The Virginian

by Owen Wister

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Critical Evaluation

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The Virginian is based on Owen Wister’s experiences in the cattle country of Wyoming during the 1880’s and 1890’s, and he used that personal knowledge to create the model for all future Western novels. The setting for the story is the cattle business of the Wyoming Territory, when tension grew between large cattle ranchers and smaller stock raisers. In April, 1892, wealthy cattlemen organized an expedition to arrest or kill all those in northern Wyoming who were suspected of being rustlers. The Johnson County War that ensued became one of the most notorious episodes of frontier violence. As an aristocratic visitor from Pennsylvania, Wister knew many of the men who were involved on the side of the large ranchers, and he used the people and events of the range war as a backdrop for the rivalry between the Virginian and his enemy, the rustler Trampas. He modeled Judge Henry on Frank Wolcott, a leading participant in the Johnson County violence.

Beyond describing the frontier situation, the novel had a larger artistic purpose. Wister traveled to the West to recuperate after a nervous breakdown and to experience a change from the spreading industrialism and social tension of the Eastern United States where he grew up. In The Virginian, Wister deals with the way the Eastern narrator and the Virginian’s future bride respond to the rough life in the West during the heyday of the range cattle industry. By the time Wister wrote his novel two decades later, the open range and the free life that the cowboys and ranchers knew was already vanishing. The Virginian reflects his sense that something valuable was lost with the spread of civilization, a feeling shared by many Americans in the early part of the twentieth century. Wister’s book evokes the spirit of the West and laments the passing of that spirit in the face of modern progress and economic development. In novel form, Wister expresses many of the same ideas that Frederick Jackson Turner discusses in his 1894 essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” and his 1920 book The Frontier in American History.

The Virginian is actually more a series of separate episodes and encounters than a fully realized novel. Some of these moments became classics of the Western genre. The first confrontation, for example, between the Virginian and Trampas—including the response “When you call me that, smile”—was based on an actual encounter Wister had seen, which with his skill as a writer he transformed into so memorable a moment that it has been duplicated on motion picture screens and television programs ever since. The final shoot-out between hero and villain in town just after sunset likewise became the model for countless repetitions of that confrontation in other Western novels, motion pictures, and television episodes.

What gave The Virginian its classic status in the literature of the American West were the larger themes Wister developed within the framework of the novel. With his ability to handle all the challenges he encounters in his rugged environment, the Virginian represents the strength and power of the frontier. He emerges as a true gentleman because of the instinctive rightness of his behavior. He only kills Trampas after giving him the first shot. In his depiction of the Virginian’s courtship of Molly Wood, Wister depicts the underlying virtues of the West and its codes of manliness, honor, and self-reliance. In his depiction of the Virginian’s confrontation with Trampas and the practice of cattle rustling, Wister even manages in Judge Henry’s words to Molly to make an argument for frontier lawlessness and lynching as a...

(This entire section contains 938 words.)

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necessary response to the untamed conditions of the West.

At the same time, the East and its values are shown to have a civilizing effect on the Virginian and his world. He responds to Molly’s gentility and learning by beginning to read books and extend his rudimentary education. He forsakes the lonely and doomed life of the average young cowhand to become a trusted foreman and eventually a prosperous ranch owner in partnership with his patron. At the end of the book, he evolves into a model of the frontier capitalist supervising many businesses. The Virginian is shown to be equally at his ease in the East with Molly’s straitlaced relatives and in the West as an honest man who succeeds in the individualistic world of the frontier.

The Virginian achieved instant best-seller status when it was published in 1902 because it captured so well the American fascination with the frontier and with the people who tamed the West in the nineteenth century. Readers responded to the laconic competence of the hero, the implicit violence of the rivalry with Trampas, and the romantic love story with the Eastern schoolteacher. The book also struck a chord because of Wister’s skill in evoking an era that was so recently past.

Wister never repeated the popular success of The Virginian with any of his other works. The character he created went on to be the subject of four motion pictures and a long-running television series. While Wister knew that he touched a chord in the national psyche with his fictional creation, he did not succumb to the temptation to exploit his book’s success with a sequel or related novels. The Virginian remains what he was in Wister’s book. He is the Western hero with an obscure past that prepared him for the dangers he had to face. He passes through the story, righting wrongs, illuminating character, and doing justice. At the end, he finds happiness and personal fulfillment as do, vicariously, Wister’s readers.