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R O B E R T M I C K L U S State University of New York at Binghamton Ambivalent Warriors in The Octopus Previous discussions of The Octopus have usually focused upon whether its conclusion is philosophically consistent with the rest of the novel. Numerous critics have complained that Norris finally ignores the moral questions raised in the struggle between the farmers and the railroad by evasively banking upon Vanamee’s philosophy as the novel concludes. Among them, Charles C. W alcutt complains that “the thoughtful reader . . . has been swindled of a solution.”1 H. Willard Reninger, on the other hand, asserts that Presley’s final awareness that “natural forces . . . will eventually bring about the greatest good for the greatest number . . . reconciles the alleged inconsistencies in the novel.”2 And in the most thorough analysis of The Octopus to date, Donald Pizer admirably demonstrates that its unifying philosophy is an “evolutionary theism” in which the wheat “functions as the objectification of divine force or energy.”3 But even Pizer allows that, philosophically consistent or not, Norris still fails to make the conclusion of The Octopus “emotionally con­ vincing.”4 Norris’s failure mainly derives, I think, less from the novel’s 1“Frank Norris and the Search for Form ,” University of Kansas City Review, 14 (1947), 135. For other discussions of the novel’s philosophical inconsistencies, see esp. W alter F. Taylor, who considers The Octopus “a flurry of hectic action w ith­ out m eaning” (The Economic Novel in America [Chapel H ill: Univ. of N orth C aro­ lina Press, 1942], p. 300), and Ernest M archand, Frank Norris: A Study (1942; rpt. New York: O ctagon, 1964), p. 81. 2“Norris Explains The Octopus: A Correlation of His Theory and Practice,” American Literature, 12 (1940), 225-26. 3The Novels of Frank Norris (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1966), p. 146. i The Novels of Frank Norris, p. 146. 116 Western American Literature reputed philosophical “fuzziness”5 than from his facile abandonment of the most difficult question the novel poses: not simply who is right, the farmers or the railroad — the railroad is, after all, the octopus in the story — but what should the farmers have done to redress their wrongs? Should they, like Vanamee, have remained aloof from the dispute, or should they, like Dyke, have feverishly sought vengeance against the railroad? Both extremes, the detached observer and the blindly energetic participant, were attractive to Norris, and the novel’s most complex characters, Presley and Magnus Derrick, stand torn between the two.6 In effect, Norris wages a double war in The Octopus: the first is the obvious war between the farmers and the railroad; but the second is the psychological war between two antagonistic approaches to life. The con­ clusion of the novel therefore fails to be emotionally convincing not because we cannot digest Vanamee’s philosophy, but because we cannot accept Vanamee, who remains outside the ambivalent struggle between observation and participation. Norris establishes this antagonism between observation and partici­ pation in the first two chapters of The Octopus. He begins by devoting nearly all of the first chapter to Presley and Vanamee, both primarily observers of the dispute between the farmers and the railroad when Norris introduces them. This chapter centers around Presley’s visit to Solotari’s, whose name and environment imply the basic component in his and Vanamee’s natures early in the novel: both are solitary, isolated observers who indulge themselves in the kind of idle atmosphere Solotari’s provides. Both men, Norris relates during their second visit to Solotari’s, are “out of tune with their world, dreamers, introspective, morbid, lost and unfamiliar at that end-of-the-century time.”7 5W arner Berthoff, The Ferment of Realism: American Literature, 1884-1919 (New York: Free Press, 1965), p. 225.°In his splendid biographical essay on Norris, Joseph R. M cElrath, Jr. claims th at “the picture” that emerges of Norris is “of a divided personality: the suave, elegant, boyish-looking m an of ease; and a more idiosyncratic and excitable creature who ran on nervous energy in private” (“Frank N orris: A Biographical Essay,” American Literary Realism, 11 [1978...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 115-124
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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