were already rich. These people had extra money that they could invest. Small entrepreneurs, on the other hand, found themselves squeezed out of business by giant companies that could consolidate services, getting better prices from related businesses. For instance, a company that owned mining or growing concerns, manufacturing businesses, shipping and retail businesses could absorb deep discounts from one step of the process to the next, and offer lower prices to consumers. Small businesses that lacked such connections were driven into bankruptcy.
By the turn of the century, Americans were already worried that consolidation into bigger and bigger businesses was damaging to their way of life. John D. Rockefeller created the first trust company in This sort of legal corporation was meant to drive out competition by owning all of the manufacturers in any given industry, creating a monopoly. For instance, Rockefeller's Standard Oil Company at one time owned 90 percent of the oil refineries in America, giving it the power to set pricing at will.
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In , the Congress of the United States passed the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, prohibiting any company from owning a monopoly in one field or from actively seeking to bar others from competing in that industry. To this day, the line between healthy competition and ruthless monopolistic tactics is unclear, as is evident from the split in public opinion over the government's charges of unfair trade against Microsoft Corporation. At the time this book was published, America had already been through its age of expansion.
The West, as it is presented in books and movies with stereotypical cowboys and Indians, had been settled by farms and businesses. That age was not far enough in the past, though, to have been forgotten. Jesse James , the celebrated gunfighter, had died less than twenty years earlier, in ; William Bonney Billy the Kid was shot down in New Mexico a year earlier. At the same time, the nation saw a rise of a new class of "criminal"—the notorious "Robber Barons" of the s and s. This name was given to the rich industrialists who presided over the nation's largest industries such as J. Morgan railroads , Andrew Carnegie steel , John D.
Rockefeller oil , and Cornelius Vanderbilt shipping. As the country became less rural and more urban, the threat of stagecoach robbers seemed tame, almost quaint, beside the economic threats posed by huge industries that could fire workers, increase their hours, lower their pay, or even have them relocated from their land. His main source of inspiration, however, was the Mussel Slough Affair of , an event that happened in the San Joaquin Valley almost exactly as described in the novel's fictionalized account. In the mids, the railroads grew at a tremendous pace, from twenty-three miles of track in the United States in to 30, miles thirty years later—a jump of over a percent.
In another ten years the distance of track had increased to 53, miles. Much of this growth was due to government assistance. For the federal government , encouraging the railroads' growth meant increasing the country's wealth, since new roads spread out into areas with untapped resources. In California, the government granted the Southern Pacific and Central Pacific Railways the rights to odd-numbered parcels of land along their tracks as a reward for laying the track.
The two companies operated under one board of directors, and were, in effect, one company. When the line through the San Joaquin Valley was completed in , the Central Pacific sent out flyers telling farmers that they would be able to buy the land from the railroad. Farmers came, even though the land was dry and not good for farming, and they erected irrigation methods that made it more usable. In addition, they built houses and barns. The railroad circulars indicated that the price of the land would not be raised because of improvements that the farmers made.
As in the novel, the farmers found, when they tried to buy the land they were living on, that the railroad wanted considerably more than they had indicated would be the price. The farmers fought it in court, but, also as in the novel, the railroad moved to evict farmers while the court suit was in progress. Most of the farmers in the Mussel Slough area were at a countywide picnic to celebrate a new irrigation canal when railroad officials and marshals arrived to take possession of the lands.
There are differing reports of what happened that day—of what was said, who fired first at whom. There were five deaths among the farmers, with two more dying later. A plaque was erected at the scene of the battle, and for years the name "Mussel Slough" was mentioned among opponents of the railroad to remind each other of the struggle they faced.
Today, critics find it easy to agree that Frank Norris' novels hold a significant place in the history of American literature , even though there is little agreement about their worth as pieces of fiction. Norris usually ends up being grouped with such naturalistic writers as Theodore Dreiser and John Dos Passos despite the fact that they both produced their most significant works more than twenty years after his death. His works fit so strongly in with the writers that followed him that critics who are not careful tend to forget what his world was actually like, and they obscure his true importance as a forerunner and visionary.
