The Virginian

by Owen Wister

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The main themes in The Virginian are the character of the American West, masculine strength and virtue, and the civilizing influence of women.

  • The character of the American West: Wister emphasizes the grandeur of the Western landscape, the vast distances between towns, the slowness of travel, and the absence of the trappings of civilization, including law and order.
  • Masculine strength and virtue: The Virginian embodies traditionally masculine virtues such as strength, honor, bravery, and sound judgment.
  • The civilizing influence of women: Molly Stark Wood brings the Virginian under the influence of civilization, domesticity, and education, much as Elizabeth does for James Westfall.

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The Character of the American West

The narrator of The Virginian remarks regularly and often on the grandeur of the Western landscape and the huge, wild, empty spaces which present such a contrast to the cultivated, civilized East Coast. It is no accident that all the major characters—the narrator, Molly, and the Virginian himself—are transplanted from the East Coast to the Wild West. They all come from different backgrounds, the narrator apparently from cosmopolitan New York, Molly from New England, and the Virginian from the South, but the West presents a striking contrast to all these environments. Its expansiveness is presented in several different ways. The most common is the constant stress on the distances between places and the slowness of travel. Medicine Bow is the closest railway station to Sunk Creek, but it is still 263 miles away. Sunk Creek and Bear Creek, more than a hundred miles apart, are practically neighbors, though it takes a letter twenty days to travel from one to the other. At other times, there are simpler physical descriptions of the wild open spaces. As the narrator travels away from Medicine Bow, the tiny community of twenty-nine buildings stays on the horizon for hours before it is swallowed up in nothingness.

In this vast wilderness, the amenities and institutions of civilized society are almost entirely absent. Judge Henry’s home provides a small oasis of comfort and order, but it is the only one for hundreds of miles in any direction. Molly has to send to Vermont for copies of Shakespeare and Jane Austen. Dr. MacBride is scandalized to observe that there is not a single church between Medicine Bow and Sunk Creek. There is clearly a similar dearth of schools, except for the newly-built one at Bear Creek, and of sheriffs or courthouses, let alone universities, museums, or public institutions of any kind. Wister depicts the West as almost completely lawless. Judge Henry is never shown presiding over a court or performing any official duties, and his title appears to be purely honorific. No lawmen appear in the book, and the word “sheriff” is only mentioned once, in passing. When cattle rustlers are captured, it seems entirely natural to everyone that they should be lynched by a posse of cowboys rather than handed over to any more official and structured form of justice. Judge Henry himself defends the practice of lynching cattle thieves, which he sees as the only alternative to anarchy.

This theme in the book has had great influence on the genre of the Western in print and on the screen. The conventions of the Western which begin with The Virginian include these popular assumptions about the character of the American West: its vast distances, its ruggedness, its lack of law and civilization, and the way in which it offers opportunities to strong, determined men while crushing the effete and the mediocre.

Masculine Strength and Virtue

The first paragraph of The Virginian shows the protagonist, at this point unknown to the narrator, corralling a pony which has been too fast and skilful for anyone else to manage. As the captured pony walks tamely into the enclosure, one of the narrator’s fellow passengers admiringly exclaims, “That man knows his business.”

This characterization of the Virginian is perpetually reinforced throughout the book. Since he is barely more than a boy at the beginning, and the action of the novel takes place over several years, one might call The Virginian a bildungsroman . However, despite his rather infantile love of practical jokes, which it takes him a couple of years to get over, it is...

(This entire section contains 1143 words.)

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very clear that the Virginian has already done most of the growing up he had to do between leaving home to come West at the age of fourteen and the beginning of the novel. The dealer at the poker game in Medicine Bow immediately recognizes him as a brave man—the type of reserved, thoughtful character who presents less of a danger to the public than a blustering coward of Trampas’s type, though he is quick to defend his honor when it is impugned.

Wister places the Virginian’s masculine virtue at the center of the novel. The narrator seeks his approval as a badge of honor, and he generally seems able to judge the soundness of a man in the same way as that of a horse. Upon first meeting Scipio and Shorty, he sees the possibilities in the former while ignoring the latter, realizing that Shorty does not have what it takes to be a good cowboy or to survive in the harsh environment of the West. Even Shorty, however, despite his weak character, has the important virtue of loving and being kind to animals. This, for the Virginian, marks him off as superior to such lost souls as Balaam and Trampas.

The Civilizing Influence of Women

At the end of chapter 4, when Mr. Taylor is giving the Virginian news from Bear Creek, he mentions that “Westfall has become a family man.” The Virginian is shocked to hear this and interrupts Taylor to express his chagrin at one of his fellow cowboys settling down. Later, in chapter 8, a small company of horsemen, including the Virginian, stop at Westfall’s house for a meal. They find him tending his garden, and the Virginian sarcastically enquires, “Pickin’ nosegays?” When they sit down to lunch, the cowboys become “sheepish and polite” in the presence of Mrs. Westfall.

This domestic scene, at odds with the raucous masculine atmosphere of the bunkhouse where the cowboys live at Sunk Creek, foreshadows the fate of the Virginian himself, as Molly slowly brings him under the influence of civilization. There are many symbols of this civilizing influence throughout the novel, one of the most important being the Bear Creek schoolhouse itself, which brings Molly to the community. Then there are the books from Vermont, which Molly lends to the Virginian to direct his powerful intelligence along the lines of education. By the end of the novel, Wister is able to relate that his wild man of the Wild West is at least able to appear tame to Molly’s civilized relatives:

Bennington probably was disappointed. To see get out of the train merely a tall man with a usual straw hat, and Scotch homespun suit of a rather better cut than most in Bennington—this was dull. And his conversation—when he indulged in any—seemed fit to come inside the house.

The object of the satire here is Bennington and its prejudices. The Virginian has always been a gentleman and has always known how to behave courteously and correctly. It has taken Molly’s influence, however, to polish the diamond so that everyone immediately sees him for what he is and to gain his acceptance in polite society, as well as fitting him for domesticity.

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