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  • Writer's pictureHabranthus

The Virginian

Updated: Mar 20, 2022


Owen Wister

1902

Macmillan


About 300 pages to keep you quite entertained


Overview

The first true cowboy novel that kicked off the western genre, it's both historical and adventurous with all the elements you expect - adventure, romance, humor, the bad guy, a touch of mystery and suspense, and, of above all, a noble hero.


Summary

The cowboy is from Virginia and works as a ranch hand on a large cattle ranch in Wyoming. The story opens as the Virginian is picking up a visitor to the ranch, who eventually becomes a good friend. The Virginian makes an enemy in another ranch hand, Trampas, and they have a few skirmishes throughout out the story.


Along the way, a pretty young woman comes to the area to serve as the schoolteacher. The Virginian immediately falls in love with her and spends the next several years pursuing her hand. At one point, the Virginian is entrusted with a very important herd of cattle to deliver up North, which he does successfully in spite of some unexpected trouble from his crew. Upon his return he is made foreman of the ranch, which further infuriates his rival, Trampas, who then leaves and becomes involved with stealing cattle.


The schoolteacher, desperate to retain her independence and hide from her love for the cowboy, decides to return permanently to her home state of Vermont. Shortly before she is to depart, she finds the Virginian wounded from a surprise attack by Indians, and with great effort she rescues him and nurses him back to health. She realizes her mistake in trying to leave him, and they become engaged.


On the eve of their wedding, Trampas publicly challenges the Virginian, who, due to the code of the West, must respond. He ends up killing Trampas with his gun. The story ends as the couple is married and apparently live happily ever after.


Review

The author captures the attention in the opening scene, and right off the bat the reader is discovering the West. In the ensuing story, he gives us our classic hero: a sharp mind, a noble heart, reserved in nature, and of course, tall, dark and handsome. And he gives us, too, the heroine we need: intelligent, independent, strong-minded, and, of course, beautiful. The author dismisses with the fanatical stories of wild Indians, gun fights and train robberies that were in fashion in 1900, and instead wrote a more accurate account of life in the West. On one hand, it’s a mere snapshot of one Wyoming community in the late 1800’s; on the other hand, it is a wonderful record of the settlement of Wyoming and surrounding territories, and of the way of the true cowboy.


The author uses first-person narrative told by the visitor-turned-friend who writes what he has seen and heard, and in doing so the story feels very real and personal. He gives beautifully eloquent descriptions of the terrain, and in-depth discussions of the characters and events that take place.


The dialogue is well-written, however, for the modern reader can occasionally be hard to follow. There are certain innuendos and assumptions that have changed in our culture and language over the past 100 years that render a conversation confusing to the contemporary public. The overall writing and structure of the novel is flawless.


To the Author's Credit:

The gentleman telling the story never identifies himself and speaks only a rare word of himself personally. Added to this is that “the Virginian” is also never identified by proper name, while all supporting characters are so identified. This ‘mystery’ is done so cleverly and so subtly that the reader finishes the novel without realizing they don’t even know the names of the two main characters. It’s literary genius, even today. Why the author chose this scheme is up to speculation and interpretation.


To the Author's Discredit:

There is little written of the details of daily life. The reader would be more satisfied and the experienced enhanced had there been more particulars of daily tasks such as dietary habits, kitchen setups, wash routines, personal hygiene, clothing, routine chores etc. If we could trade a few pages of the lengthy and redundant description of the terrain for some juicy details of everyday living in the West, we would.


Best Line:

(When a traveling salesman says he has seen the Virginian before)

Maybe...Sometimes I'm mighty careless what I look at.


Honorable Mentions:

(while pulling a wagon, one of the horses was acting up)...in the mysterious language of horses, he now taught wickedness to his side partner, ...and decided to break our necks.


That man knows his business


regarding Uncle Henry's clothes as he was about to board a train:

They are speakin' mighty loud o' nuptials.


corn fed biscuit shooter


When I slung my teeth onto it (when I took a bite)


Doubtless after his sharp alarm about the bear, he was unstrung. His lady, however, promptly restrung him. (she was angry)


(He was) applying to the Virginian one unprintable name after another.


The Virginian's horse is named 'Monte', but he calls him 'pie-biter'.


It was the old trick of copying some metropolitan menu to catch travelers of the third and last dimension of innocence; and whenever this is done the food is of the third and last dimension of awfulness,


halfway between 'Oh Lord!' and 'Thank God!'



My copy of the Virginian

is an armed services edition, printed sometime between 1942 and 1945.



































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