Wednesday, October 17, 2012
The Octopus by Frank Norris
The Great American Novel
Literary scholars often debate the existence of the “Great American Novel”—one work of literature that authentically encapsulates the American experience. This mythical work does exist, and has been around for more than a century. It is The Octopus by Frank Norris, originally published in 1901. Based on the real-life incident of the Mussel Slough Tragedy, The Octopus tells the story of a conflict between a group of California wheat ranchers and an all-powerful railroad corporation. Set in the farmlands of Tulare County, California, the novel features an indelible ensemble of characters, among them Magnus Derrick, the elder statesman of impeccable integrity; Buck Annixter, the irascible but good-hearted ranch owner; Hooven, the German immigrant and war veteran; Vanamee, the ascetic drifter and mystical prophet; and Presley, the surrogate for Norris himself, an educated, city-bred poet who immerses himself among these country folk in search of his great, as yet unwritten “Epic of the West.” The railroad, not content to gouge the ranchers with their exorbitant shipping rates, sets out to snatch the very land itself. When the ranchers resolve to defend their homes and livelihood, an altercation arises which produces tragic consequences.
The Octopus deserves the designation of Great American Novel not only for its exceptional literary merit, but also because it deals with issues that are quintessentially American—a person’s right to own land, the right to derive a living from that land, and conversely, the right to pursue great wealth, even at the expense of others. The scope of the novel encompasses the realms of business, agriculture, the press, the arts, politics, and family. It celebrates the beauty of nature, the triumph of love, and the defiance of the human spirit. Whether depicting the small dramas of everyday life or the cataclysmic clash of inevitable forces, Norris’s writing is perfect throughout. As the foremost representative of the Naturalist school in American literature, Norris showcases his preternatural ability to accurately depict nature and society in almost photographic detail, yet he also displays a Romanticist’s penchant for larger-than-life events and heroic conflict. The result is a gripping novel of ordinary people faced with extraordinary circumstances.
Some critics complain that the stoic, fatalistic tone of the book’s epilogue betrays the fiery social consciousness that precedes it. Fellow “muckrakers” like Jack London or Upton Sinclair would have ended the book with a socialist polemic, but Norris refuses to take the easy way out and rightly realizes that such an anthemic ending would belie the book’s realism. When one character does seek a socialistic solution to the railroad problem, Norris immediately points out the folly of such a simplistic answer. The Octopus was influenced heavily by the French author Emile Zola’s masterwork Germinal, which tells the story of a coal miners’ strike. Like Zola, Norris primarily concentrates on the plight of the working class, but also allows the opposing side to be heard, objectively acknowledging that the dispute is not so cut and dried as it appears. The conflict between the railroad and farmers is not merely one of predator and prey, but a manifestation of universal forces which operate above and beyond the lives and deaths of these characters.
Though the famous corporate trusts of the 19th century have come and gone, the struggle between big business and the individual continues, and The Octopus is still relevant. Due to its charged political content, it will probably never be required reading in high school English classes, but it should be. This novel is a masterpiece and should be ready by all.
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