Floyd Evenwrite, the local union leader, has been envious of Hank’s
strength since high school. This fierce, blustery, impulsive, and
unintelligent man wants to stop the Stamper family from fulfilling its
contract and will use violent and illegal means to sabotage the family’s
efforts. Evenwrite sends for Jonathan Draeger, a union representative
from California, to aid him. Draeger is well-educated, confident,
manipulative, rational, and coldly-calculating. The cruel and
destructive Draeger takes the offensive through trickery, subterfuge,
and patience. He fervently believes in communal values and hates the
ideas of self-determination and freedom. Draeger is convinced that all
people behave according to predictable patterns. Together, Evenwrite’s
fury and Draeger’s machinations provoke the feelings of the community
members against the Stampers.
Leland arrives and the Stampers teach him to cut down trees. The
Stampers do not make up a totally happy family. There are many
confrontations among them. In this family the men do the talking and the
women remain quiet. Lee has a very different view of life than do the
other Stamper men. He believes that women are equal to men and that
everyone’s voice should be heard. He finds he has a great deal more in
common with Viv, Hank’s wife, than he does with the men of his family.
Leland devises a plan and campaigns to seduce and sleep with Viv which
he eventually does. During the stay, Lee and Viv grow even closer as he
recognizes and acknowledges her unhappiness because she is not
appreciated by the others in the house.
The Stampers will not succumb to the demands of the union workers to
cease working so that they can gain the benefit of higher wages. One of
the townspeople, who is Hank’s friend and union member, pleads with Hank
to stop working during the strike. He says that if the Stampers don’t
stop then he will commit suicide pretending it was an accident thereby
gaining insurance proceeds for his family. Hank refuses while exhibiting
no emotions. His friend later follows through with his suicide. Hank is
determined by principle to fulfill his commitment to deliver the logs.
After a football game at a community picnic turns into a brawl between
the Stampers and the other townspeople, the union workers sabotage some
of the Stamper’s machinery. Hank retaliates by going to the union office
with a chainsaw to cut Evenwrite’s desk in half. The union members also
attempt to vandalize the Stamper’s collected logs. When one of the union
workers falls in the water, Hank jumps in to save him. The Stamper’s
determination to succeed is demonstrated when their transportation
equipment is destroyed and Hank and Henry decide to cut trees closer to
the river thereby eliminating the need to transport them. This strategy
unfortunately and ultimately will result in the accidental deaths of
Henry and Joe Ben as described below.
Henry had recovered sufficiently to rejoin the logging efforts. As Hank
is cutting down a tree, it splits vertically down the middle with half
crashing backwards toward the forest and the other half landing in the
river. The portion of the tree that fell on land severs Henry’s arm in
the process. The section that fell into the water lands on Joe Ben
pushing him toward the bottom of the river.
Lee drives the mortally-wounded Henry to the hospital and Hank attempts
to use the chainsaw to free Joe Ben but it runs out of oil. With no axes
to be found, Hank valiantly but unsuccessfully attempts to save Joe Ben.
As the river rises, the tree shifts and Joe Ben gives up his struggle
and drowns. In an ironic twist of fate, the chainsaw, an important cause
of the strike itself, fails and results in the death of the optimistic,
hard-working, well-liked and loyal Joe Ben.
Viv feels trapped and her love for her husband, Hank, wanes as she comes
to understand her place in the household. Like Myra, Viv begins to think
that there must be better ways in which to spend her life. She is
eventually seduced by, and has an affair with, Lee. Hank sees them
through the same hole that Lee had used as a young boy to witness the
sexual relationship between his mother and Hank. As a young child,
Leland saw his mother in bed with Hank and has bitterly resented his
half-brother ever since.
A fist-fight showdown between Hank and Leland ends in a draw. Hank
apologizes for sleeping with Lee’s mother and explains that, because of
the age difference, Hank was not taking advantage of Lee’s mother, Myra.
The brothers come to somewhat of a truce. Lee also discovers that Hank
had been sending money to his mother for many years.
At this point in the story Hank appears to be ready to give in to the
union demands. This has negative effects on the community, and the
townspeople are saddened. His giving up would disillusion the residents
of the community and would destroy their assurance in confronting life’s
challenges. The novel thus illustrates how an heroic free individual
with strength and integrity, like Hank, has a positive effect on the
community. The community benefits from Hank’s free expression of his
By this time, Henry and Joe Ben have been killed, the mill has been
partly burned down, and the boathouse has been dynamited into the river.
It is at this point that Hank, the strong and stubborn idealist, decides
not to give in and gets ready to steer the logs down the river by
himself. Lee joins Hank on the tugboat and they pilot the boat and four
large rafts of logs past the disbelieving townspeople. Viv leaves Hank
just as the two brothers begin the log drive. On the boat sits Henry’s
severed arm with all the fingers bent and tied down except for the
middle one. This defiant gesture is aimed toward the union members
gathered on the side of the river. It represents the strength of men to
defeat, at least temporarily, overwhelming forces.
Sometimes a Great Notion illustrates the
value of a family sticking together. Hank, the product of a frontier
culture, has a strong will and work ethic and leads his family in
fighting for what they believe. He is a man of integrity who has a
strong sense of kinship. In association with his family, Hank is able to
withstand a variety of pressures including the forces of nature, (i.e.,
the river and the forest), social pressures exerted by the townspeople,
the conformist pressures brought by the union, and the need to fulfill
their logging contract. Hank represents the joy of an unyielding will in
his quest to deliver the logs to the Wakona Pacific Lumber Company.
Lee has abandoned his sheltered
academic life in the East to affirm himself as a man. At first he is
uncomfortable with his new duties as a logger. Because of his lack of
knowledge of the business he feels out of place and distant from his
family. After working with his family for a while he discovers a common
ground with them in the activity of logging which demands strength,
skill, and courage. By the end of the story he has learned the values
and virtues of family, work, and self-reliance.
This fine tale of independence, individualism, and family has been made
into a 1971 film. The roles and actors include: Hank Stamper (Paul
Newman), Henry Stamper (Henry Fonda), Viv Stamper (Lee Remick), Leland
Stamper (Michael Sarazin), Joe Ben Stamper (Richard Jaeckel), Floyd
Everwrite (Joe Maross), and Jonathan Draeger (Roy Poole).