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The Octopus: A Story of California

(The Epic of the Wheat #1)

3.82  ·  Rating details ·  1,663 ratings  ·  156 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 January 1st 1901)
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Average rating 3.82  · 
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P. Lundburg
Sep 30, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: classics

This was my third time reading this book. I first read it for an American Lit survey course in college, and something about Norris' tenacious and unwavering passion for truth on a grand scale pulled my 20-something idealism in a new direction. In particular, there's a thread of social justice that elevates this book from being a good story to a poignant social statement.

The story revolves around the growth of the railroad industry. At a time when the expansion of the railroads was being heralded
Jan 30, 2010 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 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 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
Mar 31, 2013 rated it really liked it
The Octopus: A Story of California is a 1901 novel by Frank Norris. I loved this book. It was the first part of an uncompleted trilogy, titled, The Epic of the Wheat. The Epic of the Wheat sounds so boring, but I didn't find it boring at all, at least not the first book, by the time the wheat is made into bread and biscuits and all that kind of thing, who knows, perhaps I'll be bored.

Frank Norris was an American author born in Chicago. It doesn't seem like he stayed there long though. He also li
Beth Cato
Apr 11, 2012 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 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
Jun 19, 2007 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. ...more
Julie Mickens
Dec 31, 2019 rated it really liked it
Based on a true story of a violent conflict between the railroad and California wheat ranchers in the San Joaquin valley, The Octopus is a big, baggy amalgam of naturalism, regionalism, sentimental novel, political novel and historical dramatization. Just because you may have heard of it being associated with "naturalism," don't be fooled. This turn-of-the-20th-century book has more in common with Dickens or Stowe than, for instance, Richard Wright or even Stephen Crane. It's really striking how ...more
Mar 15, 2013 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
Jim Leckband
Jun 17, 2014 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
King Wenclas
Apr 29, 2015 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
Again, read only a bit for school. No rating or review.
Mark McKenna
Mar 28, 2011 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
In the late 1800's, the state of California awarded a monopoly to the Railroad to build a rail line down the length of the Central California Valley. As an incentive, the Railroad was awarded large tracks of land along side the new rail line. The Railroad invited farmers to settle on the Railroad land, promising that they would be sold the land at some future time.

This story concerns the plight of these farmers as they farm the rich farmland, but find themselves at the mercy of the powerful Ra
Jul 26, 2014 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 it. ...more
Apr 26, 2010 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
I feel like I've been reading this for years. It's like Frank Norris decided one day he was going to write an epic and didn't particularly care what it was about (much like the character Presley and his 'Song of the West').

Overall I found this similar in story and tone to The Grapes of Wrath, only it's the Railroad (the titular Octopus) squeezing out mid-sized farms rather than the Bank and Big Farm squeezing out the poor farmer. It's obvious who you are supposed to side with, and yet Norris dep
Apr 03, 2018 rated it liked it
Ranches v railroad, republican values v monopoly capitalism, romance v realism.
Feb 24, 2017 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
Mar 09, 2013 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
Sir He-Man
Apr 21, 2008 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
Jun 26, 2015 rated it liked it
Frank Norris is one of those once-renowned, and now largely forgotten, authors. This book is alright. Some of the scenes are really well done -- most notably Norris' description of night of the barn dance. But I found Vanamee's character and mystical musings a bunch of annoying gobbledygook that really weakened the story overall for me.

It is interesting ... for being a seemingly political book, its message is all over the place, with its main protagonist, Presley, pretty much jumping back and f
Feb 11, 2017 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
Sep 08, 2007 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 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. ...more
Michael Ritchie
Dec 14, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
1901 novel about the struggle of the "little guy" settlers/farmers against the cold-hearted corporate "octopus" of the railroads who essentially took over land that had been worked by the farmers for years. It's a social issue novel but it has characters you care about, solid writing, and near the end, a fairly even-handed assessment of the bad guys. ...more
David Schwan
Jun 05, 2010 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. ...more
Bob Newman
Oct 16, 2017 rated it really liked it
ranchers, railroads, rebellion, redemption, and revenge

Prolixity, thy name is Norris ! My edition of 448 pages says that it has been edited. I would have been interested to know in what way because Norris is nothing if not verbose and repetitive. Add a healthy dose of 19th century idealistic, rosy romanticism, a bit of extra-sensory perception, communication with "shades", melodramatic deaths, and some old Anglo-Saxon racial prejudices and one would think, "Bob, why did you bother ?"
But you wo
With more carnage and destruction than a typical Rambo movie, “The Octopus” shows the battle of the farmers against the railroad, but serves as a comparable stand in for the little guy against big business. As Norris writes it, there are winners and losers, but even the winners face a deserved bad ending. I found the story here more depressing than my normal fare, but it’s what I expect from Norris. In Norris’ “McTeague” the dentist main character tells others “don’t make small of me”. That same ...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

Other books in the series

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

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