Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
El Rancho de los Muertos
El Rancho de los Muertos. Largest ranch of the four San Joaquin Valley ranches in which the novel is set. Containing ten thousand acres of land, it is run by Magnus Derrick and his son, Harran. It consists of the home ranch, nestled in the north end in a grove of eucalyptus, oak, and cypress trees; two division houses; a tenant farmer’s house; and the house of Hooven, a German immigrant who farms a section of the ranch. The Derrick ranch home is a stately structure, containing many bedrooms, a large kitchen, an expansive dining room, a hallway with a glass ceiling, and an office—the center of the operation, in which telephones, a stock market ticker, and record books are kept. The house’s lawn is as well groomed as any city garden. The property also has a summer house Derrick has constructed for his mother.
The ranch reveals Derrick’s deep concern for respectability, integrity, and family. The dispersal of the family’s belongings onto the lawn reveals the great loss and fragmentation that result from the railroad’s seizure of the property at the novel’s end. At Hooven’s house, the farmers make a stand against the railroad’s occupation of the farms, resulting in the deaths of several farmers, including Hooven and Harran Derrick.
Quien Sabe Ranch
Quien Sabe Ranch. Farm run by young, contrary Buck Annixter, lying north of the Derrick ranch. It comprises Annixter’s...
(The entire section is 1112 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of this article. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
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 1901, 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.S. Steel: when it was incorporated in 1901, 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...
(The entire section is 1063 words.)
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 mid-1800s, 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. Naturalism started in the mid 1800s with French...
(The entire section is 1039 words.)
Although critics have disagreed about whether Norris was philosophically consistent in The Octopus, no one has denied that in this novel he created a narrative of impressive energy, scope, and power. While not an expert stylist or skilled at fully-rounded characterizations, and with a weakness for rhapsodic generalizations, Norris nonetheless uses his careful personal observation and research to give his story a convincing concreteness and circumstantiality. The result is a novel that is fully and strongly plotted, first proceeding through episodes which show the unjust powers employed by the Railroad, the ways in which that power is used, and the types of people who suffer from its tyranny, and then shifting to an analysis of how the victims begin to fight back, the evolution of their struggle, and its tragic conclusion. Episodes devoted to developing this principal story are sometimes alternated with long, impressive scenes of Western life, such as the dance at Annixter's barn, the plowing at Los Muertos, and the jack-rabbit roundup, all of which reinforce the sense of a vast drama unfolding against the California landscape at the precise moment when, geographically and temporally, Western settlement is coming to a close.
The two forces which play the most important roles in the drama that is unfolded in this novel — the railroad and the wheat — are presented both in their literal impressiveness' and as large symbols. An insistent presence in...
(The entire section is 493 words.)
The Octopus, Norris's most ambitious and ambiguous novel, is set in the San Joaquin Valley in California in the 1880s and details a struggle between a group of wheat ranchers and the Pacific and Southwest Railroad for dominance of the California landscape. The idea for this novel came from the assault leveled at the Railroad Trusts in the 1890s, but the actual incident on which Norris based his book was the conflict between the Southern Pacific Railroad and a group of farmers in California which in May of 1880 had culminated in the infamous gun battle known as the Mussel Slough Affair. The background of this tragic incident provided ample material for a novel of vast social and economic implications. In the early 1860s, the Railroad Trust headed by C. P. Huntington had attracted farmers into California with the promise of cheap land ceded to it by the federal government for building a railroad link to the East. The Trust declared that it would subsequently sell the land to the farmers at a price based on its value without any improvements. In 1877 however, after the farmers had developed the property, the Railroad priced it at the value of improved land. This change in policy, together with increased freight charges for hauling the wheat, threatened the farmers with economic ruin. The long struggle which ensued ended tragically at Mussel Slough with the death of seven men.
Building on this factual background, in The Octopus Norris deals...
(The entire section is 631 words.)
Compare and Contrast
1901: The automobile has been invented, but few people can afford them. Under 20,000 motor cars are sold in the United States this year. Henry Ford, chief engineer for the bankrupt Detroit Automobile Company, starts his own company. He goes on to change the face of industry with his methods of mass production.
Today: Car ownership among Americans of all ages and social classes is common. Eight and a half million cars are sold in the United States each year.
1901: The president of the United States, William McKinley, is shot to death by a Polish- American anarchist.
Today: Because of the threat of assassination, the president is kept separated from the people and surrounded by security guards.
1901: Males born this year are expected to live 48.2 years. Females have a life expectancy of 51.1 years.
Today: Males born today have an average life expectancy averaging around 73 years; for females, the figure is around 79 years.
1901: 45.1 million Americans live in rural locations while only 30.2 million live in urban locations.
Today: 75 percent of America’s population of 260 million people live in urban area. Of the 25 percent in rural areas, only 7 percent live on farms.
1901: Meats and vegetables have to be served near where they are grown. Refrigerated railcars are available for long-distance shipping, but most...
(The entire section is 321 words.)
Topics for Further Study
Airplanes and trucks, neither of which existed when this story took place, have significantly changed the influence of rail freight. Research the different types of shipping used to move grain today, explaining what power each has.
Which states produce the most American wheat today? Which countries consume the most American wheat? Which countries produce the most wheat in the world?
California is not associated with wheat production today. Research the decline of the California wheat industry and report on how other concerns have taken its place.
