Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Norris was much more committed to the method of Zola than to the latter’s philosophy; he found in naturalism the tools to probe humankind and the natural world and to convey the “truth” of what he discovered to the reader. Hence, Norris tells his story coldly and concisely, giving it much the quality of a documentary drawn directly from life. The realism is enhanced by pertinent details that add to the mood of impending doom or increasing despair. The descriptions of Sam hitching the wagon and of Emma twisting her apron around her arms, for example, accentuate the commitment and concerns of two desperate people. Tying everything together is the wheat itself. An artful paradox is at the very heart of the story: Low wheat causes Sam to lose the ranch; high wheat almost takes his life.
The five episodes of the story progressively emphasize the helplessness of Sam the farmer and worker on the one hand and the power of the speculators on the other. Truslow’s deception and Hornung’s response to it bring matters to a head. These events serve to emphasize the speculators’ fundamental lack of concern for anything but their own pursuit of wealth. Sam’s reappearance in the last scene serves as an interesting contrast and makes clear the impact on ordinary people of the games the speculators play. Although Norris cared little for the short-story form, he achieved in this work a remarkable unity of character and purpose that was sadly lacking in his novels. “A Deal in Wheat” represents the momentary triumph of naturalism over Romanticism in the writing of a man who was strongly influenced by both.
Bibliography (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Boyd, Jennifer. Frank Norris: Spatial Form and Narrative Time. New York: Peter Lang, 1993.
Graham, Don, ed. Critical Essays on Frank Norris. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980.
McElrath, Joseph R., Jr. “Beyond San Francisco: Frank Norris’s Invention of Northern California.” In San Francisco in Fiction: Essays in a Regional Literature, edited by David Fine and Paul Skenazy. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995.
McElrath, Joseph R., Jr. Frank Norris Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1992.
Marut, David. “Sam Lewiston’s Bad Timing: A Note on the Economic Context of ’A Deal in Wheat.’” American Literary Realism 27 (Fall, 1994): 74-80.
Pizer, Donald. The Novels of Frank Norris. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1966.
Pizer, Donald, ed. The Literary Criticism of Frank Norris. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964.