If I were teaching a class on naturalism, The Octopus would certainly be one of the best assignments I could make. By the end of this novel, Norris has thumped his readers over the head with his overarching philosophical theme. The octopus of the title is the railroad, its tentacles spreading out into every aspect of modern life, having sway, killing and making itself ever more powerful and ever richer.
Enter wheat--you know, the stuff we make bread from. Large landholders in central California intend to make a fortune from it, but bad years have kept them down--and the railroad, which controls the prices they can get for their grain by controlling the cost of delivering it. Rich men fighting richer men, one might sum the story up as, but the rich man are certain underdogs. The richer men control the government--the politicians and the courts and the newspapers that report on those things. The railroads, as it turns out, also control the land, so these landholders aren't owners of much.
It took me some time to get into this book, but eventually it did manage to enthrall. I found myself drawn to the tale of intrigue among the landholders as they tried to wrestles control of their crop from the railroad, not so drawn to the sentimental love stories Norris feels compelled to include. And yet, there's something in these love stories. The men fight, sans ethics, but the women, as many would have touted in Norris's day, soften the men and are the men's voice of conscience.
Where the naturalism comes in is this. Late in the novel, when it's clear just how much Norris seems to hate the railroad--and corporatism--one of his characters goes to visit the railroad's CEO. The CEO, as hated as he is, turns out to be a rather caring person, and his excuse for treating the farmers so badly is that if he doesn't make a profit, he'll go out of business. In other words, the CEO says, "It's not my fault. It's the system." All of the characters fall prey to "the force"--they are powerless before it. Though Norris's sympathies seem to lie with the farmers, I wonder if his farmer characters, placed in the same situation of power would have acted much differently than their railroad counterparts. One thinks not, as is hinted at when Magnus Derrick, the lead farmer, says something to the effect of what will happen when they gain control of the land.
The force that Norris speaks of is bound up in the wheat itself, which grows up each year to be reaped and than dies and is sown again. All men are helpless before death, and yet life goes on, so that death is really an illusion--we're just part of a natural process. We can't fight it. We just have to accept it and live in it and accept the role we've been handed to play. A rather bleak vision, with some truth to it, though in the end, I choose to believe we do have some choices. Even if in the face of death, they might not mean much, we don't have to treat each other as the people in the novel treat one another.
You can download the book here at Project Gutenberg.