The Virginian

by Owen Wister

Start Free Trial

Student Question

What ethnic groups are represented in "The Virginian"?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

It is easy to read Owen Wister's seminal Western novel The Virginian and walk away thinking that there are only two ethnic groups represented: Anglo-Saxon whites and Native American Indians. After all, all the major and minor characters are white, with the exception of the Indians. But the historicity of the novel is post-constructionist, and it would have been impossible for Wister to truly ignore this, especially given members of his family were rich plantation owners in South Carolina and Georgia (Adams, 2007, p. 109). While the novel does not have or mention any black characters, there are signs of a black 'presence' throughout. One example exists in the lyrics of a black minstrel song the Virginian sings while out riding the range:

'Dar is a big Car'lina nigger,
About de size of dis chile or p'raps a little bigger,
By de name of Jim Crow.
Dat what de white folks call him.
If ever I sees hint I 'tends for to maul him,
Just to let de white folks see
Such an animos as he
Can't walk around the streets and scandalize me. (Wister, p. 215)

Another exists in the minor character Scipio le Moyne who introduces himself as "Scipio le Moyne, from Gallipolice, Ohio [...] The eldest of us always gets called Scipio. It's French. But us folks have been white for a hundred years" (Wister, p. 158). According to Bold (2013), "'Scipio' was a traditional slave name [. . .] [and] 'Lemoyne' was one of the most common Creole surnames of the Mississippi Valley (p. 133). Scipio seems to know that his name carries with it a non-white heritage because he hurries to assure the Virginian that any other ethnicity associated with his name has been erased over the last 100 years.

There are also references to other ethnicities: workmen on the railroad tracks are identified as being Chinese (pp. 181-182), the men wear Mexican spurs (p. 197), and a man named Balaam, a Hebrew name possibly translated as 'Destroyer of People' (Uittenbogaard, n.d.), mistreats a horse with a distinctly Mexican name of Pedro. 

So as we can see, the text of The Virginianalthough definitely not a shining example of ethnic inclusiveness, is also not quite as whitewashed as some suggest.

Note: Uittenbogaard, A. (n.d.) The amazing name Balaam: Meaning and etymology. Abarim Publications. Retrieved from

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial