Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Way West explores the effect of the wilderness experience on people from a settled society with an authority structure and codified behavior. Because it detaches people from that authority structure, forcing them to form a new society, with new priorities, and because it places them in the midst of a vast natural environment that knows no codes, inhabited by Indians who have different values from those of white people, the wilderness experience presents a challenge to every individual’s character and enables them to make choices as to their own future and that of their society. Not every member of the wagon train is aware of the challenge or of the possibility of choices. Many cling to their old convictions and their cherished inhibitions until survival forces a change. Many move through the wilderness without ever truly perceiving it. Those who do respond to it, accept the challenge, and make choices based on their own revised value systems, reach a higher level of life.

The theme of the wilderness challenge necessarily involves the relationship of humans to nature. Guthrie has been much praised, and occasionally attacked, for his lyric descriptions of nature. He is responsive to the beauty of the West, but that beauty is rooted in the sublime: the towering mountains, the tumbling rivers, the deafening thunder, the singing wind, all seemingly designed to give people second thoughts about their importance in the great plan of creation. It is ironic that though Guthrie’s sympathetic characters respond strongly to the grandeur of nature, they are all involved in destroying that which they love: The beavers, the buffalo, the plains, the forests, and the Indians dwindle, alter, or vanish when these lovers of the wilderness try to tame it. In later books of his Western series, Guthrie questions whether the kinship to nature of the best pioneers can be preserved in concern for the environment among their children and grandchildren.

Also related to the theme of challenge presented by the wilderness is the inadequacy of the religion which the settlers carry into the wilderness, as reflected in petty moralizing and staunch but inflexible beliefs that cannot stand the test of experience. If such limited views persist in the new settlements, Guthrie implies, the wilderness experience will have failed to produce better individuals and a better society.