The Octopus appeared at a time when the character of American life was assumed to be defined by the opportunity for endless growth, symbolized by the millions of acres of hearty grain that grew abundantly from the country’s fertile soil. Literature has traditionally used California to represent the country’s growth potential because European settlers arrived on the eastern shores and expanded westward, making the west coast the last area to be developed. Whenever it seemed that America’s natural potential was in any danger of facing limitations, there was always the promise that California had to offer. From mineral richness to agricultural bounty, California remained, time and again, a land that promised greatness.
In this novel, the farmers represent a natural culture. Not only do they work with soil and seed to produce nutritious wheat, but they also have a close-knit, moral society, willing to lend a hand to others who are temporarily down on their luck and careful to maintain traditional moral behaviors. Their society is presented as being almost perfect, but it is threatened from without by heartless and amoral aggression of the railroad.
The railroad, in this novel, represents a culture driven solely by profit, with no human concern. It is a product of technology, which allows it to be run from edicts passed far away, by people who make decisions affecting lives that they will never encounter. Norris does not try to present this money-hungry culture as being inherently evil, or controlled, in all cases, by evil people. Most railroad employees, such as S. Behrman and Genslinger, are in fact liars, driven by greed and the head of the railroad, Shelgrim, is overly generous in the case of an employee whom he knows personally. He proves to be a cultured, thoughtful man who is powerless to stop the personal destruction that his railroad might cause: “Blame conditions,” he explains to Presley, “not men.”
The destruction of the farmers is thus presented as the destruction of a culture of honor and truth by a senseless machine that devours culture in the name of profit. In this novel, there is no hope offered for the finer things in life: they are doomed to lose in an unfair struggle.
The economic destruction brought about by unchecked greed forces a decay of morals in this novel. Minna Hooven, for instance, is left with no recourse after the financial destruction of her family. She starts out a sweet, bright-eyed country girl, but when her money runs out and she is faced with starvation, Minna sells herself as a prostitute. Having made the decision to do so, she embraces her new, wicked ways: “Oh, I’ve gone to...
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