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Old West American Literature: Owen Wister’s Virginian


It is generally understood that while The Virginian is a romance novel, it carefully incorporated the themes of masculinity, vigilante justice, the educated easterner and landscape. The protagonist is simply called the Virginian, introduced and described as an American cowboy, setting a standard for positive image of the previously rowdy cowboys.

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The Virginian is Owen Wister’s novel dedicated to Theodore Roosevelt who is his friend. Its plot is about a traveler from Wyoming, an Easterner who comes to the place and was met by The Virginian whom his host, a judge has sent to fetch him. From their experience with people and dealing for a meal, a night’s stay and everything else in-between as they plan to travel to the judge’s place, the reader is drawn to The Virginian as much as the narrator Easterner is.


Masculinity. The general idea of masculinity portrayed in “The Virginian” is born out of “social Darwinism” and coupled with manifest destiny. The Virginian cowboy is a quiet, reserved man, strong, muscular, individualistic, and followed the honor code of the “old west”. Owen Wister developed this gentlemanly modern day cowboy character out of the wild that lived on from 1903-1960 in literature and film.

The Virginian was easy to talk with and very civilized. He had a way with people – old friends or new acquaintance. According to Madsen (p 126) “One of the most powerful contributions made by the Western to the ideology of American exceptionalism was the ability to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate claims to such things as power, land, water, women.” Kim Newman also observed that with the coming of American civilisation, there is the rise of law and order and establishment of community values.

Here, the Western as embodied in The Virginian focus on conquest. Thus, “Cavalries conquer the Indians, pioneers conquer the wilderness, lawmen conquer outlaws and individuals conquer their circumstances. But with each conquest, another stretch of territory, whether geographical or philosophical, comes under the hegemony of the United States of America,” (Madsen, p 12).

Madsen observed that The Virginian initiated the narrator into a new kind of American: independent, noble of spirit, and committed to honor, justice and courage. In additional to his moral superiority, he has the physical ability to back up and match what he exudes. For Madsen, Wister’s hero The Virginian, has a self-discipline, knowledge, skill, ingenuity, judgment, and perseverance. He can handle the demands of the wilderness, as well as the ability to cope with the moral and spiritual demands of the nation (Madsen, p 130).

Robinson, on the other hand, finds the cowboy versus responsibility dilemma of The Virginian. He observed that there are moments the Virginian ponders on questions which he may also provide the answer. One of the specific issue Robinson dwelt on is The Virginian getting married, when in fact, he had been bantering about marriage, wife and kids to Uncle Hugley right from the start of the novel. It is not clear whether the cowboy actually should be avoiding marriage or responsibility altogether, but, The Virginian admitted that marriage and lighting are two things that he cannot fully understand and would take him by surprise (p 191).

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In his honeymoon, The Virginian contemplates about responsibility and himself comparing to an animal rolling in the sand and returning to innocence (Robinson, p 41). While Robinson linked this portion of the text as akin to honeymoon and death, as a romantic novel, I would like to suggest that The Virginian may only want to escape and forget about everything else, except to cherish the moment of being with his bride-new wife. Being the romantic and educated man that he is, allegory to the sand and the animal is a way of Wister to describe how The Virginian feels himself as very much a part of nature and his environment.

Here, Robinson suggests that, “In acknowledging this urge to retreat from “experience,” he does not raise the prospect of irresponsibility as an alternative. Instead, his implicit wish is to return to innocence, but to a variety of innocence that verges sharply toward oblivion. It is not from knowledge that the hero shrinks, but from consciousness itself; and the implicit trajectory of this impulse bears him toward death, the final respite from the toils of thought,” (p 42).

While Robinson may be right in his observation, I would like to add and insist the importance of the moment when The Virginian asked for that retreat. Robinson is right on mark about responsibility as there is much to expect from a person such as The Virginian. Thus, for what he may consider as stolen or rare moments, he can get lost to enjoying a marital bliss. This is of course, in conflict with the masculine, independent and strong image of the Western cowboy.

Already, Robinson noted the contrast about a cowboy retaining a single status as compared to the Virginian who preferred to finally settle down. Robinson wrote, “It is part and parcel of the cowboy’s culture to be suspicious of marriage. He regards matrimony as all that is artificial, constraining, corrupting and hypocritical in civilization,” (p 43). The image of “masculinity” is challenged, however, being that the novel has explicitly admitted to be a romantic one, it has become (Mitchell, 68).

