BUNNY CHRISTINE ARLOTTI
The “Fallen Woman” in The Octopus
From a work in progress
America’s Rape and Incest National Network reports that over two-thirds of rapes in the United States are “completed” by someone the victim knows: “The rapist isn’t a masked stranger” (“Punishing Rapists”). This finding contrasts with Frank Norris’s depiction of rape in his turn-of-the-twentieth-century novel, The Octopus: A Story of California (1901). Drawing heavily from an actual historical event, the Mussel Slough Tragedy of 1880, the novel’s primary plot focuses on a group of San Joaquin Valley wheat farmers who band together against the Southern Pacific Railroad. From this epic story between man and steel emerges a subplot about the acceptance of sexual violence toward a woman, a development that perhaps reveals Norris’s own misogynistic beliefs. By creating the perfect victim for a sexual assault, that is, and allowing the rapist to elude capture while at the same time treating one of the most likely suspects of the crime sympathetically, Norris seemingly uses his novel to condone the rape of certain types of girls who defied nineteenth century standards of propriety.
The rape subplot in The Octopus chronicles, in particular, the experiences of a young woman named Angèle Varian and her lover, Vanamee. Norris writes, “One moonless night, Angèle, arriving under the black shadow of the pear trees a little earlier than usual”—to meet Vanamee—“found the apparently familiar figure waiting for her.” But it isn’t the recognizable figure of Vanamee she meets; it is another––“the Other”—and Angèle falls victim to this nameless, faceless, predator (38). The experience transforms her from a sexually naïve innocent into a character type found often in naturalist novels, the “fallen woman.” In “New Woman, Fallen Woman: The Crisis of Reputation in Turn-of-the-Century Novels by Pauline Hopkins and Edith Wharton,” Kristina Brooks defines a “fallen woman” as “a single woman who becomes tainted by sexual scandal and thus read by others as a prostitute” (91). Following the rape, Angèle conforms to this stereotype—unmarried, soiled, and stigmatized by society.
Martin Schwartz and Victoria Pitts in “A Feminine Routine Active Theory” examine the conditions that characterize sexual assaults like Angèle’s. They posit that victims of sexual crimes are rarely picked at random; instead, a woman’s behaviors increase her odds of being attacked. “Clearly, some lifestyles and activities enhance victimizations’ likelihood by involving individuals with ‘dangerous’ others or those who are disposed to perceive persons with certain characteristics as more or less vulnerable or acceptable as targets” (821). Anticipating Schwartz and Pitts’s claims, Norris renders Angèle and Vanamee’s clandestine meetings under the pear trees before her attack as conducive for rape. “The nights were very dark. When they met at the rendezvous, Vanamee found her only with his groping hands.” And on the night she is violated, “All unsuspecting, [Angèle] gave herself to the embrace of a strange pair of arms.” In the end, Norris never discloses who rapes the young woman. The perpetrator “was never found; he never was so much as heard of.” He simply withdraws into “an impenetrable mystery” (37, 38).
In “The Rapist in Frank Norris’s The Octopus,” Stuart L. Burns attempts to solve this mystery. Burns concludes that the rapist is Father Sarria, a holy man at the Mission San Juan de Guadalajara, where the attack occurs, and he cites several clues to support his thesis. First, Burns contends that because Father Sarria has access to the Mission’s grounds and has legitimate reasons for being there, “the rapist escapes detection by merely continuing in a role so conspicuous as to be above suspicion.” Second, Burns cites Norris’s pronominal references to the priest. Burns explains: “Father Sarria makes only four appearances in the novel; he is twice referred to pronominally as ‘the other’” (567, 568). The novel’s narrator does in fact refer to Father Sarria as “the other” during a conversation when Vanamee asks him if he is asleep: “The other started rubbing his eyes” (149). In making his case for the rapist’s identity as Sarria, Burns fails to recognize, however, that twice in the book Vanamee is likewise referred to as “the other” (35, 143). Moreover, Vanamee lacks the ability to control his actions: “His revolt shook him from head to foot, goaded him beyond all bounds of reason, hounded him on and into the domain of hysteria, dementia. Vanamee was no longer master of himself––no longer knew what he was doing” (153). On these grounds, the case can be made that Vanamee could be the rapist himself.