From the very start, there has been little agreement among critics about the value of Norris' works. Some critics found his characterizations moving, while others found them trite. Some felt that he changed the nature of intellectual discourse with his philosophy, but still more thought that he was only borrowing from works that came before, that were clearer and more coherent.
Many critics took the work seriously. Barry noted that the book seemed "worthy to rank among the few great novels produced in this country. A reviewer for the Outlook in hoped "that Mr. Norris will find subjects better worthy of his power," while the Review of Reviews echoed that, saying it was "to be hoped he may henceforth use [his ability] in the writing of books that will be not less true but a good deal more agreeable.
After the groundbreaking start of McTeague , critics took Frank Norris as a major literary force, and they accepted his subsequent literary works in terms of their expectations. The novelist Jack London , whom critics similarly chided when his realistic style led to sentimental plot lines and characterizations, recognized that Norris may have added excessive details in The Octopus that dilute the story, but he felt the end justified the means.
He has produced results," London wrote in American Literary Realism — upon the book's release in Titanic results. Never mind the realism, the unimportant detail, minute description … Let it be stated flatly that by no other method could Frank Norris or anybody else have handled the vast Valley of the San Joaquin and the no less vast-tentacled Octopus.
William Dean Howells , who was one of Norris' earliest supporters, saw a clear maturation from McTeague to The Octopus , but he was also willing to see the later book without holding it up to its predecessor. As the years passed, critics could look at Norris' works as a lifetime progression, and they could take a broader perspective on the literary movement that Norris preceded. It did not help the reputation of The Octopus that the second book in his proposed trilogy, The Pit , was considered a weak effort, marred by the fact that he was writing about a world that he did not know well, and that the third novel was never written.
Granville Hicks noted in that The Octopus "can scarcely be called a great book; it is too confused, and in the end too false. As a theory, it is ridiculous, and it destroys the emotional effect of the book, for it means that the contemptible Behrman has worked as surely for the good as the noble Derrick, the impulsive Annixter, or the violent Dyke….
How many problems Norris leaves unsolved: Magnus Derrick's ethical dilemma, the whole question of the use of violence, and the place of the poet in such a struggle as that between the railroad and the ranchers! And how far he is from a consistent interpretation of character! Contemporary critics tend to appreciate the advances that Norris made in The Octopus , even as they realize that he was not nearly as advanced as he might seem. The author, who considered himself a hard-nosed realist, might have flinched at Alfred Kazan's description of him, although many modern writers would accept it as true:.
Norris wrote as if men had never seen California before him, or known the joy of growing wheat in those huge fields that can take half a day to cross, or of piling enough flour on trains to feed a European nation. Kelly is an instructor of creative writing and literature at two community colleges in Illinois. In the following essay, he argues that, in spite of the apparent simplicity of the novel's presentation of good and evil, there are morally complex characters who make readers question their own assumptions.
Reading a progressive, muckraking novel like Frank Norris' The Octopus tends to lead readers toward anger and indignation, of course; that is what novels of this type are supposed to do. These are books that call for change, and anger leads to change. There is a problem, though, when readers can tell that they are supposed to feel angry about matters that simply do not excite strong feelings. As years pass, the issues involved are not as outrageous as they once were.
In a way, this is a natural and even desirable part of the muckraking process: if novels that are meant to incite change are effective, then the social situations they cover will in fact change, and in a few generations, if all goes well, nobody will have direct experience with the issues that once seemed so crucial. As fiction writers, though, social novelists have a responsibility to create characters who stir up readers' emotions by the ways they interact within their own worlds. The best characters since the first recorded literature have remained untouched by time because they carry with them, in the stories that surround them, all that they need for making their own glory or failure.
If the farmers of The Octopus are treated unfairly, then readers today should be able to empathize with their suffering; if the railroad officials in the book are abusing power, they should still make readers indignant in a far-off future when railroads have ceased to be. Too often, though, novels have been used to elicit social change by using thin, disposable characters that have no more lasting power than the day's headlines. What makes Norris' novel a lasting piece of fiction is that it truly examines the varieties of good and evil, and doesn't just use these concepts to further its social agenda.