Another contention of masculinity in The Virginian is about sexual readiness. The male is supposed to be expected of “wide sexual experience […] as the healthy overflow of youthful high spirits, (while) a similar sexual readiness in women is viewed as unnatural, unclean, corrupting,” (Robinson, p 32). It was implied in the novel that the cowboy hero has had his way with the landlady in Medicine Bow so that the Eastern narrates that “this silent free lance had been easily victorious” (Wister, 36) against the landlady viewed with “Impropriety lurked noiselessly all over her. You could not have specified how; it was interblended with her sum total” (Wister, 33).

This double standard, however, has been maintained in many societies for a long time until the advent of feminism in the early 1960s so that this kind of moralizing in the novel is no longer questionable but reflects the period’s kind of societal views.

Another issue noted by Robinson when it comes to masculinity was, “The vocabulary of warfare, and the tendency to characterize Molly as a shrewd, ruthless warrior in unequal combat with an earnest, unknowing victim, lends very substantial confirmation to the suspicion and fear lodged in the various stereotypes of women in The Virginian,” (Robinson, p 44).

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This, however, in my point of view, gives the woman a seeming upper-hand on the situation of which men at that time were wary about being bewitched, as if engaged by the women they fell for in a challenge of which the man was an unwilling participant. Women at that time were suppressed, the society patriarchal, therefore, it was understandable that knowledge about their (women’s) thoughts and feelings, and the challenges they may engage with, seem for men a treacherous process of which they felt to be underdog.

One interesting observation of Robinson, however, is the “unannounced” competitor of Molly, who himself is the Eastern Wyoming narrator. From the start, of which I have also observed, the narrator spoke not like a man in describing the “handsome’ Virginian. Robinson notes, “there is nothing guarded or demure in the remarkable intensity and specificity of the narrator’s expression of romantic ardor,” (Robinson, p 46).

For several instances, he continued and maintained a seeming physical attraction that could not be satiated or ever consummated, thus, he has expressed indirect envy of Molly, and thus, informing an outsider (the reader) of the scheming Molly, excluding the fact that society at that time, as well as in all courtships of all time, man and woman engage in an unknown battle that grip them like no other.

Vigilante justice. The issue of lynching as seen by the larger cattle outfits is presented in this novel as an idea of justice carried out in the old west. It has been attributed with social Darwinism. Vigilante justice is both a societal response to needs that are not met – in the case of the ranchers, protection from thieves as well as meting out of justice for losing their properties to those who do not deserve it, in an instance.

Individual heroism is a focus on many Western novels. The individual is superior to the laws and institutions as compared to the civilized East. The Western defies power and bureaucracy prevalent in the twentieth century United States culture. Madsen noted that the Western preferred expansion of territories, liberty, democratic leveling, national identity, the work ethic, white superiority, and restrained violence (Madsen, p 131). Here, it is expected that the protagonist has an admirable ability to control his anger, and can stand up to for violence when needed (Bratcher, 189). He has been made an ideal American who is innately noble and not necessarily from birth. He is expected to work, fight and kill following a code of fair play and not through cunning and duplicity (Madsen, 131).

Robinson noted the spiritual burden of the Virginian in his gun battles. “Life is war; regeneration is frequently to be found in violence. The struggle for survival, or “equality,” finds its purest, most dramatic (and exciting) expression in combat to the death between two men—the duel,” (Robinson, p 44).

For the combatants, the code is amoral and fair as well as legitimate. For cowboys, they are inclined to sustain the ethos to take care of their own (Bratcher, 190), and there is the seeming indifference to injustice that surrounds the Virginian, thus, he is burdened. Robinson wrote, “This obligation to remain passive in the face of what is regarded as necessary or inevitable is the source of deep melancholy in the Virginian,” (Robinson, p 45). He was forced to rationalize using Darwinism in order to maintain his sanity about the bloody injustice that surrounds him about the deaths of the innocent and the weaklings.

