The Virginian

by Owen Wister

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Chapters 31–33 Summary

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Chapter 31: The Cottonwoods

The Virginian returns to the stable and converses with the narrator in a stilted and absent-minded manner before they ride off together. As they ride, the Virginian keeps frowning, shutting his eyes, and passing his hand over his forehead. He says that he does not “want to keep seeing Steve.” The narrator observes that Steve seems to have faced his punishment manfully. It was the other rustler, Ed, who worried him. The Virginian replies that “Both was miscreants. But if Steve had played the coward too, it would have been a whole heap easier for me.” He also remembers that Steve was not always a miscreant. The narrator realizes that Steve’s calm acceptance of death had aroused the admiration of the Virginian against his will and made him remember their friendship.

The Virginian says that Steve died as he hopes to die. He talks about how he knew Steve years ago, when they worked together as cowboys. Steve had many good points once, and has shown that he is still a man by the way he died, and by his refusal to inform on Shorty, one of his partners in crime.

The narrator asks whether the Virginian would have allowed Steve to escape if he could. The Virginian hotly denies that he would have done any such thing. In this case, the narrator asks, what did he want? The approval of the man he was hanging? However, he cannot get through to the Virginian, who has “lost his bearings in a fog of sentiment.” The Virginian, he believes, knows that he did the right thing, but his old friend’s coldness to him in his final hours has left a sting which no logical argument can remove.

The narrator and the Virginian reflect on the fate of Shorty. The Virginian believes that such a mediocre man will not survive long in the West. In this unforgiving country, a man must do whatever he does well, whether it is playing cards or rustling cattle. Mediocrity may be sufficient for survival in the East, but here, Shorty is doomed.

Chapter 32: The Superstition Trail

As they travel, the narrator and the Virginian see tracks of a single man and a horse in the mud. The Virginian thinks they ought to have seen the man and the horse in person, given the freshness of the tracks, and also wonders why the man does not ride the horse. Later, they see tracks from another man and surmise that the nearby party consists of one horse and two men, who take turns riding him. The narrator eventually notices that one of the men must be much heavier than the other, something the Virginian has already noticed. They name the two men Pounds and Ounces.

As they discover more about the two men from the clues they leave behind, it becomes evident that Ounces is, in fact, Shorty. Soon after the narrator realizes this, they come upon Shorty’s dead body lying by a campfire. The man who was traveling with him had shot him from behind in order to get away faster. The narrator and the Virginian bury Shorty. As they lift up his body, they find a newspaper, which contains a message written in pencil: “Good-by, Jeff . . . I could not have spoke to you without playing the baby.” The Virginian realizes that this must have been written by Steve, who used to call him “Jeff” because of his Southern background. The Virginian, who has been thinking a great deal about Steve, seems relieved by this “message from the dead, brought by the dead”...

(This entire section contains 932 words.)

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and wishes he could thank Shorty.

Chapter 33: The Spinster Loses Some Sleep

The violent deaths of Steve, Ed, and Shorty are the subject of gossip which reaches as far as Bear Creek. Molly hears hints of what has happened, but her eastern upbringing does not give her the context to interpret them. One day, she comes upon the schoolchildren playing a game which involves lynching a cattle rustler. She breaks it up in case the boy in question really gets hurt, but one of the children then tells her about the hanging of Steve and Ed, on which their game is based.

When Molly discovers the part the Virginian has played in the hanging, she is horrified. She becomes pale and sickly and stops eating. Mrs. Taylor attempts to talk to her, but Molly will not respond. Judge Henry then comes to Bear Creek, and Mrs. Taylor begs him to talk to Molly. The judge says that he himself sent the Virginian after the rustlers and must bear some of the responsibility for what happened. She asks him whether he thinks lynching is ever justified, and he replies that hanging Wyoming cattle thieves in private is not the same as “burning Southern negroes in public.” Molly, however, asserts that there is no difference in principle. When he examines what her principles really mean, however, the judge discovers that her real objection is to ordinary citizens taking the law into their own hands. However, the judge points out, ordinary people elect the delegates who make the laws. The law is never truly out of the hands of ordinary citizens, nor should it be. Capital punishment is terrible, he admits, but not as terrible “as unchecked theft and murder would be.” Molly does not grow cheerful after the judge’s words, but it is clear that she thinks about them carefully, and they slowly have an effect on the way she thinks of the Virginian and his actions.


Chapters 28–30 Summary


Chapters 34–36 Summary