53 pages 1 hour read

Frank Norris

The Octopus: A Story of California

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1901

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Summary and Study Guide


Frank Norris’s novel The Octopus: A Story of California was published in 1901, 21 years after the event it fictionalizes; the Mussel Slough Tragedy resulted from a dispute between settlers and the Southern Pacific Railroad that left seven people dead. The dispute arose over land titles, owned by the Southern Pacific, for land that had been developed by settlers who believed the Railroad would sell them the leased land for its pre-development prices. After the Supreme Court ruled against the settlers, the Railroad attempted to evict those who wouldn’t pay its elevated prices, and on May 11, 1880, a group of aggrieved settlers intercepted a U.S. Marshal and three Railroad agents. The confrontation resulted in the Mussel Slough Tragedy.

Today, Norris is known as one of the originating voices of American Naturalism, with his literary fame hanging on three novels: McTeague (1899), The Octopus (1901), and The Pit (1903), published after his death at the age of 32. McTeague gained Norris wider recognition as a novelist, and he set out to write a trilogy of novels charting the growth, brokerage and distribution, and eventual consumption of wheat; he wanted to call this The Epic of the Wheat. The Octopus, centering on the struggles of wheat farmers in California, was the first of the series, and it drew from the author’s extensive research and the time he spent on the ranches and wheat fields of San Benito County.

Told through third-person omniscient narration, The Octopus charts a wide range of characters whose lives are drawn toward the bloody shootout at its climactic conclusion. Norris’s evocations of California’s ethereal wheat fields and his objective Naturalist survey of universal base humanity couple with sharp social and philosophical themes, producing what has been called the most ambitious novel of its time since Moby Dick. This study guide refers to the 1994 Penguin Classics edition.

Plot Summary

The main action of The Octopus is set in the San Joaquin Valley, one of the most productive agricultural regions in the United States, during the final years of the American frontier. Cities were reaching ascendency, and corporations—then called Trusts—claimed a centralized authority over large swaths of the rural countryside. As a Naturalist work, the novel adopts an objective perspective on the deeper motivations that lead people to their ultimate (and often tragic) fates in an indifferent, impersonal universe. The novel’s major conflict draws from Norris’s historical research and focuses on the events leading up to the bloody confrontation between several wheat farmers and the agents of the fictional Pacific and Southwestern (P. and S. W.) Railroad, which owns large portions of the valley through its development deal with the state. The central characters—Presley, a poet from outside the region; Annixter, a wheat farmer and ranch owner; and Vanamee, a shepherd with mystical persuasions—all emerge from the side of the wheat farmers. Through their experiences, the narrative offers a wide portrait of a dying frontier individualism facing utter oppression from a vast and powerful Trust.

The novel opens with the Railroad’s rejection of the wheat farmers’ efforts for lower freight rates. This prompts the farmers to form a secretive League, led by the most prominent among them, Magnus Derrick, to bribe state legislators and install Magnus’s son Lyman on the Railroad commission. Their ultimate plan fails, however, as the Railroad has already bought Lyman’s loyalty by funding his bid for governor. Lyman betrays the League by refusing to lower freight rates and by not intervening when the Railroad sells the wheat farmers’ lands to dummy buyers acting on behalf of the P. and S.W.

Dyke, a Railroad engineer, is fired by the P. and S.W. for refusing to take a pay cut, and he spends all his savings on a modest hops farm. He meets financial ruin when the Railroad raises the hops’ freighting rates, however, and he descends into alcoholism and falls under the influence of the socialistic saloonkeeper, Caraher. Dyke later robs a train and kills one of its operators before receiving a life sentence.

While the community gathers for the annual “jackrabbit drive” to corral rabbits from the fields, several Railroad agents, led by its local representative S. Behrman, confiscate Annixter’s ranch with the intent of evicting him. Annixter, Magnus, and several other members of the League rush to Magnus’s ranch to head-off the Railroad agents, meeting them near the farm of Hooven, a farmer who works Magnus’s land. Their confrontation leads to a shootout in which several farmers—including Hooven, Osterman, Annixter, and Harran Derrick (Magnus’s son)—are killed. After witnessing the senseless violence, Presley, who has become increasingly anarchistic under the influence of Caraher, throws a bomb into the home of S. Behrman, but Behrman escapes the blast unharmed.

In the fallout from the gunfight, Magnus, a morally upstanding member of the community, finds his bribery of officials revealed in the local newspaper; he loses his reputation amidst his financial ruination. Hooven’s wife and daughters are forced to move to San Francisco, but without support, they become separated and impoverished. Mrs. Hooven dies of starvation, and her older daughter, Minna, is compelled into sex work.

Meanwhile in San Francisco, Presley attends a lavish dinner at the home of Cedarquist, a successful businessman in the shipping industry, who obtains Presley passage on a ship bound for India. Cedarquist’s wife, enamored of Presley’s socialistic poem “The Toilers” (based on his experiences in the San Joaquin Valley) raises funds to relieve a famine in India with a ship of Californian wheat.

S. Behrman now owns Magnus’s farm, and he sells the wheat to Mrs. Cedarquist’s famine-relief program. He refuses to bag the wheat, however, and when he travels to San Francisco to watch it being loaded into the ship, he falls into the ship’s hold and is crushed to death under the cascading wheat. The novel ends with Presley aboard the same ship, traveling to India with the wheat and pondering Vanamee’s philosophical speculation that despite the suffering incurred by the wheat farming, it is but a small part of a larger cosmic process that ultimately leads to good.