The Octopus: A Story of California, first published in 1901 by Frank Norris, presents modern readers with a view of a specific time and place in American history when California was a new, open land of promise. The country’s ability to produce agricultural abundance seemed endless, threatened only by greed and the interference of laws that serve the rich. The novel takes place in the San Joaquin valley, in the middle of the state. Wheat farmers struggle to grow crops and send them to market for a profit, while being beleaguered by the inflated prices of the giant railroad conglomeration—the “octopus” referred to in the title. This novel was the first one in what Norris planned to be a “Trilogy of Wheat,” examining every aspect of the modern world through the progression of wheat, from seed to consumption. The second novel was The Pit: A Story of Chicago, about the commodities market. The third novel, The Wolf, was intended to follow what happened to the wheat crop once it was exported to Russia, but Norris died of a burst appendix before that book was written.
The novels of Frank Norris are considered to be clear and powerful examples of the literary movement that took place around the turn of the nineteenth century: American naturalism. As a response against the inflated prose and romantic ideals that marked most American novels that came before them, there rose a generation of writers who tried to focus their work on the harsh realities of modern life. By today’s standards, Norris’ characters may seem idealistic, and his plot lines might seem contrived, but, as a reaction to novels that steered clear of sexuality and the degrading effects of capitalism, Norris’ works were groundbreaking.