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J O H N J O L L Y University of North Carolina, Greensboro The Genesis of the Rapist inThe Octopus: Frank Norris's Revision of Vandover and the Brute Published in 1901, Fnpjik Norris’s The Octopus is a vivid portrayal of late nineteenth-ccntury economic strife in California’s San Joaquin Valley. The novel is perhaps the finest expression of Norris’s philosophy of evolutionary transcendentalism, or the idea that all forces affecting mankind ultimately work for his benefit. Of the succession of characters in The Octopus, none illustrates this better than Vanamee, the shepherd who possesses seemingly preternatural capabilities. However, he has been generally misunderstood, for in demonstrating that good must inevitably triumph, his career provides an optimistic resolution of the psychomachy described in Norris’s posthumously published novel, Vandover and the Brute.1 Indeed, Vanamee seems to be a more Romantic and artistically mature rendering of the lycanthropic title character. Textual parallels between the two novels, as well as internal evidence in The Octopus, sug­ gest this, and so point to the fact that the shepherd himself is the rapist of Angele. Instinctively, and with the aid of his telepathic powers, Vanamee attempts to duplicate the conditions of the night of the rape, and by prostrating himself before Angele’s daughter, alters history, at least 1Stanley Copperman (“Frank Norris and the Werewolf of Guilt,” Modern Lan­ guage Quarterly, 20 [1959], 252) notes: “The duality between flesh and spirit, evil and purity, is the basis for American naturalism. . . 202 Western American Literature in his frame of rcfercnce, thus obviating a deed so barbarous that it has snapped the thread of his life. Critics have generally shied away from any attempt to identify the rapist, who is referred to ominously as “the Other.” They are content rather to accept him as a conundrum, or some manifestation of the impersonal forces which shape human experience. For example, Warren French refers to him as a “never identified ‘other.’”2 A single writer, Stuart Burns, has endeavored to expose the rapist’s true identity. He argues that Father Sarria perpetrated the deed, arriving at this conclu­ sion on the basis of certain “clues” which, he maintains, Norris scattered throughout the book to identify the criminal. For instance, Bums notes that given the location of the rape, the priest would have had ample opportunity to observe the couple’s meetings, and so plan his attack. Other bits of so-called evidence cited are Sarria’s Spanish racial back­ ground, his preference for cock-fighting, and two pronominal references to him as “the other.”3 While his case is somewhat tenuous, Burns makes one valuable observation about the rapist, for it is more applicable to Vanamec than to the priest: “The fact that no clue to his identity or whereabouts is uncovered even though ‘the whole county’ formed ‘posse after posse’ (p. 27) supports the contention that the rapist escaped detection in the same way Poe’s Minister D — hid the purloined letter: merely by continuing in a role so conspicuous as to be above suspicion.”4 What role could be more conspicuous, yet less subject to suspicion, than that of the lover prostrated by grief? This is not to imply, however, that Vanamee consciously conceals his deed. On the contrary, in his frag­ 2Warren French, Frank Norris (New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1962), p. 97. For similar readings, see Ernest Marchand, Frank Norris: A Study (Stanford, Cal.: Stanford University Press, 1942), p. 77; W. M. Frohock, Frank Norris (Minne­ apolis, Minn.: University of Minneapolis Press, 1968), p. 25 and William Dillingham, Frank Norris: Instinct and Art (Lincoln, Neb.: University of Nebraska Press, 1969), p. 63. 3Concerning the point about pronominal references, Burns fails to mention that Vanamee also is referred to as “the other” at least three times (Robert Lundy, ed., The Octopus [New York: Sagamore Press, Inc., 1957], pp. 147, 260, 442. Subsequent references to the novel are incorporated in parentheses). The final instance of this is noteworthy for the poor style of the sentence containing it: “They talked together till nearly sundown, but to Presley’s questions as to the reasons for Vanamee’s happi­ ness, the other would say...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 201-211
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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