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The Octopus: A Story of California (The Epic of the Wheat #1)

3.8  ·  Rating Details ·  1,324 Ratings  ·  120 Reviews
Like the tentacles of an octopus, the tracks of the railroad reached out across California, as if to grasp everything of value in the state Based on an actual, bloody dispute between wheat farmers and the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1880, The Octopus is a stunning novel of the waning days of the frontier West. To the tough-minded and self-reliant farmers, the monopolistic ...more
Paperback, 688 pages
Published August 1st 1994 by Penguin Classics (first published 1901)
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Jan 30, 2010 max rated it really liked it
Shelves: novels
I read this novel years ago after an undergraduate English professor kept mentioning it in a survey class I took on American literature of the 19th and early 20th centuries. It was not an assigned text, though it was one that he clearly favored. I liked the professor very much; he was an impressively learned old school man who lectured with confident ease on a broad canvas about philosophical, political, and social currents that formed the backdrop of whatever works we happened to be reading.

Richard Derus
Nov 16, 2011 Richard Derus rated it liked it
This book merits three stars based on historical interest alone. It's not Norris's best writing by a long shot, that honor belonging to "McTeague" (in this writer's never-humble opinion), and it's further evidence if any was needed that the loss to American letters that Norris's death at 32 was immense.

The imagination that Norris evidenced in his six-book career is sharp. He saw clearly the world around him, and wasn't about to let the Great Unwashed fail to see it with his clarity. His infelici
Sarah Beaudoin
Sep 09, 2010 Sarah Beaudoin rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
Prior to beginning The Octopus, the only thing I knew about Frank Norris was that his novel The Pit inspired Upton Sinclair to write The Jungle (I don't know if this is true but the four years between the two books makes it seem plausible). Thus I went into The Octopus with a fairly open mind.

I loved it.

It is not an easy book to read; the events it is based upon are not happy ones. The Octopus covers a period in California history where the railroads wielded an enormous amount of power not only
Beth Cato
Apr 11, 2012 Beth Cato rated it liked it
News stories about Occupy Wall Street and the 99% have dominated the headlines for the past year. These same themes also dominate this century-old book, which was a bestseller in 1901. Here, the Octopus is the Railroad, its tentacles suffocating and destroying the lives of hardworking ranchers and their families.

This book is also personal for me. It's based on real events that happened around 1880 in central California, only miles away from where I grew up a century later. The Southern Pacific l
Jan 07, 2009 sdw rated it really liked it
Shelves: fiction
"How long must it go on? How long must we suffer? Where is the end: what is the end? How long must the ironhearted monster feed on our life's blood? How long must this terror of steam and steel ride upon our necks? Will you never be satisfied, will you never relent, you, our masters, you, our kings, you, our taskmasters, you, our Pharaohs? Will you never listen to that commandment Let my people go?"

This book is an epic of Wheat in California. And I mean it - an EPIC of WHEAT. I enjoyed it more
King Wenclas
Apr 29, 2015 King Wenclas rated it it was amazing
Not just a great American novel-- this book is THE great American novel, in its scope, its understanding of the American character and of the forces which have shaped the American civilization. The leading figures of the narrative, on both sides of the dispute, are risk-takers. Most of them are quite ruthless-- Presley the poet and Vanamee the mystic the chief exceptions. It's Frank Norris's genius that he makes us care about a man like Annixter despite his hardness and ruthlessness. Annixter an ...more
Apr 26, 2010 pearl rated it really liked it
I read this for my 8th grade US History class.
And let me tell you, it is fucking Epic with a capital E. Sure it's slow and dry at times (want better/worse, go read Steinbeck). But I can't tell you how absolutely monstrous this thing is. How much you begin to fear and realize the magnitude of the "Californian Dream", how merciless it is in scope, that it will crush a man and *his* dreams, to make it real.

It comes full circle at the end, in a case of crazy-perfect justice.

The Wheat of course, Win
Jun 19, 2007 Kelly rated it it was ok
The railroad is bad. Especially in the 1880s. It is the destroyer of souls, the devil's most exquisite instrument of torture. That's about all I got for getting through this slog. It was fine. It wasn't offensive. But that's about the best compliment I can give it.
Feb 11, 2017 David rated it it was ok
Congratulations, Norris, you wrote an epic. It was one of the most clumsy, pointless, and bloated epics I've ever read, but it was still an epic. Seriously, I would have cut this book down to 1/3, maybe even 1/5. The words all joined, but everything was completely foreseeable from the beginning. From the first few pages I was just looking to get it done. It said what it had to say quickly and then went on and on and on. I expected a great, great deal more after having read McTeague. This was so ...more
Mar 31, 2013 Kim rated it really liked it
The Octopus: A Story of California is a 1901 novel by Frank Norris. I loved this book, it was awesome (I say that alot though). It was the first part of an uncompleted trilogy, The Epic of the Wheat. The Epic of the Wheat sounds so boring but I didn't find it boring at all.

