What is the narrator's attitude to the West in The Virginian, and how has it changed?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The author of Owen Wister traveled to the West to recuperate from a nervous breakdown that he suffered in the tense environment of the socially-conscious and opportunistic industrialists. There, he found life reduced to the essential values and a raw code of justice that well served these values. In addition, he reveled in the expansiveness and raw beauty of a country yet untarnished by the cultural mores and smoke of a refined and industrial society.

Reflective of the writer, the narrator's point of view expresses a similar attitude toward the West. For, he captures through his superbly crafted character, the Virginian, the rugged but genuine emotions of the cowboys. And, through his vivid imagery, he also realistically portrays the spirit of the Old West and its natural beauty. With Molly as representative of the East and the Virginian representing the West, the narrator frequently juxtaposes the contrasting cultures and their values. But, neither side wins for him.

At first somewhat skeptical of the raw, individualistic world of the frontier and the men who inhabit it, the narrator comes to respect the code of the cowboy hero, who is often a bit tarnished by an outlaw past. Moreover, he finds a morality in the West not to be found for him heretofore for him. In one of the final chapters, as the Virginia realizes that he must tell Molly about Trampas, the narrator describes this situation:

It was his code never to speak ill of any man to any woman. Men's quarrels were not for women's ears. In his scheme, good women were to know only a fragment of men's lives. He had lived many outlaw years, and his wide knowledge of evil made innocence doubly precious to him. But to-day he must depart from his code....He would speak evil of one man to one woman, because his reticence had hurt her....She should know the story of his quarrel in language as light and casual as he could veil it.

This morality of the cowboy differs from the conventional, one vividly depicted in the Virginian's words when he and the narrator discuss organized religion as represented by some preachers:

“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.”  (ch.18)

Also with this particular passage there is the motif of the narrator's that, perhaps, like the union of the Virginian and Molly, the West and the East can merge their assets together and form a better country as a whole.

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