What does the giant 'octopus' refer to in the novel of Frank Norris?
On the first level, of course, the “Octopus” is the railroad system that gradually covers the entire Midwest and West (the book is about California expoitation), with its branches, like tentacles, reaching out to every farm community and attaching itself to the population. More abstractly, however, it is a term applying to the very notion of the free enterprise system, the way it attaches to civilization and every human need and weakness. Just as there is no escaping the all-encompassing pull and suction of an octopus’ tentacles, the American expansion was both formed and restricted by the avarice of Big Business and the political double-dealing (like the octopus’ ink?) that gave the railroad such power (the railroad owned all rights for one mile on either side of the tracks it laid down). Whatever other motives the settlers had as they developed the Midwest and over the mountains (spreading democracy, preserving the family unit), the railroad economy subsumed them. Norris' title made perfectly clear what he thought of the distortion to Americanism the railroad Big Business brought with it.