The Octopus Essay

The Octopus: A California Story, a novel by Frank Norris in 1901, was a part of the planned trilogy (incomplete) on the story, The Epic of Wheat. It relatively described the development and apparent raising of wheat in the area of California, and the subsequent argument or conflict among the railway company and the wheat growers. The author was encouraged by the happenings on the Pacific Southern Railroad with respect to the events adjoining the tragedy of the Mussel Slough. It depicted the apprehension between the rancher’s League and the corrupt railroad ranchers

Frank Norris, a son of a wealthy jeweler, was born on March 5, 1870 in Chicago. After spending a little time in the high school level, He left to eventually study at the Art Association located in San Francisco. His was apparently encouraged to study painting, and even traveled to London and Paris in 1887 to pursue such. Though he enjoyed studying painting, he returned to San Francisco and studied at the University of California in 1890. He studied for four years but did not able to take any degree. Though he was not able to finish any degree, his first book entitled Yvernelle: A Tale of Feudal France was published on 1892 with the help of his mother. His works included McTeague, Vandover, the Brute, the Blix, and The Octopus (1901).

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Benjamin Franklin Norris can be considered an American novelist, whose writing style consisted primarily towards a genre of naturalist context during the Progressive epoch. Although he was not an advocate of socialism on a political scheme, his writings nonetheless have evolved on the premise on the mentality of a socialist system and were significantly influenced by the progressive/ socialist writers, for instance Upton Sinclair. His writings were also greatly influenced by the concepts of Darwinism, and the philosophical argument of Thomas Henry Huxley.

The eventual hero of the novel “The Octopus”, Presley, was a writer who significantly identified himself with the besieged farmers of wheat at California against the “octopus-laden tentacle” Pacific Southern Railroad. The country’s capability to generate agricultural profusion seemed to be infinite, being susceptible to the interference and eminent greed of the existing laws that relatively favored the rich, such as the Pacific Southern Railroad. The novel took place on the valley of San Joaquin where the farmers of the wheat struggled to develop and grow crops, and eventually sell them to generate income, was being harassed by the overstated prices by the conglomerations of giant railroad companies: the term “octopus” was referred to represent this. The management of the railroad attempted to overtake the possession of a land the wheat farmers have been cultivating for a period of considerable time, thus enforcing them to defend the land. The representative of the wheat farmers were Magnus Derrick, the leader of the Farmer’s League, whose reluctance had helped the farmers to fight in the struggle for the retention of their land and the consequent low freight rate cost (Norris 1986). The pertinent defend of the land had lead to the annihilation of several characters on the plot such as Hooven, Annixter, and even Derrick, as well as their respective families. Presley’s determination to write his poet had actually led him to witness such brutalities committed by the railroad company. His hard work to help the besieged farmers has gone as far as relatively bombing the building alongside the railroad, but despite of such the harsh action could not correct the brutality and the injustice of the situation. The writer finally concluded that the laws governing the economics of a state, which men eventually could not change, have determined the conditions beneath which they must actually exist.

The eminent annihilation of the characters on the novel, the Octopus, was actually based on the Tragedy at Mussel Slough in1880. This involved a gory struggle or conflict between the law agents protecting the Pacific Southern Railroad and the ranchers. The main issue of the conflict was the relative ownership of the aforementioned ranches, upon which the farmers had rented or leased from the railroad company during the span of nearly ten years with the purpose of eventually buying the land. The original price of the land was priced at $2.50 up to $5 for every acre, but the railroad company had eventually adjusted or increases the amount that lead to the conflict as depicted on the novel.

After the incident, the author has reluctantly decided to research on the tragedy. On the succeeding months, he vigorously visited the incident’s location and substantially worked on the nearby farms, obtaining first hand information and insights on the life of the wheat farmers. He then returned to New York and wrote the novel, The Octopus, which had eventually gained success upon its publishing in April 1901.

Figure 1. The Octopus: A California Story

Since the plot depicted a true story, the characters on the novel played a vital role in representing the event as concisely as possible. The significant characters were the following:

Presley is a writer/poet that is continuously searching for a scheme, and also an assessor of the dilemma among the railroad company and the ranchers. The character of Presley signifies a parallel context to that of the author, wherein he later discussed the plight of the farmers that brought interests on the public regarding the issue.

Magnus Derrick is the owner of the ranch, El Rancho de los Muertos that significantly represented the integrity of the preceding generations as literally being opposed to the present or modern deceitful attitudes of the youth as depicted by the League of Ranchers and of the Railroad Company.

Harran Derrick is the son of Magnus Derrick who perpetually persuaded Magnus to lead the League. He, alongside with his father, become members of the League’s inner circle.

Lyman Derrick is also a son of Magnus Derrick and is a lawyer on the north of San Francisco. He is the lawyer of the Farmer’s League against the Railroad Company, which decided to transport the rates.

Annixter is the operator and owner of another ranch, the Quien Sabe Rancho. He is an impulsive, young, and established bachelor wherein during the duration of the novel had eventually matured to become a selfless, and soft-hearted individual primarily due to his interest to Hilma Tree, a member of the League’s inner circle.

Vanamee is a long-time companion of Presley who had been wandering around the different ranches since the tragic death of her love interest, Angele Varian. On the novel, she worked at the Mission San Juan de Guadalajara where Varian had been killed.

S. Behrman, eloquently reviled by the ranchers due to his representation to the railroad company, is also a real estate agent, a banker, and an influential politician.

Other significant characters on the plot include Hoove, Hilma Tree, Dyke, Osterman, Delaney, Cedarquist, Father Sarria, and Annie Derrick.

Although the book rises to supremacy at some point on the story, it is considered a vociferous, ostentatious work, unsophisticated in its explanation of the relative individual motivations. The author has planned the novel to be the first part of the trilogy named “The Epic of the Wheat”, while the second part is also a novel, “Pit”, based on the Chicago grain exchange. The “Octopus” is based on a true story regarding the tragedy in Mussel Slough in 1880 wherein it involved the conflict on the land ownership between the ranchers and the Pacific Southern Railroad. It depicted the author’s point of view on political economics, and its apparent effects on small individuals who were helpless to fight for their right.

The novels of Frank Norris can be considered to be powerful and concise illustrations of a literary faction or movement that took event on the turn around of the 19th century, referred to as the American naturalism. His novel served as a response against the bloated prose, as well as the idealistic principles that eventually had marked majority of the American books or novels that relatively came earlier. Afterwards, the preceding genre of writers focused on the insensitive realities of modern living. Considering the present standards, Frank Norris’s works or characters may be somewhat idealistic, and the context of the plot also seem artificial, his work can be considered groundbreaking on the concept of the demeaning effects of capitalism.


Frank Norris (1986). The Octopus: A California Story. Penguin Classics.


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