Presley, who might be regarded as the central character in this novel, is uniquely American in that he has a uniquely American vision. A young man of sensitive and artistic temperament, he has dreams of writing a great epic work on a distinctively American subject: the American West, taking in the whole sweep from Canada to California.
It is the epic I'm searching for. And HOW I search for it. You don't know. It is sometimes almost an agony. Often and often I can feel it right there, there, at my finger-tips, but I never quite catch it. It always eludes me. I was born too late. Ah, to get back to that first clear-eyed view of things, to see as Homer saw, as Beowulf saw, as the Nibelungen poets saw. The life is here, the same as then; the Poem is here; my West is here; the primeval, epic life is here, here under our hands, in the desert, in the mountain, on the ranch, all over here, from Winnipeg to Guadalupe. Book 1, chapter 1)
Pressley admits to a certain sense of inadequacy here, voicing misgivings about his own ability to capture the spirit of this work, but his enthusiasm for the project is not in doubt. He is absolutely fired by the great landscapes of the West, a distinctive American locale, the likes of which are not to be found anywhere else. But Presley also envisages himself as being in the tradition of Old World poets, as he invokes the ancient Greek epics of Homer, the great Old English epic Beowulf, and so on. He consciously sees himself as working in this vein, but he wants to add a new American subject to those ancient, heroic traditions. He wants to create an American poem worthy to stand alongside the Old World classics. He seeks to pay written homage to the American West and its people, which he sees as being every bit as grand and heroic and awe-inspiring as the world of Homer or Beowulf.
However, Pressley is thwarted in his bid to write a glowing epic of the American West as he comes up against the sordid, indeed grim realities that underpin this seemingly glorious land, with its bounty of grain. He gets caught up in the bitter struggle between Western ranchers and the railroad company which encroaches on the ranchers' land. Instead of the rhapsodic romance he envisaged, he ends up writing an altogether more sombre work called 'The Toilers', about the devastation of the farmers' lives.
Though Pressley is robbed of the chance to compose an all-American epic in the way that he originally wanted, still the novel is conceived of in epic terms by Norris. It is a dramatization of the battle between ordinary men and their great adversary, the railroad, figured as the malign 'octopus' of the title, a many-tentacled entity which comes to have a stranglehold on the locals and their livelihoods, driving them to desperate measures. Norris casts it as a drama of the great impersonal forces which govern the world, playing out against the imposing backdrop of the American West and claiming individual lives in the process. The workings of the American capitalist system, pitted against the ways of the ordinary folk who cultivate the American land, is seen as fit material for epic treatment by Norris, and this is what he sets out to achieve in this novel.