The Octopus - Review

At the turn of the century, American readers were interested only in stories with happy endings, where goodness was praised and evil was punished. They did not particularly care if that was a false interpretation of the way life really was. When men such as Frank Norris, the author of The Octopus, wrote angrily of the injustices and poverty to be found in America, readers turned away. The Octopus made them change their minds. The course of the novel and the reality of its characters held the readers? attention. It is so powerful a book that people had to care about the wheat growers, almost against their wishes. The impact did not end in the early twentieth century, but continues its legacy into the new millenium.

The Octopus, depicts the conflict between farmers and the railroad over land and power in California. The conflict between these two is revealed through the perspectives of several different groups, each viewing it their own way and offering differing ways to solve or overcome this problem. Norris uses this story as an example to show what he feels is the most important ethical dilemma of his time.

The Pacific and South West railroad (P. and S.W.) was the cause of the crisis, and as the crisis built up, they saw it as an opportunity to make even more money off of the farmers. The company, in their selfish desire for wealth, continually cheated the farmers, first promising to sell them railroad land at a relatively low price, and then after the farmers greatly improved the land, unreasonably raised the price. In addition rates of transportation, for the farmers to transport their crops away to be sold was also raised. Their solution to the crisis was to keep magnifying it, until it ruined the farmers.

Once the railroad raised the price for the land, the farmers could not afford to buy. They proceeded to create "dummy buyers," fictitious settlers who they created to come in and buy the land. Soon after Delany, a ranch worker was fired, the railroad used him to act as a "dummy buyer" and buy the land. There was no way Delany could actually afforded to buy the land on his own; he was obviously acting as the railroad?s pawn, sent to aggravate the ranchers who leased farms from the railroad.

The railroad also tampered with other types of characters in the story. Dyke was fired from his job at the railroad after he refused to work for the rates of a man doing half the work he was doing. Then after Dyke mortgaged his land to the railroad, they raised the rates on the crop he was producing. They drove him to poverty and when he tried to take back what they had stolen from him by robbing money from one of their trains, they had him thrown in jail for life. This is another example of how Norris evinces the railroads unethical treatment of the common man in California at the time.

Shelgrim, the executive of the P. and S.W. tried to justify the railroad?s actions, and in a way, pass on the responsibility, by calling the railroad a force, something that he had no control over. In the novel, he compared this force to the way that wheat was a force, saying that "supply and demand" was the only thing that governed these forces. He is a prime example of the popular thought of the time, social Darwinism. Social Darwinism is the belief in Darwin?s theory of the survival of the fittest. Many social Darwinists argue that governments should not interfere with human competition by trying to control the economy or cure social ills such as poverty (Encarta). Instead, they advocate a laissez-faire political and economic system that favors competition and self-interest in social and business affairs. Most advocates propose arguments that justify imbalances of power between individuals, races, and nations because they consider some people more fit to survive than others. This is exactly what Shelgrim did. He explains that the unfortunate events that took place are beyond his control and that it is the economic system, which governs all that happens with the railroad.

The most important moral dilemma that Norris is trying to express is that the Trusts, the monopolies of his time, were in outright control of the public?s