The setting of Shane is of central importance to the novel's themes and characters. Like American writer Stephen Crane before him, Schaefer deals with a transitional period in American history, the twilight of the western frontier as it gave way to the more cultivated, domesticated, and settled ways of the industrialized East. The Starretts and the other farming families in the valley represent this new wave of domesticity and civilization that spread across the country in the late 1800s. On the other hand, the gunfighter Shane and the greedy cattleman Luke Fletcher exemplify the frontier way of life that is about to be displaced by the advent of the "New West." Ironically, both Shane, the hero of this novel, and Fletcher, his antagonist, have outlived the historical period in which they grew up and flourished. The West's future, Schaefer makes clear, belongs to people such as the Starretts who can adapt to their new and civilized world.
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The surface plot of Shane is rather typical of the western story: the conflict between cattleman and homesteader, leading inevitably to a fiery showdown, has become a kind of permanent American myth. But Shane upsets some expectations about this myth by altering its usual outline. In classical mythology, for example, the hero is called out of a static, settled environment at the beginning of the story and embarks on his great adventure. In Shane, though, the already heroic gunfighter continually tries to regain a settled existence by identifying with the Starretts; only at the end of the book does he find that he can never fit in with the farming life and that he must reassume his discarded role of gunman and deliverer.
Early reviewers sought to compare Schaefer's novel to the works of such western writers as Owen Wister (especially his The Virginian ), Mary Hallock Foote, and Helen Hunt Jackson. More recently, similarities have been seen between Schaefer's themes and those of Stephen Crane. In any event, critics have consistently admired Schaefer's prose style for its directness, conciseness, and clarity—qualities that probably reflect his years as a journalist. Moreover, Schaefer demonstrates his mastery of many literary techniques— including symbolism, foreshadowing, and characterization—all of which make Shane an unusually rewarding reading experience several notches above the "blood and bullets" fare offered by...
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Shane, of course, culminates in an inexorable and violent showdown in which the gunfighter expertly dispatches Fletcher and Wilson; the novel's narrator, Bob Starrett, witnesses these killings. Nevertheless, the violent episodes in Shane are brief and never milked for sensationalism. Indeed, there is always a sense in Shane that such violence has been "earned" through Schaefer's manipulation of plot and character: the gunfire at the novel's end is far from gratuitous. Shane himself is perhaps the most reluctant gunfighter— and the most reluctantly violent man— to be found in any modern western. The profanity in the 1949 edition of Shane has been largely excised in every edition since 1954. Further, a special edition of the novel aimed specifically at juvenile audiences is available.
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Topics for Discussion
1. The tree stump, introduced in chapter 2, seems to symbolize many central concerns of the novel: nature's stubbornness, Shane's commitment to farming, even the land itself. What is important about Joe and Shane's struggle with the stump? What do.the two men—and Marian and Bob as well— gain from that struggle?
2. Most readers realize early on that Shane will eventually take up his gun again in defense of the Starretts. How does Schaefer nonetheless maintain an atmosphere of considerable suspense throughout the novel?
3. As the family returns from town in chapter 6, Bob Starrett observes that "the closer we came [to the farm], the more cheerful [Shane] was." What accounts for this feeling in Shane?
4. In chapter 8, Shane seems to lose his serenity in the face of the looming conflict with Fletcher. By chapter 14, however, Shane is again reconciled to "the simple solitude of his own invincible completeness." Trace Shane's movement toward this acceptance of who and what he is.
5. The events of chapter 15 take place after Shane has left the Starretts. What is the purpose of this short chapter? What is the nature of Shane's enduring gift or legacy to the Starretts?
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Read Stephen Crane's short story The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky." Compare Crane's theme or central idea in that story to the theme of the declining West in Schaefer's Shane. Although on the surface they are very different, what similarities are shared by Shane and Crane's Scratchy Wilson? How are Joe Starrett and Marshal Potter alike? Marian and the marshal's wife?
2. When Shane struggles with the tree stump or fights with Morgan, Fletcher, and Wilson, it is clear who his antagonist is. But what, precisely, are the terms of his inner conflict? That is, what competing needs and desires make their various claims on the gunfighter? How are Marian and Joe involved in some of these conflicts?
3. Western. novels, mystery stories, Gothic romances, and much of science fiction are often dismissed by critics as examples of "escapist" literature, unconcerned with the realities of everyday life. In this sense, is Shane "escapist," or do you find that the book does say things that are universally and permanently true about the human condition?
4. The enigmatic Shane is described at various times in the novel as "a man apart," "just different," and "fiddle-footed." What other heroes in American fiction are similarly alone, anxious to "move on," and cut off from a meaningful sense of community with more settled, domesticated folk? What do these heroes have to tell us about the ways Americans typically view their world?...
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Schaefer has been a prolific writer of novels and stories, but his themes and characters remain fairly consistent throughout his works. In his short novel for young people, Old Ramon, the title character, an aging shepherd, shares Shane's Old West skills and his spirit of rugged individualism. In Monte Walsh (1963), Schaefer's most ambitious novel, the predominant theme once again is the gradual capitulation of the western wilderness to the forces of eastern civilization. In that novel, Monte is an expert cowboy, "a good man with a horse," who cannot adapt to the brave new world of the "autymobile" and the evolution of the cattle business into a corporate enterprise. Like Shane, Monte belongs to the "wild" West of his childhood; unlike Joe Starrett and his own friend Chet Rollins, Monte cannot find a meaningful place for himself within the confines of his new environment.
In 1953 Shane was made into an excellent and well-received film, starring Alan Ladd in the title role, Van Heflin as Joe, Jean Arthur as Marian, Brandon De Wilde as Bob (renamed "Joey" in the movie), and perhaps most memorably, Jack Palance as the evil Wilson. Lloyd Griggs's cinematography won an Academy Award. Released by Paramount Pictures and directed by George Stevens, with a screenplay by A. B. Guthrie, Jr., the film remains generally true to the plot of Schaefer's novel, and it does a good job of portraying Shane's futile quest to become part of the Starrett...
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For Further Reference
Albright, Charles, Jr. "Shane." In Magill's Survey of Cinema, English Language Films, First Series, edited by Frank N. Magill. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Salem Press, 1980. A sound, intelligent review of the film version of Shane.
Beacham, Walton, and Suzanne Niemeyer, eds. Beacham's Popular Fiction in America. Washington, DC: Beacham Publishing, 1986. Entry on Schaefer examines his chief works, especially Shane, Monte Walsh, and Old Ramon.
Haslam, Gerald. Jack Schaefer. Western Writers Series, no. 20. Boise, ID: Boise State University, 1975. A brief, sympathetic discussion of Schaefer's works and themes.
Scott, Winfield Townley. Introduction to Collected Stories of Jack Schaefer. New York: Arbor House, 1966. A concise look at Schaefer, his debts to earlier writers, and his place in the literature of the American West.
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Bold, Christine. Selling the Wild West: Popular Western Fiction, 1860 to 1960. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1987. Compares Shane critically to other popular Westerns.
Haslam, Gerald. Jack Schaefer. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University Press, 1975. An introductory survey of Schaefer’s major works.
Robinson, Forrest G. Having It Both Ways: Self-Subversion in Western Popular Classics. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1993. Regards Shane as unconsciously revealing the dangers of Western “male hegemony.”
Work, James C., ed. Shane: The Critical Edition. Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1984. Includes critical essays, some discussing Shane as an allegory of good versus evil, the hero as mythic figure, and the novel’s considerable didacticism.
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