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Octopus, The

The Pit, The Octopus

railroad novel wheat norris

a novel by Frank Norris, published in 1901, the first volume of a projected trilogy, ‘The Epic of the Wheat’, of which the only other volume is The Pit (1903). Generally considered his greatest novel, it dramatizes the struggle between California wheat ranchers and the railroad, the ‘octopus’ of the title, which transports the wheat. Norris drew directly on the events of the Mussel Slough ‘massacre’ of May 1880 when tensions between the agents of the Southern Pacific Railroad and the wheat farmers of Tulare County in the San Joaquin Valley erupted in open battle. In the novel the railroad is all-powerful and all encompassing: it raises transport rates without explanation, cuts wages despite its healthy profit margins, controls the local newspapers, and, to all intents and purposes, controls the courts and state government. The major character is Presley, an outsider who has come to California in the hope of writing a great poetic epic of America's Indian and Spanish past. Presley is a friend of many of the younger wheat ranchers, notably Harran Derrick and Annixter, and is inevitably drawn into the conflict between the farmers and the railroad; he puts aside his epic project and for much of the novel acts as the main commentator on the events of the story. Presley's role in the novel is balanced against that of Vanamee, a romanticized ‘shepherd prophet’ who provides a kind of Whitmanian overview of the action and whose interpretation of what he has seen, particularly in his final conversation with Presley, is echoed by Norris at the end of the novel. The Octopus has a number of subplots but at its centre is the confrontation between farmer and railroad which Norris imagistically renders as a battle between the wheat, ‘a mighty world force’, and the railroad, ‘a vast power, huge, terrible …’. Among the novel's many impressive set scenes is the brilliantly realized pitched battle at the end and the death of S. Behrman, the railroad agent, in a hold of wheat.

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