In Owen Wister’s 1902 novel of the Old West, The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains, the story’s protagonist, the Virginian, most definitely tries to lead a moral life, and largely succeeds. To the extent there are moral lapses in his judgment, they more a product of the times in which he lived than attributable to any flaws in his character. Wister’s novel is entirely concerned with questions of morality and religion, and his tone is more than a little agnostic. With the exception of the book’s main antagonist, Trampas, most of the characters are quite human in terms of their occasional moral failings and respect for proper conduct.
The Virginian is no ordinary Western; Wister’s narrator is used to facilitate the characters’ ruminations on religion and ethics. Early in Chapter XIII, Wister’s narrator reflects on the nature of man and on the penultimate attempt by man to resolve the question of equality, the American Declaration of Independence:
“It was through the Declaration of Independence that we Americans acknowledged the eternal inequality of man. For by it we abolished a cut-and-dried aristocracy. We had seen little men artificially held up in high places, and great men artificially held down in low places, and our own justice-loving hearts abhorred this violence to human nature. Therefore, we decreed that every man should thenceforth have equal liberty to find his own level. By this very decree we acknowledged and gave freedom to true aristocracy, saying, "Let the best man win, whoever he is." Let the best man win! That is America's word. That is true democracy. And true democracy and true aristocracy are one and the same thing”
This is the kind of passage one would ordinarily expect in a novel about a cowboy, even a particularly moral cowboy. Its presence in the pages of Wister’s novel, however, speaks to the centrality of the theme of morality to his work. The Virginian is a man who instinctively tries to do the right thing under all circumstances, and he is a man who believes in the inherent good in most of his fellow men. Following Trampas’ departure from ranch, with another former employee in tow, the Virginian watches the two men, the first a mortal enemy, the second, known as Shorty, more of a lost soul, depart. Reflecting aloud on Shorty, he remarks, “When a man is kind to dumb animals, I always say he has got some good in him.” Trampas is a lost cause, destined for a final confrontation; Shorty, on the other hand, has redeeming qualities: he’s kind to animals and, consequently, possessed of a moral soul.
There is another passage in The Virginian that reflects the author’s emphasis on questions of religious faith and morality, and it’s a particularly important passage for understand the protagonist’s approach to life in general. Discussing religion on the trail in Chapter XVIII, the narrator and the Virginian engage in a dialogue regarding morality and divinity and the appearance of moral ambivalence on the part of some parsons:
“I ain’t religious, and I know that. But I ain’t unreligious, and I know that too.”
“I reckon some parsons have a right to tell you to be good. The bishop of this hyeh territory has a right. But I'll tell yu' this: a middlin' doctor is a pore thing, and a middlin' lawyer is a pore thing; but keep me from a middlin' man of God.”
This conversation, again, reflects the author’s deep interest in the intersection of conventional concepts of morality and the institution of religion. The Virginian tries to lead a moral life, but he doesn’t need anyone telling him what that entails. He understands that men of the cloth are human and subject to some of the same flaws as the rest of humanity.
There is one episode in the novel, in Chapter XXXI, that serves as a major turning point for the Virginian. Two of the cattle rustlers led by Trampas and comprised of former friends and colleagues of the Virginian are caught by a posse of which the Virginian is a participant. As was prone to occur in distant, remote regions where there was no institution of justice within close proximity, the posse took the law into its own hands and lynched the two rustlers, one of whom, Steve, is an old friend of the Virginian. As with Shorty earlier in the story, the Virginian reflects on the nature of his former friend and colleague:
“Steve and I started punching cattle together at the Bordeaux outfit, north of Cheyenne. We did everything together in those days – work and play. Six years ago. Steve had many good points onced.”
The hanging of the two former colleagues-turned-criminals does not sit well with the Virginian, and it presents the novel’s key moral dilemma. And, coming as it does while he tries to woo the town’s pretty new school teacher [a little cliché, but that’s okay], who is disgusted by news of the lynching, the Virginian realizes that the line between moral and immoral conduct can prove difficult to gauge at times, but that any action that didn’t sit well at the time it was taken, as was the case with the hangings, was probably on the wrong side of that line. This revelation wasn’t really a conversion; it was more a part of his growing process, seeing as how he already struggled with these issues in the first place.