Historically, Norris’s victimized female characters are portrayed not as victims but as women who deserve what they get. In her essay “For His Own Satisfaction: Eliminating the New Woman Figure in McTeague,” Maria Brandt writes, “It was a long-recognized feature of Norris’s novels that the central woman subjected to abuse tends to be read with waning sympathy”(6). Instead of arousing our sympathy for Angèle, Norris characterizes her as the cause of Vanamee’s subsequent pain, mental anguish, and heartbreak. Norris writes of Vanamee, “[H]e knew only that he was suffering, that a longing for Angèle, for some object around which his great love could enfold itself, was tearing at his heart with iron teeth.” Vanamee’s love for Angèle consumes him: “He had never forgotten. The long, dull ache, the poignant grief had now become a part of him” (150, 39). But while his suffering may be real, in the end it is Angèle who proves to be defenseless against man’s violent world: “Within the year, in giving birth to the child, Angèle had died” (39, 38).
In her earlier cited essay, Brooks refers to an idea from Gail Cunningham: “The fallen woman was a stain on society and had to be punished, either by intolerable pangs of conscience or by death––preferably both” (92). Norris continues and perpetrates this literary tradition by impairing Angèle mentally and having her die, never bothering to have her rapist found or persecuted. Though readers are subjected to Vanamee’s mad ranting throughout the novel, they are never given a glimpse of what it feels like to be Angèle. Norris’s androcentric perspective almost reveals Angèle’s feelings about the assault, but its ultimate failure to do so aptly displays his lack of empathy for the victim. Norris paints Angèle as a girl incapable of coherent thought: “To Angèle’s mind ––what was left of it––the matter always remained a hideous blur, a blot, a vague terrible confusion” (38). Readers never learn how she feels when she is raped or how she feels when she gives birth to her baby, a baby born out of sexual violence.
Ironically, Vanamee later passes his love on to the subplot’s other rape victim–Angèle’s daughter. Eighteen-years-old, beautiful, and an exact replica of her mother, she is still pure and virginal, making her an acceptable girl to him. Vanamee describes to his friend Presley his elation about his new love interest: “I believed Angèle dead. I wept over her grave; mourned for her as dead in corruption. She has come back to me, more beautiful than ever.” Norris gives to Angèle’s daughter what his beliefs could not give to the fallen woman––a voice and a happy ending. He writes, “[Vanamee] caught her to him, and she turning her face to his, kissed him on the mouth. ‘I love you. I love you,’ she murmured” (636, 639). Angèle’s voice is finally heard not through her own tainted and sinful mouth but through her rebirth as an innocent young woman.
Out of Angèle’s brutal rape, death, and reincarnation, Norris creates his version of an ideal love story. In Frank Norris: A Life, Joseph McElrath and Jesse Crisler discuss a letter the novelist sent to Isaac F. Marcosseon: “He wrote in September 1900, when he was nearing completion of The Octopus, that the Vanamee-Angèle subplot ‘is the most romantic thing I’ve yet done.’ He termed it ‘pure romance–oh, even mysticism, if you like, a sort of allegory–I call it the allegorical side of the wheat subject.’” Norris’s description of the rape subplot as an allegory leaves questions about the scenario’s underlying meaning or relevance, saying volumes about his beliefs toward women, and specifically toward fallen women—they are not worth saving, helping, or hearing from ever again.
From McElrath and Crisler’s perspective, Norris’s intended allegory is that “Life goes on, renewing itself” (352). Their conclusion may in fact be Norris’s underlying theme, but it’s difficult to imagine how anyone could invent romance from the ashes of a young girl’s sexual assault and death. Instead of helping the fallen woman with his novel, Norris cuts her voice from the story, condemns her to death, and allows her rapist—Father Sarria, Vanamee, or someone else—to escape with impunity. He seemingly conceals “the Other’s” identity because the fallen woman is not worth the ruin of any man’s reputation.
Brandt, Maria F. “For His Own Satisfaction: Eliminating the New Woman Figure in McTeague.” 18.1 (2004): 5-23. Academic Search Premier. Web. 2 Nov. 2012.
Brooks, Kristina. “New Woman, Fallen Woman: The Crisis of Reputation in Turn-of-the-Century Novels by Pauline Hopkins and Edith Wharton.” Legacy. 13.2. (1996): 91-112. JSTOR. Web. 2 Nov. 2012.
Burns, Stuart L. “The Rapist in Frank Norris’s The Octopus.” American Literature. 42.4 (1971): 567. Academic Search Premier. Web. 1 Nov. 2012.
McElrath, Joseph R, and Jesse S. Crisler. Frank Norris: A Life. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. 2006. Print.
Norris, Frank. The Octopus. New York: Penguin. 1986. Print.
“Punishing Rapists.” Rape and Incest National Network. Web. 3 Dec. 2012.
Schwartz, Martin D., and Victoria Pitts. “A Feminist Routine Activity Theory.” Encyclopedia of Criminological Theory. Ed. Francis T. Cullen, and Pamela Wilcox. Vol. 2. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2010. Web. 2 Nov. 2012.