Frank Norris’s short story “A Deal of Wheat” consists of five distinct, carefully titled episodes. These episodes involve an often changing cast of characters, locations, and plot elements, but the theme that ties them all together is the fluctuating price of wheat. There is, perhaps, even a pun in the word “Deal” in the story’s title: it refers, on the one hand, to financial deals involving the selling and buying of wheat, but perhaps it also suggests the idea of a great “deal” – a large amount – of wheat. In any case, the price of wheat is definitely the main focus of this story.
In the first section of the tale, a farmer and his wife (Sam and Emma Lewiston) lose their wheat farm in Kansas because the price of wheat has been driven too low (by Chicago speculators) for them to make a profit from their crop. Reluctantly, Sam agrees that he must go to Chicago, where his brother may be able to help with find a job. In the second section of the tale, set in Chicago, two powerful men in the wheat business are consummating a deal. In the third section, also set in Chicago, the price of wheat is being bid upwards by an unknown bidder at the trading pit in Chicago. In the fourth section, also set in Chicago, a private detective discovers and reports the deception that allowed the price of wheat to be bid so high. Finally, in the fifth section, we meet Sam Lewiston again, who is now living in Chicago. He has lost his job and, like many of the unemployed, stands in a long line, waiting for old bread that is being given away at a bakery. However, because the price of wheat has risen so high, the bakery suddenly ceases giving away the free bread. Fortunately, Sam is able to find a job as a street-sweeper, and he begins to rise a bit economically. At the end of the story, he realizes that he suffered when the price of wheat was too low (in the story’s first section) and also when it was too high (in the story’s final section).
The story thus possesses a neatly circular, symmetrical structure. The narrator’s tone in describing the events is mainly dispassionate. Clearly the narrator finds the events of the story ironic and in many ways outrageous. However, rather than protesting them very overtly, he simply presents them and lets readers draw their own conclusions about the injustices he describes. At the very end of the tale, the narrator’s censorious attitude becomes a bit more explicit:
The farmer—he who raised the wheat—was ruined upon one hand; the working-man—he who consumed it—was ruined upon the other. But between the two, the great operators, who never saw the wheat they traded in, bought and sold the world's food, gambled in the nourishment of entire nations, practised their tricks, their chicanery and oblique shifty "deals," were reconciled in their differences, and went on through their appointed way, jovial, contented, enthroned, and unassailable.
For the most part, however, Norris resists the impulse to preach or condemn. Instead, he tends to let the unsavory facts speak for themselves.