The Virginian

by Owen Wister

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The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains is often called the first “Western” novel. Although this is a contentious issue among scholars and aficionados of the genre, there is no doubt that it has been immensely influential in establishing the conventions of the Western, both in print and on the screen. It was adapted for the theater the year after it was published and provided the basis for several films, the first of them directed by Cecil B. DeMille and released in 1914, as well as a long-running television series. The novel was first published in 1902 and dedicated to Theodore Roosevelt, whom Owen Wister met as a fellow member of the Porcellian Club at Harvard. He was a lifelong friend of Roosevelt’s, of whom he was later to publish a biography. Biographies and historical studies make up a large part of Wister’s extensive body of work, and his subjects include George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Ulysses S. Grant. However, it is to his novels and short stories about the American West that he owes his enduring fame.

The Virginian is adapted from a series of short stories set in the West, which Wister published in Harper’s Magazine and the Saturday Evening Post over the preceding decade. Its origins are evident in its episodic nature, and the book still reads more like a collection of anecdotes clustered around its eponymous central figure than a single continuous narrative. One striking instance of this is the way in which the first-person narrator fades in and out of the story, sometimes featuring as a character, while at other times exhibiting omniscience and detachment, particularly when discussing Molly Stark Wood and her family in Bennington, Vermont. He will report on conversations which he could not possibly have heard in his capacity as a character, without explaining how he came by the information in question.

The title of The Virginian is a paradox. Even the man who is most thoroughly representative of the American Wild West is a stranger there, having come from Virginia only a few years before the narrator himself. The West is a vast emptiness, and people come to it from the East and the South to fill the void with cattle ranches, schoolhouses, and churches, but nobody comes from the West except the mysterious “Indians.” The Indians are fairly often mentioned, but they are a shadowy presence in the novel. The shootouts and pitched battles of the movies, with Indians circling trains of wagons in quest of scalps, are a later addition to the mythology of the West, and no Indians appear directly in The Virginian, even though one of the most dramatic episodes in the book is the protagonist’s capture and near-death at their hands.

In The Virginian, the Indians are a natural hazard, like the extreme weather and the rattlesnakes. This makes the contrast and conflict between man and nature all the more straightforward. The conflict between the Virginian and Trampas is always subsidiary to this far greater clash between civilization and the wilderness. Part of the reason for this is that Trampas is such an unimpressive enemy, who never even seems likely to gain the upper hand over the Virginian. This feature of the novel, like the uneven narration, derives from the book’s origin as a collection of short stories. Trampas is always being vanquished in a series of episodes, then resurrected again, without ever developing into a round character or a substantial threat.

The West itself is the antagonist of all the human civilizing influences the East can throw at it, and Wister, himself a...

(This entire section contains 957 words.)

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polished and privileged intruder from the East, depicts it already losing the battle. Wister was born in Pennsylvania, educated in Europe and then at Harvard, and came West for the hunting, the fishing, and the experience. In this, he resembled both his own narrator and Theodore Roosevelt, to whom he dedicated the book. Within the novel, Judge Henry, a friend of the narrator’s, is the same type of character, a Wyoming landowner who is clearly perfectly at home in the East and is always bringing wealthy New Yorkers to enjoy a taste of the Western lifestyle.

By the end of the book, the Virginian has spent more than half his life in the West and, despite his sobriquet, is more Westernized than any other character. He has himself been part of the Eastern invasion but has become attuned to the Western landscape. When he falls under Molly’s spell, however, he is brought back to the civilizing influence of the East and in the process becomes symbolic of the West he has only recently adopted. This is foreshadowed early in the novel, when the Virginian first hears that a schoolhouse is to be built at Bear Creek. He remembers the small community as the haunt of white-tail deer and jack-rabbits, and laments the advent of all the families and children chasing out the game. Such changes are constantly in the background as the action of The Virginian unfolds.

Since he is himself a representative and agent of the change he describes, Wister is generally approving, just as he approves of his protagonist settling down to be an exemplary husband and a prosperous citizen. By the end of the book, the Virginian seems set to become as great a magnate as Judge Henry, with coal found on his land and a railroad built to transport it. In the last paragraph, however, Molly feels some nostalgia for the Bear Creek days in the midst of her happy marriage, and there is no doubt that the Virginian also misses being a cowboy, while the author feels something similar for the wild Western landscape that is rapidly being tamed.


Style, Form, and Literary Elements