The Virginian

by Owen Wister

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Chapters 1–3 Summary

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Chapter 1: Enter the Man

The narrator’s train is six hours late when it pulls up at the station of Medicine Bow. Beside the track is an enclosure of ponies. One of them is particularly fast and hard to corral, and no one is up to the task, until a man who has been sitting on the gate of the enclosure climbs down and captures the pony with graceful ease. One of the narrator’s fellow passengers remarks, “That man knows his business.”

The narrator disembarks from the train to find that his baggage has been lost. He is dwelling on his annoyance when he hears two voices and looks out onto the platform. One of the speakers is a “slim young giant” who is so young, strong, and handsome that his natural splendor outshines his shabby, dusty clothes. The other is well-dressed and well-groomed, as well as being much older. The young man remarks that the older one is dressed for a wedding, and his comments about marriage irritate the older man, whom he calls Uncle Hughey. Uncle Hughey finally leaves on the eastbound train, and the tall young man turns his attention to the narrator, remarking that he believes the narrator is the man he has come to the station to meet.

Chapter 2: “When You Call Me That, Smile!

The narrator tells the young man that he is looking for Judge Henry. The young man says that he has been sent by the judge to meet him and gives him a letter from the judge. From the young man’s Southern drawl, the narrator assumes, and the young man confirms, that he is from Virginia. From this point onward, the narrator refers to the young man as “the Virginian.”

The narrator wants to go straight to the judge’s ranch, but the Virginian explains that this is 263 miles away, and they must therefore spend the night in town. This opens the narrator’s eyes to the immense distances which are commonplace in the wide expanse of the West. The narrator and the Virginian go together to an eating-house in town. The town of Medicine Bow is an unprepossessing place, small, dusty, and squalid, with only twenty-nine buildings in all, absurdly at odds with the spacious grandeur of the Western landscape. When he sees the Virginian greet an old friend, and avoid the pass the man makes at his hat, the narrator recognizes the movement and realizes that the Virginian is the man he saw corralling the pony from the train. The old friend, whose name is Steve, calls the Virginian a “son of a —.” However, he does it with a smile and a jocular tone, and the Virginian takes no offense.

The narrator remarks on the primitive nature of the washing arrangements at the eating-house, the dirtiness of the surroundings, and the obvious difficulties of obtaining a clean and comfortable bed for the night. The meal is canned corned beef and coffee with condensed milk, accompanied by many flies. Afterward, the Virginian finds a place for the narrator to sleep on the counter of a grocery store, where they make up a bed with quilts. They then go out to drink and play poker.

At the poker game, one of the other players accuses the Virginian of cheating and calls him a “son of a —.” The Virginian draws his gun and tells the man to smile when he uses this expression. The atmosphere quickly becomes tense, but the other player, a man named Trampas, backs down, and order is restored. The narrator recalls that Steve used the...

(This entire section contains 901 words.)

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same expression to the Virginian and realizes that the tone, not the words, are what matter: “the letter means nothing until the spirit gives it life.”

Chapter 3: Steve Treats

As the poker game continues, the dealer remarks to the player beside him that the Virginian is not a dangerous man. When the man expresses his incredulity, he continues with the observation that the Virginian is a brave man and that cowardice is more frightening than courage. The narrator observes his surroundings and the faces of the cowboys, finding much to admire in them despite their lack of sophistication.

At eleven o’clock that night, the Virginian suggests going to bed. Because of the shortage of accommodations, he has arranged to share a bed with another man, and the narrator hears him from outside the room as he undresses and talks to his bedfellow. The other man observes that the Virginian sleeps with a knife and gun under his pillow and says he would have thought it more comfortable to put them on a chair beside his bed, but the Virginian disagrees. He then remarks that he is prone to nightmares and warns the other man not to touch him while he sleeps, as he might grab his knife reflexively. The man is suitably terrified and quickly leaves the Virginian to sleep alone.

After the other man’s departure, the Virginian grins broadly and declares, “I reckon it’s drinks on Steve.” This leads to a party, with raucous music and drinking. However, this gathering quickly breaks up when they receive a message that one of their neighbors is seriously ill. The narrator retires to bed, reflecting that, although he has seen the Virginian “wildly disporting himself,” his manner remains reserved and distant. Despite his popularity, the Virginian always holds himself somewhat aloof.

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Chapters 4–6 Summary