I just finished reading The Octopus: A Story of California, by Frank Norris. It was an amazing portrayal of the plight of the farmers in California’s Central Valley, struggling against the injustice of the railroad, an octopus-like monster reaching its tentacles into every corner of the farmers’ land. When the railroad tries to take the farmers’ land out from under them and raise shipping prices so they have no profits left, a group of them forms a League to fight the railroad. Meanwhile, Norris portrays beautiful details of the farmers’ private lives, such as the hardened and coarse Annixter falling in love with a woman, marrying her, and changing his ways to become more caring towards others because of his love for her.
But in the end, the farmers lose to the railroad. One farmer, an ex-engineer, becomes so disheartened by losing his profits to the railroad, that he holds up a train and steals its money. He is caught and sent to prison for life. Later, the League goes to meet the railroad men, financiers, and deputies coming to take their land. When a man on horseback accidentally knocks down one of the farmers, the others think he was intentionally attacked and begin firing. The deputies return fire and kill most of the main characters. The railroad men survive.
This killing leaves the wives and families of the farmers alone and without means of survival. One of the wives ends up begging on the streets of San Francisco and finally dies of starvation, with her small child still complaining she is hungry and her mother has no food for her. Meanwhile, the children of the railroad men are surrounded by opulence and delicacies of every kind. It is ironic how children are born into the world, some with great privilege, others with great burdens they must carry from their parents, and they must form their lives based on that.
But in a telling twist of fate, the financier of the railroad visits his new grain elevator where wheat pours into the hold. While looking at the wheat, he falls in and is drowned by an ever-falling cascade of wheat that raises higher and higher until he is buried in it. This suggests that fate, God, or perhaps merely a larger force of life, causes people to meet their just ends, being punished by the very thing they used to punish other people.
I would recommend this book to others, for its eloquent style and writing, its beautiful descriptions of the characters’ personal lives intermingled with more pedestrian concerns of farm life, and the sweeping plotting moving to an exciting climax with the confrontations that occur in Book II. It shows the despair that the railroad drives the farmers to, to the point that they think the only thing the railroad does listen to or is frightened of is “the people with dynamite in their hands.” It shows the beauty of a farmer who is also an artist, who retouches and improves his poetry so that he forgets the agitation of his struggles and becomes absorbed in writing a great poem. It shows the sadness of the ex-engineer’s loving mother, who bewails that her son has turned to crime against the railroad, saying, “They drove him and goaded him till he couldn’t stand it any longer, and now they mean to kill him for turning on them.” It shows the tininess of humans and their concerns, compared to the “great, majestic, silent ocean of the Wheat itself,” which humans can barely affect. It shows how one farmer feels “Everything to which he had set his mind failed—his great epic, his efforts to help the people who surrounded him, even his attempted destruction of the enemy, all these had come to nothing.” And yet for all this floundering and tragedy, frustration and failure, Norris portrays an underlying good force that continues on, balancing out all the negativity of people’s lives. Some may call this God, others fate, or others merely a good “force” that Norris refers to. It any event, the novel suggests there is hope for us all even when temporarily evil may appear to have overwhelmed us.