This fact, though, is not always clear, and it almost seems as if Norris was consciously working to sabotage readers' sense of his own fair-mindedness. It is almost too easy to pick out the heroes and villains in this novel: all of the railroad people are bad, some from ignorance rather than from evil hearts, and all of the people who work the soil are good, if sometimes misunderstood. What makes this book more worthy of serious consideration than standard melodramatic fare is that, within the two camps, good and evil, there are whole spectra of guilt and innocence.
In general, readers are encouraged to forgive the transgressions of "the good guys," no matter how bad; such as Annixter's vulgar approaches toward Hilma Tree or even Dyke's spree of robbery and murder. At the same time, the bad people are obscene throughout the book, even in such morally neutral matters of S. Behrman's having an annoyingly pretentious single initial. A few characters go beyond their general categories, though, and they raise difficult questions about what is and is not right.
The most obvious of these morally tangled characters is Magnus Derrick, whose struggle seems to be about determining what is best when his duty to the people of his community pushes him to do something that his conscience knows is wrong. When the idea first comes up to bribe politicians to get sympathetic members seated on the railroad commission, Magnus is staunch in his refusal; practical though the scheme is, his moral sense is such that he is not even willing to think over its benefits. That changes, though, as it becomes more likely that the railroad might actually succeed in taking the land the farmers believe is theirs.
For pages and pages of the novel, Magnus deliberates, with a motion that Norris actually describes as a pendulum swinging from one side to the other. On one side is the chance to crush his enemies, to defeat the injustice of their aggression against the farmers. On the other side is an admirable but impractical moral stance. By the time that he chooses to act, readers are so angered by the railroad's heartlessness that Magnus is forgiven any breach of ethics.
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His action to save his land and the people on it is presented as an act of self-defense, and is therefore justifiable. In a traditional, shallowly-conceived progressive novel, a farmer might be excused any measure necessary to defend his land, just as the customs of self-defense are usually seen to extend beyond a person's body to cover his or her family.
But Magnus Derrick is not a traditional farmer who works the land he loves: he is a profiteer, with no more claim to moral righteousness than the people who have designs on the land that he calls his. He certainly does not have the mystical bond to the soil that true farmers can claim. In his first scene in the book, Annixter speaks maliciously about the greedy agricultural practices that take place on Derrick's farm: "Get the guts out of the land; work it to death; never give it a rest. Never alternate your crop, and then when your soil is exhausted sit down and roar about hard times.
The best indicator of Magnus' moral right to keep Los Muertos, a right that supposedly is more important than his own moral law against bribery, is found in his plans for post-bribery life. An act of desperation is excusable; an act of selflessness, even more so; but there is no doubt that Magnus is bribing politicians to regain some of his lost power and, mostly, to make money. When it is suggested that this bribe will only affect shipping rates during the current railroad commission's term, and that the rates will rise with the next commission, Magnus answers, with a twinkle in his eye, "By then it will be too late.
We will, all of us, have made our fortunes by then. That one statement realigns the book's entire moral structure. Up to that point, throughout the entire first book of the novel, the struggle is presented as one between the farmers' natural rights against the railroaders' heartless greed. Once it is revealed that farming is just a money-making venture, like shipping, then there is hardly any reason for the farmers to become indignant about getting the worst in their land deal. Presley, the novel's closest thing to a protagonist, is shocked by Magnus' words, and after mulling them over, ends up attributing his attitude to his past as a wildcatter, a miner who is used to gambling with his fortune.
Almost a half a page after Magnus' frank admission that greed is his motive, Norris, through Presley's musings, is able to regain some semblance of nobility by desperately appealing to the same patriotism that had previously been implied. It was the true California spirit that found expression through him, Presley thinks, the spirit of the West, unwilling to occupy itself with details, refusing to wait, to be patient, to achieve by legitimate plodding; the miner's instinct of wealth acquired in a single night prevailed, in spite of all. What he is unable to explain is why this "instinct" is any more worth defending with guns than the greed of the railroad barons.