The issue of lynching Trampas the outlaws’ leader and his friend Steve has become another problem dealt by the Virginian. While it is a pleasure to execute Trampas, it was entirely different for Steve, who either became incompetent or just plain outlaw. Civilian contribution, here through the Virginian, has been sanctioned by the judge himself who declared that where the arms of the law fail to reach them, then, vigilantism is favored

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Educated easterner. Wister incorporated the aristocratic character of the Virginian to a frontier cowboy. These traits add depth to the character to create a character that the New England aristocrat would identify and empathize with (Kuenz, 102). This entails a character on the frontier who is above ignorant but capable of critical thinking. Madsen observed that The Virginian narrator noted how at ease The Virginian ropes a wild pony. He rescued her future bride teacher Molly Wood from a flooded stream. He has a mastery of the landscape that allowed him to anticipate and read the signs of life in the wilderness. This knowledge led him to track down the thieves providing the novel’s adventure.

In their marriage, the Virginian brought his bride into the mountains for their honeymoon (Madsen, 128). Morally superior, the Virginian is fair to everyone, old and young, aristocrat or peasants. So much like the standard Western, The Virginian dramatizes the fight for justice: against cattle and horse thieves, bullies and outlaws, bankers and empire builders like the railroad and cattle barons (Madsen, 131).

Aside from being able to write his own letters as well as read classics, the Virginian is a man who engages in business, thus enabled to further his properties and material possessions (Kuenz, 112).

Landscape. The novel use descriptive landscape to captivate and get attention of readers. The use of landscape helps to explain the rugged behavior and actions of the characters. How the frontier was a means by which masculinity was obtained. Madsen has observed how the Westerner has an affinity for nature and the wilderness, this she wrote, “The landscape is something to read and for those who are literate, nature is legible,” (Madsen, p 125).

Through the eyes of the narrator, the frontier is described in detail including the mountains far and shining, the sunlight, the infinite earth, the air as the fountain of youth. However, this is challenged as the buffalo, the wild antelope, and the horseman pasturing thousands of cattle no longer become a part of a present.

Madsen noted The Virginian’s preference of the wilderness for his honeymoon. He has made the mountains safe for his bride Molly. Madsen wrote that the mountains “represented as the spiritual home of men like the Virginian, and his honeymoon in the wilderness is a testament to his final triumph over human and natural adversaries,” (Madsen, p 128). For him, the wilderness belongs to him by moral right and spiritual union.


The Virginian successfully portrayed and introduced a flawed but acceptable protagonist in the form of a western cowboy. The novel reflects two standards in its narrative: the Wyoming narrator’s and the prevailing societal norms. These are betted out against the Virginian’s own personal conflict and beliefs as he practices what he has learned throughout his lifetime to adjust, maneuver, conform, rebel, and eventually accept the things that he could not do something about against his will.

The theme of masculinity reflects the prevailing notions of a romanticized hero: gallant, gentle but strong, educated although works well with those who were not, as well as being that of a man of his time, or probably of all time who falls for the maiden of his choice.

Vigilante justice is portrayed in the Virginian as an acceptable and rational reaction of the civilians who become helpless against thugs and thieves who played with their properties and lives. As the judge himself acknowledged, where the law fails to serve the constituency, civilian vigilance becomes a necessity.

The educated easterner is a characteristic that Wister opted to inject in the character of the cowboy as a move to widen his readership and acceptance of the hero. A cowboy is previously known only as cattle ranch helpers or keepers who engage in gambling, gun battle and other “macho” stuffs that are no longer acceptable in a civilized society. It is therefore necessary to inject an improved, thereby civilized hero that people can empathize with, especially the literate public.

The use of landscape description is a necessary element of The Virginian to further engage the reader to the surrounding and the environment that the protagonist dwells and moves about. This helps the reader appreciate and understand the logic about his thoughts, his actions, his investment and his world in general.


Newman , Kim. Wild West Movies. Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, 1990.

Madsen, Deborah. American Exceptionalism. Edinburgh University Press, 1998.

Robinson, Forrest G. Having It Both Ways: Self-subversion in Western Popular Classics. Albuquerque University of New Mexico, 1996.

Mitchell, Lee Clark. “When You Call Me That… “: Tall Talk and Male Hegemony in the PMLA, Vol. 102, No. 1987, pp. 66-77.

Bratcher, James T. “Owen Wister’s The Virginian: Two Corrections.” Western Folklore, Vol. 21, No. 3 (1962), pp. 188-190.

Kuenz, Jane. “The Cowboy Businessman and “The Course of Empire”: Owen Wister’s “The Virginian.” Cultural Critique, No. 48 (2001), pp. 98-128.

Wister, Owen. The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains. Oxford University Press. 1998.

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