In The Virginian, you find out both a lot and almost nothing at all about the title character. You get numerous details about specific events, from trips into the backcountry to romantic rides with Miss Wood, and you don’t even find out the Virginian’s name, or much in particular about his life before he met the narrator, for example. And our knowledge of the narrator works the same way—from his telling, we find out a lot about him, but there are still many missing pieces to the puzzle.
At the beginning of the novel, he arrives from the East at Medicine Bow, Wyoming to go to Judge Henry’s ranch, which he is only just finding out is nearly 300 miles away. This is his first trip to the West, and after the Virginian picks him up and brings him to the ranch, the cowboy becomes his babysitter (at the judge’s request), taking him hunting and fishing and making sure he doesn’t break his neck or get bitten by a snake. The narrator is a tenderfoot, but a self-aware one, and he realizes quickly that he must appear very unimpressive to the Virginian—though he gamely continues to try to kindle a friendship with him.
After a while, the narrator returns East, but the story goes on. This is one of the open questions of the novel: how does the narrator know everything that he knows? He has direct knowledge of some events, but nowhere near all; sometimes it is explained how he found something out, but in other cases the source of the story remains a mystery. (Who is going out on all those dates the Virginian has with Miss Wood? Or does one of them tell the narrator about their courtship later? I can’t see either doing that.) In any case, the story goes on, and the narrator comes back West again and again, catching bits and pieces of the romance in person.
And that’s another hole. It’s never explained why the narrator keeps going back and forth, whether he works for a living, what his means of supporting himself are (and how they allow him to make months-long trips to the other side of the country at least once a year). My initial guess, based on this behavior as well as his early reactions to the Virginian and overall friendship with Judge Henry, was that it was a middle-aged man, either retired or of a leisure class—but it came out eventually that the narrator is actually about the same age as the Virginian, a young man. In these respects, lots of “who the narrator is” remains a mystery.
But as he travels West again and again, always getting to know the Virginian a bit better along with the rest of the territory, he becomes more experienced and assured of his ways there—though he never approaches the level of the Virginian. He is always an outsider, but he becomes an outsider with understanding, which is how he tells the story. He is able to act as a liaison between the reader, a tenderfoot back East, and the Virginian, the Ideal Western Man. He can admire the Virginian but also see past at least one layer of the romance around him.
If he reminds me of another narrator, it is—and this is quite silly, quite silly—of John Dowell, the narrator of The Good Soldier. He is hardly so complexly unreliable, of course, and I’m sure I’m much more supposed to ignore than question the issues of his knowledge of the story. But he is gossipy in the same way, more effete than the characters he describes in the same way, and a good, endearing man, if somewhat pathetic (and aware of it).