Reflections on Frank Norris’s “The Octopus”


Economic History of the U.S. To 1900

Frank Norris’s, The Octopus, is a novel which, on its simplest level, is the story which in Norris’s own words, “deals with the war between the wheat grower and the railroad trust.” There is much more depth to this novel, however. Norris’s novel also addresses issues dealing with capitalist “forces” along with the notion of justice. Ideas of one’s free will—choices versus determinism—are also present as strong undercurrents in the book. The Octopus also deals with issues concerning the strength of the individual—or what one can alternatively look at as a call for collective action. These alternate levels of The Octopus will be the foci of this paper.

The primary issue at stake in The Octopus is one of land ownership. Along the lines of the Pacific and South West Railroad, alternate sections of land had been granted to the P. and S. W. Trust by the government. The P. and S. W. invited farmers to settle the land and cultivate wheat, and ultimately to offer the land for sale, at first to the first occupants. Furthermore, the price was promised to be between $2.50 and $5.00 per acre. Improvements to the land would not affect the price, thus, for the initial settlers, the land would prove to be very valuable. They could settle, work with the land to a profitable point, work on improving the land through things like improved irrigation, and, when the Trust decided to sell the land, the farmers would acquire it at a low price. The profitability of resale would thus be great, for, as one of the major characters Annixter notes, “The land has more than quadrupled in value. I’ll bet I could sell it tomorrow for fifteen dollars an acre.” To the P. and S. W., this essentially amounts to an effective way to provide incentives to improve land. With the forces of capitalism in mind, the promise of private ownership gives the farmers an incentive to keep the land in good form and make the most of its potential.

However, considering the forces of capitalism, one would be inclined to question the interpretation of the agreement made by the railroad trust to the farmers. Genslinger, an editor to the local newspaper, points out that not only do the farmers add value, but the presence of the railroad also increases the value of the ranches, and that “fairness” would involve sharing the benefits of the rise in value between the farmers and the railroad. He further adds, “I don’t believe the P. and S. W. intends to sell for two-fifty an acre at all. The managers of the road want the best price they can get.” This proves to be the case. The railroad has taken its time in putting the land up for sale, and upon decision to sell, issues letters to the current occupants of the ranches which state the selling price to be in the range between $20.00 and $30.00 per acre. Thus begins the war between the farmers and railroad trust.

Assuming the farmers to be correct in their interpretation of the contract issued to them by the railroad, their ensuing call for violence or revolution can be seen as justified. Upon hearing of the “merciless” prices demanded by the P. and S. W., the ranchers decide to form a league against the railroad. The rapid formation of the league is accompanied with such phrases as, “This is a family affair,”  “Organization, that must be our watchword,” “Now we must stand together, now, now,” and “Every one of us here to join it, to form the beginnings of a vast organization, banded together to death, if needs be, for the protection of our rights and homes.”

At a crucial point in the novel, however, it is found that the ranchers cannot organize well enough to act as a group—and falls apart at the first experience with confrontation:

“Why, where’s all the men?” Annixter demanded of Magnus.
“Broderson is here and Cutter,” replied the Governor, “no one else, I thought you would bring more men with you.”
“There are only nine of us.”
“And the six hundred leaguers who were going to rise when this happened!” exclaimed Garnett bitterly.
“Rot the league,” cried Annixter. “It’s gone to pot—went to pieces at the first touch.”

The strength of the railroad trust was such that the farmers and families involved did not feel that collective action would so much as budge the decisions made by the railroad trust. The effectiveness of collective action, or promised collective action is hard to predict. Success depends partially in the willingness to commit to the cause at hand—the ability to overcome, or at least lessen, the free-rider problem. Everyone in the league would have wished the success of Annixter and the other men present at the above scene, but few rose to the call, or, as noted later, were made aware of the call at the appropriate time.

One can’t help but wonder what the relationship between the farmers and the railroad would have been if the outcome of the previous scene had ended differently, for example with the intended result of no bloodshed, but rather a hopefully productive encounter. One also can’t help but wonder if success or change was at all possible. The question of choice arises here—the question of an individual’s ability, or even that of a group, to actively take part in change.

Indeed, from the descriptions of the mechanisms at work in The Octopus, one would be inclined to think that choices play an incredibly small part. There is a scene where Lyman Derrick receives a railroad map. “The map was white, and it seemed as if all the color which should have gone to vivify the various counties, towns, and cities marked upon it had been absorbed by that huge, sprawling organism… a gigantic parasite flattening upon the lifeblood of an entire commonwealth.” The farmers may fight the men involved in the railroad business, but business, but that would mean little if anything. The real enemy was the railroad. It had taken on a life of its own. When Presley meets Shelgrim, the President of the P. and S. W., he says to him, “You are the head, you control the road.” Shelgrim is amused by this and replies, “I can not control it. It is a force born out of certain conditions, and I—no man—can stop it or control it.”

Following this experience, Presley first comes to the depressing conclusion that “Men were nothings,” they “fluttered and fell and were forgotten…. Men were naught, death was naught, life was naught; FORCE only existed.” Norris tries to take us away from such a pessimistic outlook, however, and to do so, he has a hermit-like character, Vanamee, talk to Presley. Presley ultimately comes to the conclusion that, “Falseness dies; injustice and oppression in the end of everything fade and vanish away. Greed, cruelty, selfishness and inhumanity are short-lived; the individual suffers, but the race goes on…. All things surely, inevitably, resistlessly work together for good.”

Norris also shows this view in the change in the character of Annixter. Annixter used to be the type content with only a few friends who mattered. He was impatient, rough, and more than content to make enemies with any act. In a transforming conversation between himself and Hilma Tree, his wife-to-be, he says, “Remember, once I said I was proud of being a hard man, a driver, of being glad that people hated me and were afraid of me? Well, since I’ve loved you I’m ashamed of it all. I don’t want to be hard anymore, and nobody is going to hate me if I can’t help it.” In Vanamee’s words, “it is not evil, but good, that in the end remains.”

While both these ends are more reassuring in their optimism concerning the “big picture,” it does not quite fully satisfy the reality of our daily concerns. I think it is fitting that Norris had Presley saying he was going to India. The Hindu and Buddhist religions make such views as Vanamee’s easier to accept. Hinduism calls for humans to separate their “ego-selves” from the true Self. To do so, they manage to break the cycle of karma—they realize the insignificance of their ego-selves, or what we can think of in Western terms as our personal identity. Buddhism calls for a separation from desires to end suffering. It also calls for a detachment from self. There is no such thing as the “identical I”—”The identical I never was, never is, never will be” (Sri Aurobindo). We are nothing more than forces of karma constantly flowing and changing through time.

This is not a conclusion that entirely satisfies me. I like to think that I have a will, and that the power to change things is within us all. Hopefully, those who can recognize this power do not abuse it, and use it, instead, for the betterment of as much of humanity as is rationally possible.


No Responses Yet to “Reflections on Frank Norris’s “The Octopus””

  1. Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: