Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
“A Deal in Wheat” clearly reflects the influence of naturalism and its leading European practitioner, Émile Zola. Some critics call Frank Norris the first naturalistic American writer; others hotly disagree, citing his devotion to and identification with Romantics such as Rudyard Kipling. In fact, Norris combined elements of both Romanticism and naturalism in much of his writing. Perhaps the purest naturalistic piece he ever wrote, “A Deal in Wheat” sets forth in coldly analytical terms several themes that he first introduced in The Octopus (1901) and would develop further in The Pit (1903). As in the two novels, the overriding theme in this short story is that of economic struggle against almost irresistible forces. “A Deal in Wheat” is especially important because it marks a significant shift in Norris’s thinking away from the optimistic determinism of The Octopus and The Pit. The story ends on something of a positive note, but it is dominated by a sense of pessimistic determinism.
Sam and Emma Lewiston are representative types. Good and wholesome, hardworking, they lose their Kansas ranch because of the rivalry between the bears and the bulls in Chicago. There is absolutely nothing they can do; they are victimized by circumstances well beyond their control. As for the speculators, they are battling not for survival but for wealth, and their economic warfare takes on a rationale of its own; it is a contest of wits. The injustice of it all is an underlying theme basic to much naturalistic writing. The speculators, however, are not vicious men; they are simply the haves in an amoral system that compels the haves to exploit the have-nots.
The story is bleakly depressing, yet in the very capriciousness of human existence, there shines a glimmer of hope. As he is about to sink into complete despair, Sam Lewiston finds a job and makes the most of it. The good man wins out in the end, but it is not so much because of who he is or what he has done. Inscrutable Fate, for reasons of her own, has smiled on him. Sam understands this, and that is Norris’s final point.