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 is drawn into the intrigue and violence seething in the volatile community. Genslinger, a newspaper editor sympathetic to the P&SW, warns the ranchers against fighting the powerful railroad, because Shelgrim, its influential president, wields vast political clout. Annixter explodes against such a timid course and urges a unified rancher front, fighting fire with fire: The ranchers, too, need to enter the dark arena of bribery and corruption to survive.
Even though Presley is too deeply concerned with composing an epic poem of the West to immerse himself in these difficulties, Vanamee is too obsessed with the memory of his lost love, Angele, who had died eighteen years earlier. He seeks “The Answer,” a mystical, spiritual response from ineffable forces he senses pulsating around him and within the mysterious wheat, undulating, it seems, with a psychic power. In the meantime, Annixter has ridden the same local journey as had Presley. He, too, meets Hooven and hears of the man’s personal troubles. He saw freight cars routed from efficient delivery points to more profitable short-haul trips. He learns of Dyke’s misfortune. Nervous and desperate, he makes the P&SW an offer for the purchase of the property he now leases. The offer is rejected. He and the others are securely in the tentacles of the octopus....
(The entire section is 1139 words.)
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.
Combining his beliefs about the appropriate scope of an American novel (to depict the realities of a particular region) and the sense of alienation in contemporary society, Norris creates as his protagonist an artist, the poet Presley, who spends a summer in California’s San Joaquin Valley, where he tries to find a purpose for his poetry. The narrative structure of the novel coincides with Presley’s indecisiveness about whether a realistic or romantic vision is the most truthful art form and reflects Norris’s own waffling opinions.
Through Presley’s eyes, however, the reader discovers...
(The entire section is 844 words.)