Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The Octopus was composed as the first volume of a projected trilogy about wheat. The Pit (1903) focused on wheat speculation in Chicago, but The Wolf, a planned final volume on wheat distribution, was never written. The trilogy, as planned and partly executed, is of epic dimensions, the type of panoramic novel suggested to Frank Norris by the work of his literary idol, Émile Zola.

A tale of economic determinism, of social forces caught in Darwinist struggles of the capitalist-monopolist battles characterizing the post-American Civil War era, The Octopus dramatizes a crucial time in the United States when industry ran rampant and functioned virtually free from legislative constraint. A critical episode in the tale—the armed battle between ranchers and railroad—was based on a specific historical occurrence. The Mussel Slough Affair of 1878 was an actual bullet-flying conflict. Norris also energized his text by incorporating bizarre real-life incidents he had read about in newspapers. For example, an Oakland, California, train had plunged into and had slaughtered a flock of unattended sheep; in another story, two grain workers had fallen into a great vat of grain and had been smothered to death. Such unusual events became dramatic symbols for the mindless killing of innocents and the incontrovertible force of the wheat.

Norris had once noted that quality fiction examines “whole congeries of forces.” In this novel he depicts contemporary antagonistic powers of significant magnitude: railroad and ranchers. The locomotive engine, symbolized as a cold, Cyclopean monster, omnipotent and unassailable, driven by corruption and greed (whose combined energies cannot be opposed), annihilates those who stand against it. The ranchers attempt to engage in the struggle, but they are clearly doomed. The result of their struggle is predictable, despite Norris’s sympathetic treatment of their plight. Through their collective suffering, however, one must remember that the ranchers themselves sought merely to exploit the land, to pillage the resources of...

(The entire section is 859 words.)