Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 399

Hidden behind the stock Western novel device of the epic trail drive are basic themes of the novel, love and death. Several of the characters are either seeking lovers or are haunted by absent lovers. (This motif explains the title; doves mate for life, and a lonesome dove is one that has lost or is searching for its partner.) Elmira thinks that she can find happiness with Dee Boot, and she leaves both husband and baby in a search for a reprobate who will be hanged the day after she is reunited with him. Dish Boggett hangs around Lorena, to whom he is devoted, like a panting puppy. Even the remarkably resourceful and self-contained Augustus rides hundreds of miles to plead his case to Clara. Although Lorena reveres Augustus as a rescuing knight, she fails to understand that Augustus really is a knight: He helps her not because he has designs on her body or soul but because she is in danger, so he saves her as a good knight or Texas Ranger should. Dish Boggett’s passion for Lorena is a reminder that emotion alone cannot sustain deep love. Lorena’s attitude toward Dish passes from indifference to annoyance to scorn, perhaps because in Boggett she sees a reflection of her own moon-eyed pining over Augustus. Lorena is too weak to inspire more than affection in Augustus. He can only love someone who is as strong and independent as himself—and for that reason, ironically, there can be no permanent relationship between Clara and Augustus, since they are too strong for each other.

Lonesome Dove is also a reminder of mortality. The deaths begin as soon as the drive begins, when the O’Brien brother is bitten by the snakes. Because this character had scarcely been introduced, his death is more shocking than affecting. The deaths continue to come, however, and to characters of more significance; the deaths of Deets and Augustus are almost unbearable. Since the drive itself moves through ever-changing and unpredictable circumstances, the deaths are the final test of the characters’ ability to change and adapt. The novel thus is an account of what happens when a group of people whose characters and relationships are fixed are placed in new circumstances and forced to adjust. Malleable and fluid characters such as Augustus thrive; those whose characteristics are set and unchangeable are destroyed or suffer reduction.


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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 221

Because of its great length, Lonesome Dove is rich in thematic interest. Among the more important themes explored are the possibilities of friendship among men, the difficulty (almost, the impossibility) of a satisfactory relationship between a man and woman, the inevitability of loneliness, the value of a personal code of honor, the horrors of growing up and growing old, the importance of work, the impenetrability of women's natures, and most important, the acute and pervasive apprehension of loss.

It is this sense of loss that dominates the novel. All facets of the narrative are informed with a sense of the ephemerality of life; the action revolves around a cattle drive that has no rational purpose, that is, in effect, an attempt to recapture the past. The two central characters, Texas Rangers grown old, are haunted by their lost youth, lost loves, lost purpose. Even the boys who sign on for the drive are aware that they are involved in a venture with no definable goal; the women, too, know that what they want and what they are likely to get are quite different.

Despite the sense of loss that pervades the novel's action and haunts its characters, Lonesome Dove celebrates human values: great personal bravery and selflessness, friendship, tenderness, humor, love and loyalty. In the end, these human values are triumphant.

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