Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Shane is concerned with the decline of the cattle business in and around Wyoming, with its violence, and with its being replaced by settlers and their families, then by towns and schools. Fletcher’s personal ineffectuality is indicated by his having to bring in Wilson, symbolic of the lawless and fading past, to try to drive the farmers off “his” land. This ruthless cattle baron cannot finally win against well-led settlers.
Related to the inevitability of Western settlement is the theme of the solitary hero’s unalterable fate. Shane, though the means of Fletcher’s ruin, is himself an expendable anachronism. On his own from his teenage years, he is now a reformed gunman with a past he cannot shed. Bob, he says, has a chance he never had to grow straight and clean through the dirty years of adolescence. Shane must play the cards dealt him, and Shane, like much Western fiction, is loaded with card imagery. The typical cowboy knows that life combines chance and skill, like a poker game. In another image, Shane says he cannot break the mold in which circumstances cast him.
In the course of the narrative, each character develops helpful self-knowledge. If he remains in the region, Shane knows, he will inhibit its sociopolitical progress, given his rigidities; he thus hints to Bob that his ultimate gift is to leave. Joe recognizes and accepts his limitations when measured against his epic savior. Marian quickly sheds her infatuation with Shane. Soon after altering her hat to conform to the new fashion Shane describes, she casts it aside. Bob learns to temper his worship and later puts all events in proper perspective.