This is part of Diane’s American Literature Course Series
Owen Wister’s The Virginian
Oh, that old thing?
Why, yes, it’s been one of my favorites for many years. I noticed, though, while doing research for our American literature class, that it seems to be going out of style. Too trite and formulaic, perhaps? Wait! Please note that whether or not the genre appeals to you, the formulas and cliches we associate with Western novels started here.
One of the first elements that appealed to me was that the story takes place in Wyoming, my home. That doesn’t happen very often. Typically, when Wyoming is mentioned in a book or movie, it’s because the author wants something to seem extremely remote, and hopes not many people will know if he’s making an accurate statement. After all, no one actually lives in Wyoming, do they? The story begins with the narrator’s train pulling into Medicine Bow. Hey, I’ve been there! It isn’t much more of a town now than Wister reports in 1902, but you can visit The Virginian Hotel which, of course, didn’t bear that name when the book was written.
In Medicine Bow, the narrator, an Eastern tenderfoot on his first visit West, makes the acquaintance of The Virginian, who is tasked with conducting said tenderfoot to the ranch which is his destination. Just so happens that, from his last stop on the train, the ranch is another 263 miles by wagon. That would seem like plenty of time for the newcomer to get to know his conductor if it weren’t that the Virginian is the enigmatic type. Strong and silent? Tall, dark, and handsome? Yes, all those things. And it works.
We hear the story from the point of view of the narrator at first. It changes later to third person. Still later, the narrator pops in for another visit and the point of view reverts. At times, he pretends to have heard the story from someone. At other times, he simply tells the story omnisciently without apology. I do remember this being slightly confusing the first time I read the book, but I don’t find it repellant as some do. I believe it is a result, at least in part, of some of the chapters having been previously published as short stories.
The story has all the necessary (and oft emulated) elements of a Western; good guy, bad guy, vigilante justice, life-and-death situation, suspense, weak-man-gone-wrong, romance, loyal friends, choice between honor and preference, shootout, happily ever after.
Whether or not Wister has placed himself in the story as the narrator, he did visit the West and fall in love with the land and the culture. He wrote The Virginian because he saw that the cowboy way of life, the unfenced prairies, and the thousands of square miles of untouched wilderness would soon be overtaken by civilization. Wister gives us the gift of an enduring hero whose quest for self-education and struggle toward virtue make him worthy of representing the Old West to our teen boys and girls.