Aid agencies to help people stranded without money are common in most big cities. Report on what a person like Mrs. Hooven, alone with her little girl and penniless in a city, could do today.
Magnus Derrick sees his plows on a railroad car at his local station, but he cannot have them until they travel all of the way to San Francisco and back. Report on modern-day examples of laws that require actions that contradict common sense.
Frank Norris chose to write a three-novel series about wheat because he saw it as one product that has an impact on every aspect of social life. Choose one product that you think is as universal today and write an outline for three books that are each independent, but tell the whole story.
(The entire section is 217 words.)
The contrast between the radically opposed forces of the railroad and the wheat which forms the basis of the essential story narrated in The Octopus places the novel firmly in an important tradition in American fiction. This tradition, which reflects such peculiarly American realities as the existence of a frontier which was constantly being transformed by the progress of civilization and the nation's simultaneous attachment to the machine and to a rural ideal, focuses on the intrusion of technology into a pastoral world. Conventionally, this intrusion is depicted in the form of a sudden and aggressive arrival of a machine to interrupt a pastoral reverie. Thus, when Norris climaxes his first chapter with the premonitory slaughter of the sheep by a locomotive as Presley, who up to that moment has been admiring the sunset, watches in horror, he repeats in his particular context a typically American image. Precedents for it are numerous since they appear in the work of many writers. To cite just two examples, in Walden (1854), one of Henry David Thoreau's meditative moments in the heart of the woods at Concord is interrupted by the screech of a locomotive whistle, while in Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), a peaceful nocturnal moment in Huck and Jim's journey on the Mississippi turns into tragedy when a steamboat smashes through their raft.
To develop an appropriate fictional form for his treatment of the conflicts that...
(The entire section is 705 words.)
What Do I Read Next?
Norris’ novel McTeague, published in 1899, is considered by some to be his greatest work and one of the most influential pieces of American naturalism. It concerns a San Francisco dentist and his wife who slide into moral degradation when he loses his job and they both are forced to live on the streets.
The Pit: A Story of Chicago by Norris is the second part of a trilogy about wheat that started with The Octopus. It examines the financial exchanges in Chicago, where the decisions regarding the value of wheat are made. The third part of the trilogy was never finished before Norris died.
Upton Sinclair’s classic 1904 novel The Jungle takes a cold, unflinching look at the brutal conditions in the Chicago beef processing plants. Like this novel, it examines the ways in which the social order corrupts and destroys ordinary, well-meaning people.
Norris is usually mentioned along with Hamlin Garland, another master of American realism. Hamlin Garland’s short-story collection, Main- Travelled Roads, captures the same sense of rural America in the late 1800s and gives readers a basic, moving example of this literary genre.
One of Norris’ most important influences was the French writer Émile Zola, whose novels movingly capture the dehumanizing effects of the industrial age. Of all of Zola’s books, Germinal is most similar to The Octopus: it concerns the suppression of...
(The entire section is 325 words.)
Bibliography and Further Reading
Barry, John D., “New York Letter,” in Literary World, March 18, 1899.
Hicks, Granville, “The Ears of Hope,” in The Great Tradition: An Interpretation of American Literature since the Civil War, MacMillan Publishing Company, 1935, pp. 164–206.
Howells, W. D., “Frank Norris,” in North American Review, Vol. 175, No. 6, December 1902, pp. 769–78.
Kazan, Alfred, “Progressivism: The Superman and the Muckrake,” in On Native Grounds: An Interpretation of Modern American Prose Literature, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1963, pp. 91–126.
London, Jack, “On Norris’ The Octopus,” in American Literary Realism 1870–1910, Vol. 6, No. 1, Winter 1973, pp. 66–69.
Review of McTeague in Outlook, March 18, 1899.
Review of McTeague in Review of Reviews, June 1899.
Hochman, Barbara, The Art of Frank Norris, Storyteller, University of Missouri Press, 1988. Hochman’s area of expertise is the age of American Realism: here she drives home Norris’ importance to the development of American literature.
Hussman, Lawrence E., Harbringers of a Century: The Novels of Frank Norris, Modern American Literature series, Vol. 21, Peter Lang Publishing Company, 1999. This major new work examines Norris’ philosophy, especially as it regards...
(The entire section is 280 words.)
Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Davison, Richard A., ed. The Merrill Studies in “The Octopus.” Columbus: C. E. Merrill Co., 1969. A collection of essays on the novel. Included are contemporary reviews and personal letters of Norris relevant to the book’s composition.
French, Warren. Frank Norris. New York: Twayne, 1962. A source for beginning a study of Norris and his literary achievement. Biographical material is accompanied by a scholarly discussion of important texts.
Graham, Don. The Fiction of Frank Norris: The Aesthetic Context. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1978. An in-depth study of the aesthetic sources and relationships energizing Norris’ fiction. An insightful study of The Octopus emphasizes the influence of the arts on the novel.
Hochman, Barbara. The Art of Frank Norris, Storyteller. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1988. A study of the recurrent motifs in Norris’s fiction, emphasizing his literary methods. Analyzes use of word and symbol in The Octopus.
Pizer, Donald. The Novels of Frank Norris. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1966. A comprehensive and systematic examination of Norris’ novels, with particular attention paid to the author’s intellectual backgrounds and the philosophical influences upon him. Analysis and...
(The entire section is 198 words.)