Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Trouble had been brewing in the San Joaquin Valley of Central California. The Pacific & Southwestern (P&SW) Railroad and the wheat ranchers who leased the railroad’s adjacent lands are heading for an economic collision. Presley, an Eastern poet visiting the ranch owned by the powerful and prosperous Magnus Derrick family, is caught amid the fierce bickering. As he cycles toward the town of Bonneville, he meets Hooven, a ranch worker who is agitated by the possibility of being fired. Riding on, Presley meets Dyke, who tells of being dismissed and blacklisted by the P&SW. Feeling uninvolved—even superior to these troubles—Presley continues his journey and encounters Annixter, an abrasive rancher who had been angered by the high-handed railroad “octopus,” especially by the agent S. Behrman, who wants to gain control of the thriving wheat fields. The P&SW had, early on, leased its vacant, unproductive adjacent lands to the ranchers with options for them to buy. With rancher investment and toil, the once worthless lands had become golden. The P&SW is now looking for ways to keep the ranchers from winning the deal. Rebellion and warfare are in the air.
As Presley cycles about the properties, he meets Vanamee, a mystically inclined shepherd, and soon thereafter the poet witnesses the slaughter of a flock of sheep that had wandered innocently onto the railroad tracks. S. Behrman blames the accident on a broken Annixter fence. Presley...
(The entire section is 1139 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Subtitled A Story of California, The Octopus was the first novel in a projected trilogy that Norris envisioned as an epic study of the cultivation, processing, and distribution of wheat; the wheat would move from the Western fields to Chicago’s marketplace to the starving peoples of Europe.
In the United States, the Populist Party had been formed in 1891 as a collective Western movement by farmers and labor against the rise of political “machines” and trust organizations that threatened the farmers’ livelihood. The party’s demise, which would occur around 1904, was already foreshadowed at the time Norris was completing The Octopus. Several American authors, from Rebecca Harding Davis to Thorstein Veblen, had recognized the dangers inherent in contrived economic shifts and made political trusts the center of their literature. Although Norris had no direct involvement in the Populist movement, his novel stands securely among the major social protest novels of the turn of the twentieth century.
No other novel by Norris so clearly combines his naturalistic and romantic philosophies. The Octopus is a study in natural versus unnatural forces: the wheat versus the railroad and its representatives, nature’s boundaries versus the steel tentacles of the railroad’s artificial boundaries, the unnatural “Other” force of rape (literal and metaphoric) that destroys the natural force of love.
(The entire section is 844 words.)
The first chapter of The Octopus starts with Presley riding his bicycle across the countryside, from the Los Muertos ranch to the seed farm past the mission, encountering various key characters along the way: Hooven, Harran, Dyke, Annixter, and Vanamee. It ends with an ominous event: the sheep that Vanamee was supposed to be watching are run over by a train. It is here, at the end of the first chapter, that the book’s title is alluded to for the first and only time. Presley imagines that the sheep scattered around the tracks were run over by “the leviathan, with tentacles of steel clutching into the soil, the soulless Force, the iron-hearted Power, the monster, the Colossus, the Octopus.”
The next day, Magnus Derrick arrives back at his ranch from San Francisco. An argument ensues with S. Behrman, the railroad’s agent, when Magnus sees some ploughs he has bought on a flatbed at the train station. Because of regulations, the ploughs must ship all of the way through to San Francisco and back out to Guadalajara before he can take possession of them. Magnus arranges to have some of the local wheat growers come over to his house that night to discuss the railroad’s rate increase. At the same time, Annixter, on the Quien Sabe ranch, notices that Hilma Tree, the daughter of a couple that works for him, is attractive. Annixter finds himself thinking about her, even though he is a confirmed woman-hater. He sees her flirting...
(The entire section is 1310 words.)