The Ox-Bow Incident begins as a Western horse-opera with all the stage settings and characters of a cowboy thriller, but it ends as a saga of human misery. The novel has the action and pace of a classic drama. The mob assumes the nature of a Greek chorus, now on one side, now on the other. The story rises toward an inevitable climax and, as it does so, forcibly states the harsh truth: The law of survival is linked to the curse of relentless cruelty. Walter Van Tilburg Clark made the Western thriller a novel of art.
Although set against a Nevada landscape in 1885, the novel’s portrayal of mob justice is timeless. The tragedy in the novel involves not only the theme of innocent people wrongly punished but also the theme that unjust and cruel acts can be carried out by intelligent, moral persons who allow their sense of social duty to corrupt their sense of justice.
Bridger’s Wells, Nevada, the initial setting for the novel’s development, offered its citizens recreational diversions limited to eating, sleeping, drinking, playing cards, and fighting. Into that frontier setting stepped Gil Carter and Croft, who learn that rustlers had provided the place with an exciting alternative, lynching. Osgood, the Baptist minister from the only “working church” in town, realized early on that hot mob temper could subdue individual reason and sense of justice. In times of despair, reason and justice seem less attractive than immediate action. Bartlett, a rancher who found rustling a particularly vile threat, argued that “justice” often proved ineffective and worked too slowly to guarantee that guilty men would pay the penalties for their crimes. He was able to persuade twenty townspeople to form an illegal posse, even though none of the men he exhorted owned any cattle and only a few of them even knew the allegedly murdered man. One man, physically weak and unsound, won over the rest by deriding those among his listeners who opposed his argument. Notwithstanding their thoughtfulness, the words of reason spoken by the storekeeper Davies proved unsuccessful, especially against the renewed harangues...
(The entire section is 870 words.)