Facets of The Octopus
In Frank Norris’ first installment of his intended three part series on wheat, and the crop’s far reaching global implications, The Octopus: A Story of California, the author adapts the events and circumstances surrounding the 1880 Mussel Slough tragedy to paint the picture of the historically rugged and prospecting American west’s collision with large industrial capital and monopolized industry; specifically the railways of the Southern Pacific Rail Company. Norris adopts, and in some ways pioneers the naturalist style of writing at the turn of the twentieth-century, but The Octopus is not merely a work of fiction; the novel provides a realist perspective to a complex period of the American frontier’s history. While depicting this unique period of the American frontier, Norris is however, guilty of tailoring certain characters to fit his purposes, and taking advantage of his control of the reader’s emotions, specifically interpretations of good and evil, to align readers with his views of the betrayal of the farming industry by the unstoppable force of the rail industry. The book opens with an introduction to a set of grain farms in the San Joaquin Valley of California. Readers are introduced to Presley, a young man well-educated at an eastern college who chose to live on one of the local ranches, Los Muertos, due, in part, to the cleanliness of the air after nearly dying of tuberculosis. Presley is a writer, but at the beginning of the novel, he states that his artistic inspiration has all but failed him, also playing a hand in his relocation to the Valley. “He was in search of a subject; […] he did not know exactly what; some vast, tremendous theme, heroic, terrible…” (Norris, 33) Presley will grow to be the most prevalent character in the book, and he would eventually find his inspiration, and make himself, and through him Norris’ viewpoint heard. As Norris introduces Presley and other characters, he also lays the historic foundation for the plot of the novel. Norris writes of the landscape of the farms, adding historical background all the while. He describes Presley’s daytime bicycle ride through the farmland of the Valley, and through Presley’s eyes, he tells the reality of farming in California. The land in the San Joaquin was settled due in large part to the laying of rails in the area. The government worked a deal with the rail company that would allow the railway to own half of the plots within a twenty mile radius of the tracks, in return for laying them. This land, however, was not very well suited for much, especially farming due to the lack of irrigation. Because of this, the rail company offered much of their undeveloped land to settlers, with the promise of allowing them to purchase this land at rates as low as $2.50 per acre later. The allure of the west, and the spirit of the frontier yielded interest from many, but profits for this group were contingent not only on the success of the crop, which at the time of the novel was doing poorly from lack of irrigation, but also on the logistics involved in transporting it, and by extension, the railways. As Presley rode along on his bicycle delivering mail on his way to the old town of Guadalajara, he mused on the manifestations of the issue of climate: “After the harvest, small though that harvest had been, the ranches seemed asleep. […] There was no rain, there was no wind, there was no growth, no life; the very stubble had no force even to rot. […] [On] the […] only [division of the ranch] whereon the wheat had been successful, [this was] no doubt because of the Little Mission Creek that ran through it.” (Norris, 44-47) Clearly, the ranchers would have to improve the land in order to reap any benefit from it, but in a leaflet distributed by the rail company advertising the land, the Southern and Pacific Rail Company stipulated that land prices would not be increased due to improvements...
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