Frank Norris was an American author born in Chicago. It doesn't seem like he stayed there long though. He also lived in California, London, New York and Paris, he worked as a news correspondent in South Africa and as a war cor
Feb 24, 2017 Henry rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: classic
A great American epic, written by a twentysomething; my word, I thought I was too old to just find a book by chance from a second hand stall, one I had never heard of and having my mind BLOWN. My great hero John Steinbeck will read like Mills and Boon to me now, this is the top shelf stuff. Maybe it needs time to give my real judgement but at the moment this does not feel a great American novel, but THE great one.

An ex journalist attempting to write the great ambitious novel of its time, part of
Jim Leckband
Jun 17, 2014 Jim Leckband rated it it was amazing
Has anyone identified a genre of fiction called "California Disillusionment"? In other words, where California Dreaming becomes California Screaming? "The Octopus: A Story of California" would be a centerpiece, along with The Grapes of Wrath and a book I read while I was reading this one: The Circle. And of course there are all those Hollywood novels, such as The Day of the Locust.

The book that I kept being reminded of when I was reading this was "The Grapes of Wrath". The sense of place and the
Mark McKenna
Mar 28, 2011 Mark McKenna rated it liked it
I marked "The Octopus" as 'finished' but I quit at page 335. I knew this to be a famous work that was a factor in inspiring lawmakers to break the monopoly of the railroad, the octopus in the title. But I found the book to be a maudlin exercise in purple prose that had more historic than literary interest for me.

There was an interesting sub-plot surrounding 'Vanamee' a wandering prophet-like character who is mourning the mysterious death of his young lover, Angele Varian, a tragedy that happened
For quite some time i was going to give this 3 stars due to historical importance, but, my god, the Truth is this is an awesomely unpleasant reading experience. Seemingly endless pages of purple prose. There are bits and pieces of not quite greatness, but at least potential. The end of the first chapter, for example, was jaw droppingly good. I forgave quite a lot after that scene got it's hooks into me. But, after reading a bunch of creepy Annixter/Hilma scenes, I was done making allowances.

Mar 09, 2013 Vincent rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: most people
This was an interesting novel - and I was able to research it somewhat in that it was based upon a real incident in 1880 - Mussel Slough Tragedy - and the book was written in 1901. Norris, who was young and died soon afterward had been a journalist and I think that very possibly the news stories from only 20 years before he published the book were likely very helpful

He develops a variety of characters with an interesting variety of roles and histories and problems and fates.

This is a book very m
Mar 15, 2013 Murray rated it it was amazing
"The Octopus" is mentioned several times in the last book I read, "The Inventor and the Tycoon". Since I was a big fan of Norris' "McTeague", I decided to tackle this sweeping drama. Although the book is painfully slow in the beginning, it is well worth completing. Norris must have been inspired by Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables", as "The Octopus" delves into the lives of the Northern California farmers whose lives are held in the balance by the greedy railroad tycoons. The characters are extreme ...more
Jul 26, 2014 Mark rated it it was amazing
Shelves: fiction
I don't know why people called this book "flawed" back in the twentieth century. Perhaps because it has a somewhat sympathetically Marxist tone. However, it's also an excellent picture of what the giant robber barons like Stanford & Co were really LIKE- and the struggle of ordinary people against a corporate monster, too big for true human comprehension, but at best, built to serve the few at the expense of the many. It's a bit Dickensian and also prefigures Jack London, who must have loved ...more
Apr 21, 2008 Joe rated it it was ok
This is not a well written book, but historically it was important for getting people to hate the railroad barons um....more than they already did.

At one point a woman starves to death for something like twenty pages. That's almost all I can remember. This whole fucking book has little point other than RAILROAD BAD. The railroad expands and people go about their piddly lives and then a bunch of people get screwed over but it's sooo hamfisted. Norris was not a fan of subtlety. Too bad a great poi
Sep 08, 2007 John rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: everyone
I suspect this qualifies as a roman a clef (and a well-written one at that) as it takes a few well-aimed potshots at the great benefactor who founded my alma mater to honor his son. The railroad magnate Shelgrim in this novel lives on Nob Hill and has the initials L.S.

