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Norris in the City of Destruction: The Octopus

Frank Norris draws his reader skillfully and deceitfully into the San Joaquin Valley. On first inspection, The Octopus seems like a straight anti-capitalist morality play, along the lines of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which appeared only five years later. Clearly, Norris picks a strange cast of heroes in the huge-scale ranchers such as Annixter or Magnus Derrick, but within the first chapters, we discover considerable reasons to appreciate these men and to loathe the greedy Pacific and South West Railroad (a thinly veiled Southern Pacific) with its Jabba-the-Hut-like representative, S. Behrman.

Before long, however, an attentive reader begins to realize that this case of good guys vs. bad guys might not be quite as simple as it might seem. First of all, as the ranchers face the loss of their lands, we recall that one rancher, their leader, Magnus Derrick, has pushed some of his tenants off their land. Then we remark on the very free use that these principled men make of their arch-enemy, the railroad. Why give the enemy unnecessary revenue? The actual reason is that these men are not quite as principled as they’d like to believe. As the story proceeds, the ranchers, whom we’ve come to admire and sympathize with, seem to have no more scruples than the railroad. Instead, they simply do not work the system nearly as well.

While Norris lures us into the opening pages of the novel with the appearance of social realism, I find myself, as the novel draws to a close, thinking of John Bunyan and Pilgrim’s Progress. Certainly there are a few scattered allegorical elements in this novel, probably the most notable of which lies in the title, describing the railroad as a grasping, sprawling octopus. However, Norris, rather than following Christian from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City, instead seems to drop us into the middle of Vanity Fair with the ranchers and the railroad people as the self-absorbed officials and citizens of the town.

Actually, there is a “Christian” character in the person of Presley, who features at the beginning and the end of the narrative. After the carnage at the irrigation ditch, Presley goes to visit Shelgrim, the CEO of the railroad. For all Presley’s eloquence, the actions and words of the railroad man render him mute and useless. He walks out of the railroad’s offices doubting virtually everything that he had held to be true despite the considerable evidence of the railroad’s evil influence. Here we find Presley in his version of a dungeon, facing the Giant of Despair and failing. Like Bunyan’s hero, Presley makes a water journey toward a new land at the close of the story. The boat carrying him, also carries the corpse of S. Behrman, undone by his own greed. Like Ignorance in Pilgrim’s Progress, Behrman plunges to his own Hell through an opening in the ground–or, in this case, a ship’s deck. Or perhaps the mystic, odd-man-out, Vanamee should be investigated as the Pilgrim. Like Bunyan’s hero, Vanamee keeps his face toward the Celestial City and on the true path. Since the denizens of Vanity Fair have no real interest in this route, they only encounter Vanamee on the rare occasions when he crosses their path.

Posted in American Literature, Naturalism.

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