The Virginian

by Owen Wister

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Places Discussed

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*Medicine Bow

*Medicine Bow. Wyoming town in and around which the novel is set, during the latter part of the nineteenth century. The setting depicts a romantic scene with spectacular landscapes, including wide rangelands, impressive rock formations and colors, and vast distances. The reader is left with a sense of endless space in a wild, almost hostile environment. The scenery conveys the rugged image of courageous men who choose to be more attached to their horses and six-shooters than to the constraints demanded by marriage and a family.

Owen Wister notes that during the late nineteenth century the town of Medicine Bow consisted of twenty-nine buildings, including a general store, a saloon, a feed stable, two dining houses, a train depot, and a few houses. There were only two ranches that occupied the vast surroundings, one owned by Judge Henry and the other by Sam Balaam. A river running through their land provided a natural boundary of separation.

With the cattle boom of the late 1870’s and early 1880’s, Medicine Bow was quickly changing, as was the West in general. Medicine Bow became the largest cattle shipping point along the Union Pacific Railroad, shipping an average of two hundred head per day. In order to herd the cattle, roads were built. To raise and breed the cattle, fences were erected along the roads and other locations on the once-open range. The cattle business brought many changes to the pristine conditions that had existed there. The streets of Medicine Bow, as well as the open range in general, became littered with tin cans and other garbage. The West was changing, becoming more like the East, where the Virginian and the other major characters in the novel had originally lived. They moved West hoping to escape the decadent conditions that were prevalent in the East. Unfortunately, the same conditions were also rapidly developing in the West.

*Wyoming

*Wyoming. Frontier state that in the early 1870’s was almost entirely open rangeland, covered with long sequences of prairie grass and fertile land. The vastness was only occasionally interrupted by canyons and rivers, but it was not split up by roads, settlements, or fences. Wyoming was a new land, the unknown, and stood in sharp contrast to the American East. The title of “cowboy” implied an attitude and a lifestyle that were representative of the land. There was virtually no evidence that in only a few years the western frontier would become a mere memory.

Sunk Creek Ranch

Sunk Creek Ranch. Located more than two hundred miles from Medicine Bow, Sunk Creek is the location of Judge Henry’s cattle ranch, where the Virginian becomes the foreman and demonstrates to other cowhands that a cowboy should live by the honor code of the old West. Sunk Creek represents a site of transition from the plains horseman to barbed wire, farming, and development. Here, as well as at Medicine Bow, Wister challenges his readers to be and do the best at all times, no matter what the circumstances, particularly during times of transition and development.

Bear Creek

Bear Creek. Small Wyoming town in which Molly Wood, an easterner, takes up residence in order to teach school. Bear Creek symbolizes a place of selfless acts, tolerance, and love. It is where Molly devotes much of her time to teaching frontier children, who need her love and nurturing care. It is also where Molly patiently nurses the Virginian back to health after he is shot. Bear Creek represents one of the last places in America where true American virtues exist. The land, Molly, and the Virginian all symbolize those...

(This entire section contains 603 words.)

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vanishing qualities.

Literary Techniques

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Wister's unique combination of characters and plot in The Virginian helped to establish the literary convention of the "formula Western," the components of which, according to Etulain, can be summarized as follows: "an idealized hero, the conflict between the hero and a villain, and the romance between the hero and the heroine — all set against the romantic background of the frontier West."

Over the years, many writers such as Zane Grey, Max Brand, and B. M. Bower have produced works which closely follow this formula, and these popular imitations have since contributed to what has become widely recognized as Western fiction. Because Wister's The Virginian was the first novel to combine these dramatic elements, it remains the touchstone of this still vigorous literary genre.

Literary Precedents

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When writing The Virginian, Wister was a literary pioneer who sincerely wished to preserve authentic Western experience. As he explains, "This life I am trying to write about [does not] seem to me to have been treated in fiction so far — seriously at least. The cattle era in Wyoming is nearly over, and in the main unchronicled. . . ." Unless one recognizes the dime novel, which clumsily portrayed the West as an area of lawlessness and danger, as Wister's source of inspiration, The Virginian has no legitimate prototype.

If viewed strictly as a regional novel, The Virginian could be considered a successor to the frontier novels of Bret Harte, Joaquin Miller, Ambrose Bierce, and Mark Twain. Collectively, these authors introduced the reading public to the American frontier, that area beyond the Mississippi River and the Middle Border. Other than these somewhat superficial connections with the regional novel and the dime novel, Wister's book lacks a literary predecessor.

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Historical and Social Context