Dyke, the dismissed railroad man, is also presented as being on the side of good, even though his actions are clearly bad. In Dyke's case, the reason behind his immoral action is a little stronger: he does not just want profit for its own sake, or, as Magnus does, for the thrill of acquisition, but instead is trying to care for his little daughter, who is the focus of all that he does. But even though his motive is purer, his crime is much worse than bribery, and the railroad's provocation does not really deserve a bloody rampage.
The railroad fired him from his job; the freight rates changed within half a year; are these supposed to be reasons enough to justify robbery and murder? Is the railroad supposed to take care to keep jobs open for employees based on how much they adore their children, or to raise rates only when everyone they deal with understands the principle of rate hikes? At the very top of the railroad's evil empire is Shelgrim, who is at least as guilty by association as Magnus is innocent. Given Norris' ruthlessness in describing his evil characters, from S.
Behrman's "great stomach" and "tremendous jowls" to the gruesomely narcissistic display of bourgeois wastefulness at the dinner thrown by Gerard, his presentation of Shelgrim is surprisingly mild. The sympathy Norris permits him is, after Magnus, the second clearest evidence of the novel's openness toward morals. Norris quickly stops readers' expectations that Shelgrim will be a monster by having him double the salary of a troubled employee with three children, a man who could properly be fired for missing work while drunk.
This act of mercy by him immediately separates Shelgrim from the heartless railroad bureaucracy that caused Dyke's dismissal. Shelgrim turns out, in his subsequent conversation with Presley, to have intelligent opinions about poetry and painting, and a humble philosophy about his own place in the grand scheme of life. Faced with a threat to his future like the one facing Magnus, it is difficult to tell how Shelgrim might behave, but in the moments Presley spends in his office, the railroad president proves, unlike the social machinery he controls, to have some sense of decency.
It seems that The Octopus has no great moral lesson, if all it is teaching is that people are individually better or worse than their circumstances. This is a lesson that literature often displays. The point stands out here, though, because so much of this book deals with generalizations, playing into the way readers generalize about morality and immorality. It might have been a stronger novel if it did not offer such easy, broad categories with which to judge its characters, but the fact that Norris takes care to complicate a few of the main moral dilemmas is a sign that readers are encouraged to question their own assumptions.
In the following essay, Bensen provides an overview of The Octopus, including discussing Norris' inspiration for the novel. The Octopus was the sixth of the seven novels that Frank Norris wrote before his sudden death, at 32, in It is in most respects his best. In writing it, Norris was determinedly filling a gap in American literature : America had no adequate non-imitative "American novel" and no epic of the winning of the west.
By Norris had conceived an adequate subject: "the Wheat. Then in "the Pit" in Chicago it was bought and resold to "the People" of the world. Finally, this product of American soil and labor sustained populaces of the farthest countries. The Octopus would be the first volume of a trilogy; The Pit , the second; and there would be a third, to have been called The Wolf , which Norris did not live to write. The title The Octopus refers not, of course, to the wheat, but to the spoiling force, the railroad.
The valley's fecundity gave rise to the railroad and made possible the abuses perpetrated by it. By the mids Norris had come to value and use various aspects of Zola's realism and naturalism—contemporary topics, careful documentation, close observation, recognition of natural forces—after a rather prolonged youthful period of captivation with medieval romance. The "Mussel Slough Massacre," the armed battle that had taken place between the agents of the Southern Pacific Railroad and the wheat farmers of Tulare County in May , was the documented fact on which the action of The Octopus was based.
In choosing to treat of the abuses of the railroad company, Norris was not taking a daring stand or even breaking new ground. The "unanimous hatred of the people of California toward the Southern Pacific Railway" already existed. The novel is more an epic than a work of propaganda. The wheat and the need to transport it organize almost all of the action. The wheat grows on the new soil in generous abundance, ready to be used, but the railroad tycoons require farm machines to be moved by circuitous routes, raise rates prohibitively for small producers, cut wages despite high profits, fire those who protest, govern the local newspapers, and finally renege on the contracts made with the ranchers who have leased and improved the land.