The Octopus is the story of the conflict between wheat farmers & the railroads in California in the 1880s. If, like me, you thought that this was hardly an exciting premise for a novel, you’d be wrong. The Octopus was chosen by my 19th century bookgroup and, as usual, I’ve been surprised & enthralled by a book I would never have picked up if it hadn’t been on our schedule.
The novel is based on a real story, a dispute between farmers & the railroad that took place at Mussel Slough, California in 1880. Frank Norris is a writer I’ve heard of but hadn’t read. He planned a grand trilogy of novels about wheat. The Octopus tells the story of the wheat farmers, The Pit tells the story of the wheat merchants & is set in Chicago. He planned a third novel set in Europe where the wheat was sold & marketed. Only The Octopus & The Pit were written as Norris died suddenly at the age of only 32 of a ruptured appendix & kidney failure.
California in the late 1800s was the last vestige of the American West. The gold rushes of the 1850s had led to speculation in other commodities. Wheat was one of them & the protagonists of The Octopus are wheat farmers & their families. Chief among them is Magnus Derrick, known as the Governor, who made a fortune from gold & is set on doing the same with wheat. His ranch is Los Muertos & he runs it with his son, Harran. His other son, Lyman, is a lawyer & lives in town. One of Derrick’s tenant farmers is a German immigrant, Hooven, who lives with his wife & daughters.
Presley is a poet, an outsider to the community. He has spent the last months staying with the Derricks after being threatened with consumption. He’s a Romantic who observes events with interest & wants to write an epic about the West. In the first chapter of the book he is cycling around the district, ostensibly to pick up the mail for Mrs Derrick. On his journey, he meets all the main protagonists & we get a feel for the country & the way of life. Presley stays on the outside, observing events, wanting to help but powerless to become involved. At the railroad, he meets Dyke, an engineer, working for the Pacific & South Western Railroad. Dyke is a widower, living with his mother & daughter, Sidney. Dyke has just quit his job after a dispute over pay & plans to grow hops with his brother. The power of the railroad to set freight charges will ultimately destroy Dyke & lead him to take a terrible revenge.
Buck Annixter farms at Quien Sabe. Annixter is a rough, crochety man who is tough on his workers & spends his free time reading David Copperfield & eating prunes for his digestion.. He has few friends & is wary of involving himself with women. Nevertheless, he is attracted to Hilma Tree who works in his dairy. Unfortunately he has no idea how to court her. He & Presley are friends although they are opposites in ambition & temperament. Vanamee is a wanderer. Currently a shepherd working for the Seed ranch, he & Presley meet infrequently but always with pleasure. Vanamee’s life has been blighted by the rape of his lover, Angele, seventeen years before. She subsequently died in childbirth & her rapist was never caught. Vanamee periodically returns to the Mission of San Juan de Guadalajara to visit his friend, Father Sarria, who knows his story.
The ranchers don’t own their land. They were permitted to take up the land for free by the railroad company with a promise of being able to buy the land in the future at a nominal price. The farmers have improved the land & are keen to buy it. However, the Railroad has now decided that they will charge much more than the original amount per acre. As the ranchers have no legal basis for their case other than an ambiguously worded agreement, they’re trapped on land that they’ve improved but can’t sell or buy. However, their relationship to the land is, in some ways, as exploitative as the Railroad’s. They have no feeling for the land but only for what they can get out of it. They will exhaust the land growing wheat as they exhausted the gold mines in the 1850s & then move on to the next opportunity.
The Railroad is the octopus of the title. Its tentacles reach out to encompass everything from the title to the ranchers land to the cost of freighting their materials & crops & its power is absolute. The Railroad, represented by S Behrman, is said to have bought the co-operation of the members of the Railroad Commission that sets the freight rates among other things. The ranchers form a League to fight the Railroad in the courts. They also make the fateful decision to fight the Railroad on their own terms & Magnus Derrick, against his better wishes & his conscience, reluctantly agrees to use bribery to get his son, Lyman, a seat on the Commission. In this way, the ranchers hope to get a favourable decision on the freight costs & the price they will pay for their land. Unfortunately, the courts uphold the Railroad’s case &, when the ranchers refuse to pay the price set by the Railroad, the ranches are put up for sale. The League & the Railroad are set on a collision course that will destroy the lives & livelihoods, of many.
The Octopus is an involving, exciting story that reads like a Western with elements of the industrial novel & mysticism in the story of Vanamee. There are some terrific set pieces – the barn dance on Annixter’s property, the train robbery, the brutal jack-rabbit hunt & the final shootout between the League & the Railroad. The first chapter, where Presley tours the district is repeated at the end of the book in a very different atmosphere. The characters of the men are beautifully drawn although I felt the women, especially Hilma, were quite thin & idealized. The older women, especially Mrs Dyke & Mrs Hooven, were much more believable & even more at the mercy of events than their men as they had no ability to do anything to help or hinder their fate. One of the main characters of the book is the wheat itself & what it stands for. It’s a symbol of progress & wealth, just as the railroad is & Norris often capitalizes the word, Wheat, as though it really were one of the characters,
And there before him (Presley), mile after mile, illimitable, covering the earth from horizon to horizon, lay the Wheat. The growth, now many days old, was already high from the ground. There it lay, a vast, silent ocean, shimmering a pallid green under the moon and under the stars; a mighty force, the strength of nations,the life of the world. … To Presley’s mind, the scene in the room he had just left dwindled to paltry insignificance before this sight. Ah, yes, the Wheat – it was over this that the Railroad, the ranches, the traitor false to his trust, all the members of an obscure conspiracy, were wrangling. As if human agency could affect this colossal power! What were these heated, tiny squabbles, this feverish, small bustle of mankind, this minute swarming of the human insect, to the great, majestic, silent ocean of the Wheat itself! … Men, Liliputians, gnats in the sunshine, buzzed impudently in their tiny battles, were born, lived through their little day, died, and were forgotten; while the Wheat, wrapped in Nirvanic calm, grew steadily under the night, alone with the stars and with God.
Norris was criticised by reviewers for being so very much on the side of the ranchers but public feeling at the time of the original incidents that inspired the novel was very much against the railroad. He was also compared, both favourably & unfavourably, with Zola, for his naturalistic, often brutal depictions of reality. I can see the similarities to a novel like Germinal, in the portrayal of man against the machine, even though the ranchers ostensibly have more power than the poor miners in Zola’s novel. I would love to read the second novel, The Pit, & also the novel that has been called Norris’s masterpiece, McTeague, which was also based on a true story.