Great imagery and allusions to the early days of California. This author died too young.
Jan 16, 2008 Adam rated it it was ok
Prepare to wish you were reading a dry non-fiction history book about the railroads' effect on wheat farming in California instead of an "exciting" and "moving" novelization. This book is just a bunch of cardboard cutouts moving around in the semblance of a plot. Please, please don't get tricked into reading this book.
David Schwan
Jun 05, 2010 David Schwan rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: my-favorites
While Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" is placed as the great novel of California I would contend that "The Octopus" deserves the slot instead.
Jun 30, 2017 S M-B rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
The pessimism that is usually associated with the naturalistic novel is missing here. Characters falling, usually early in life, because of some personal flaw that is exaggerated by an unsympathetic environment are present in 'The Octopus' and most certainly do die early or are ruined. But a transcendental belief, expressed through Christian religious imagery and an invocation of Utilitarian philosophy, is offered as justification that all this ruin is for an ultimate good. The book is repetitiv ...more
Feb 20, 2017 Adam rated it liked it
Frank Norris is a frustrating writer, simultaneously grandiose in his singular attempt to fashion a material interconnectedness between things (-Norris' writing is oh so very thingy-) and limited by the prejudices of his imagination and social class. He displays a fierce compassion for the dispossessed, yet is able to write a sentence as racist and grotesque as: "The Anglo-Saxon spectators round about drew back in disgust, but the hot, degenerated blood of Portuguese, Mexican, and mixed Spaniard ...more
Patrick Sprunger
Jul 12, 2011 Patrick Sprunger rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction, read-in-2011
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
An excellent forgotten classic with brilliant character development and a powerful story. One character is a poet who thinks he is a thinker, but spends most of his time brooding. One character is a hard-headed attorney who won't let his emotional guard down, even for a pretty young lady. One character is just trying to do right for his young daughter; another dwells on the memory of his lost love. All are swept up in a battle for their homestead against the corporate overlords of the day--the r ...more
Nov 23, 2016 Gale rated it really liked it
“Ripples of Despair from Corporate Tentacles”

One of America’s most famous Muckraker books THE OCTOPUS, subtitled, “A Novel of California,” ranks as a no-holds-barred expose and condemnation of corporate greed and corruption--which ruined both lives, businesses and farms by instigating clever chicanery of a fictitious railroad (nominally, the Southern Pacific) whose callous owners became wealthy and powerful moguls at the expense of thousands of innocent peons. There was no recourse to the Cour
Apr 01, 2012 Matt rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Inspired by the events of the Mussel Slough tragedy.

"The Octopus" is ultimately a story about the lives of the characters during the conflict between the RR and the wheat farmers and not so much a story about the conflict itself. For me, it was a little disappointing; I wanted to learn more about the interworkings, politics and corruption of the RR and the conflict between the farmers and the RR. Mr. Norris uses the conflict as his inspiration, but seems to be more interested in writing an epic
Dec 27, 2010 Dirk rated it liked it
This novel recounts the struggle between the Southern Pacific Railroad (The Octopus), which had been given generous grants of land by the U. S. Government to encourage development, and wealthy wheat growers in the central valley of California around the end of the 19th century. It is a young man’s book, Norris died at 32 (of appendicitis), grand in scope, running to purple in prose, and steeped in unresolved political ideals. The plot is forceful and compelling. There is a fairly complex intrigu ...more
Aug 22, 2007 Cat rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Readers of Emile Zola
Certainly a novel with a capital "N", from a time when authors wrote grand, sweeping, "epics of the soil and those who work the soil". Norris was inspired by the work of French novelist Zola, which is funny because some of his harshest writing takes to task San Francisco society matrons attempting to appreciate French style landscape art.
I read this book after reading Kevin Starr's "Californians and the American Dream". While this novel does culminate in a retelling of the infamous "Mussel Sloug
Mar 06, 2015 Individualfrog rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Boring, turgid, preposterously depressing; failing even as polemic because even the evil railroad is depicted as being subject to forces beyond its own control (supply and demand! FFS), the one alternative political/social voice (Caraher the anarchist) is dismissed as a poisonous "red", and ending with some monstrous bullshit about how it all works out in the end because THE WHEAT. I would actually probably have enjoyed an unbiased account of this struggle between farmers and railroad (assuming ...more
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Benjamin Franklin Norris, Jr. was an American novelist, during the Progressive Era, writing predominantly in the naturalist genre. His notable works include McTeague (1899), The Octopus: A California Story (1901), and The Pit (1903). Although he did not openly support socialism as a political system, his work nevertheless evinces a socialist mentality and influenced socialist/progressive writers s ...more
More about Frank Norris...

Other Books in the Series

The Epic of the Wheat (2 books)
  • The Pit: A Story of Chicago

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“Always blame conditions, not men” 11 likes
“If I were to name the one crying evil of American life, Mr. Derrick, it would be the indifference of the better people to public affairs. It is so in all our great centres. There are other great trusts, God knows, in the United States besides our own dear P. and S.W. Railroad. Every state has its own grievance. If it is not a railroad trust, it is a sugar trust, or an oil trust, or an industrial trust, that exploits the People, because the people allow it. The indifference of the People is the opportunity of the despot. It is as true as that the whole is greater than the part, and the maxim is so old that it is trite - it is laughable. It is neglected and disused for the sake of some new ingenious and complicated theory, some wonderful scheme of reorganization, the fact remains, nevertheless, simple, fundamental, everlasting. The People have but to say 'No' and not the strongest tyranny, political, religious, or financial, that was ever organized, could survive one week.” 4 likes
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