The Jimmy-John Boss and Other Stories Themes
by Owen Wister

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The Jimmy-John Boss and Other Stories Themes

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

"The Jimmy-John Boss" concerns a young man's rite of passage into manhood. Dean Drake, a slender youth of nineteen, is hired as a foreman to supervise an unruly band of cowhands at a remote cattle camp in the mountains. His first challenge as foreman is to enforce a rule of temperance in the camp by forbidding liquor, stored in "demijohn" containers. The men obey his rule until Christmas festivities weaken their restraint. A drunken brawl ensues, and the outnumbered neophyte barely escapes with his life. He returns, however, when the rebellion is over and shames the recalcitrant cowboys into submission. As a symbolic gesture of authority, he blasts the demon demijohn to pieces and forever gains the cowboys' loyalty.

"Hank's Woman" explores the sordid side of human nature, an innate brutality perhaps brought forth, as Wister explains, by a harsh and barren land: "I [began] to conclude, after five seasons of observation that life in this negligent, irresponsible wilderness tends to turn people shiftless, incompetent, and cruel." These negative traits are embodied in "little black Hank," a shiftless cowboy who victimizes a religious servant girl from Austria. Stranded in the Yellowstone region by her former mistress, Willomene, a docile peasant girl, is seduced into marriage with the clever cowpoke, Hank. At first. Hank is merely callous toward his inexperienced bride but later turns to cruelty when she stubbornly clings to her cultural heritage by worshipping a crucifix which hangs prominently in their honeymoon cabin. One day, in a fit of jealous rage. Hank shoots the crucifix, and she courageously responds by bludgeoning his skull with an ax. The story concludes with a poignant final scene of Willomene plunging over a rocky cliff to her death and dragging Hank's body with her.

Wister presents a moral assessment of the tragedy through a dialogue between a casual cowboy observer and the Virginian. The cowboy comments, "AH this fuss just because a woman believed in God," and the Virginian replies, "You have put it down wrong; it's just because a man didn't."