Places: The Octopus

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1901

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Naturalism

Time of work: Late nineteenth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedEl Rancho de los Muertos

El Octopus, TheRancho de los Muertos. Largest ranch of the four San Joaquin Valley ranches in which the novel is set. Containing ten thousand acres of land, it is run by Magnus Derrick and his son, Harran. It consists of the home ranch, nestled in the north end in a grove of eucalyptus, oak, and cypress trees; two division houses; a tenant farmer’s house; and the house of Hooven, a German immigrant who farms a section of the ranch. The Derrick ranch home is a stately structure, containing many bedrooms, a large kitchen, an expansive dining room, a hallway with a glass ceiling, and an office–the center of the operation, in which telephones, a stock market ticker, and record books are kept. The house’s lawn is as well groomed as any city garden. The property also has a summer house Derrick has constructed for his mother.

The ranch reveals Derrick’s deep concern for respectability, integrity, and family. The dispersal of the family’s belongings onto the lawn reveals the great loss and fragmentation that result from the railroad’s seizure of the property at the novel’s end. At Hooven’s house, the farmers make a stand against the railroad’s occupation of the farms, resulting in the deaths of several farmers, including Hooven and Harran Derrick.

Quien Sabe Ranch

Quien Sabe Ranch. Farm run by young, contrary Buck Annixter, lying north of the Derrick ranch. It comprises Annixter’s ranch house and barns, and an artesian well that feeds the irrigation ditch. Annixter raises a new barn on the place in which he holds a dance, the most significant social event occurring on any of the ranches during the course of the book. His hard-driving ways are softened by his love for Hilma Tree, daughter of the family who operates Annixter’s dairy farm. Annixter’s compassion and benevolence extend far beyond his own interests, as after his wedding to Hilma, they take in the dispossessed Dyke family. The Quien Sabe becomes the warmest and most harmonious ranch of the four, epitomizing the novel’s vision of the powers of love and close connection to the land.

Osterman ranch

Osterman ranch and Broderson ranch. These ranches, which play less prominent roles than the other two, occupy the northwest sections of the novel’s wide, interconnected region of wheat farms. Both are given little treatment and do not serve as settings for any significant scenes. Nevertheless, they illustrate the vast sweep of the wheat-farming community. Osterman, a young, brash “poser,” does not live on the ranch but in a house in Bonneville. He farms simply as a way of making a living. Broderson, on the other hand, is an aging man, slipping into the twilight years with his wife on the farm they love and cherish. With these ranches, Norris reveals the diversity of farmers and farming life, and the interdependence of all wheat farms, regardless of their size or vitality.

San Juan Mission

San Juan Mission. Old Franciscan mission station run by Father Sarria, containing a bell tower and red-tiled roof. The interior consists of a great oblong of whitewashed adobe with a flat ceiling, lit by sanctuary lamps hung from three long chains. The walls bear pictures of the Stations of the Cross. A graveyard and garden are on the grounds. In the garden, Father Sarria grows vegetables and wheat and maintains a vineyard. The produce of his gardening provides for communion and sustenance for downtrodden inhabitants of the valley.

The mission’s nurturing of the land connects the church with the wheat farmers in a fundamental manner, and reveals Norris’s ultimate vision of the sanctity of the earth’s natural abundance. In the mission’s garden, the wanderer Vanamee first met his only love, Angéle, who was killed by a murderer never identified. When he returns to the garden after years of long and sorrowful wandering, Vanamee receives a vision of Angéle. Through these scenes, Norris again creates an inseparable link between human spirituality and nature, sanctifying both in the process.

Guadalajara

Guadalajara (gwah-thah-lah-HAH-rah). Fictional California town that was vibrant in the days of Spanish and Mexican rule. Now dying, it was constructed when the novel’s wheat farms were part of a Spanish land grant. The quiet town has a drug store, two saloons, a hotel, and a few shops for tourists who come to visit the mission. The inhabitants are relics of a former generation whose way of life is slipping away as the town loses commerce to Bonneville and the railroad. Through Guadalajara, Norris reveals the railroad’s capacity to ruin the lives of people other than the farmers.

Bonneville

Bonneville. Burgeoning California railroad town between San Francisco and Fresno that has three newspapers, numerous commercial buildings, a train station, and a city opera house. One of the newspapers, the Mercury, is manipulated by the railroad and blackmails Magnus Derrick. At the opera house, farmers hold a town meeting after their violent conflict with the railroad. There, Derrick is shouted down and disgraced by accusations of bribery printed in the Mercury. Although the accusations are true, Magnus and the other wheat farmers view winning control of the railroad commission as their only hope of survival, an attitude approved by the novel. This attack, following the deaths of his neighbors and son, is the final devastation for Derrick, so completely defeating him that he later takes a job with the railroad.

*San Francisco

*San Francisco. Northern California port city that is home to Lyman Derrick, eldest son of Magnus, who leaves farming to become a lawyer. His political aspirations encourage him to conspire with the railroad against the interests of his own family, demonstrating the power of cities to corrupt people removed from the land. The city is also home to the Cedarquists, ineffectual supporters of the arts, who are also so removed from the land and reality that while their artistic tastes may be refined, their human sympathy and understanding are significantly deficient.

*Port Costa

*Port Costa. California port city twenty miles from San Francisco, where the corrupt railroad agent S. Behrman boards a ship hauling wheat, slips into its hold, and is suffocated to death. This ironic ending provides the novel with a measure of poetic justice, despite its naturalistic tendencies.

Caraher’s Saloon

Caraher’s Saloon. Saloon outside Bonneville operated by Caraher, a pronounced anarchist, who encourages Dyke to take action against the railroad that has fired him. Dyke robs a train of its gold but is eventually caught and sentenced to life in jail, another indication of the strength of the railroad.

BibliographyDavison, Richard A., ed. The Merrill Studies in “The Octopus.” Columbus: C. E. Merrill Co., 1969. A collection of essays on the novel. Included are contemporary reviews and personal letters of Norris relevant to the book’s composition.French, Warren. Frank Norris. New York: Twayne, 1962. A source for beginning a study of Norris and his literary achievement. Biographical material is accompanied by a scholarly discussion of important texts.Graham, Don. The Fiction of Frank Norris: The Aesthetic Context. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1978. An in-depth study of the aesthetic sources and relationships energizing Norris’ fiction. An insightful study of The Octopus emphasizes the influence of the arts on the novel.Hochman, Barbara. The Art of Frank Norris, Storyteller. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1988. A study of the recurrent motifs in Norris’s fiction, emphasizing his literary methods. Analyzes use of word and symbol in The Octopus.Pizer, Donald. The Novels of Frank Norris. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1966. A comprehensive and systematic examination of Norris’ novels, with particular attention paid to the author’s intellectual backgrounds and the philosophical influences upon him. Analysis and interpretations stress the idea of evolutionary theism and its appearance in various guises in his fictions.
Categories: Places