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).
Yesterday I talked about how the Virginian (in case you are wondering by this point, he is never named otherwise) is more prototype than stereotype. I illustrated a bit what it is he typifies—and of course you can guess that it is The Western Ideal Man—but I didn’t directly address that ideal or the finer points of the Virginian’s character. Because, while stereotypical, or protostereotypical, Wister’s portrayal of the Virginian is not un-nuanced.
Who is the Virginian? At the beginning of the novel, the narrator describes for us:
a slim young giant, more beautiful than pictures. His broad, soft hat was pushed back; a loose-knotted, dull-scarlet handkerchief sagged from his throat; and one casual thumb was hooked in the cartridge-belt that slanted across his hips. He had plainly come many miles from somewhere across the vast horizon, as the dust upon him showed. His boots were white with it. His overalls were gray with it. The weather-beaten bloom of his face shone through it duskily, as the ripe peaches look upon their trees in a dry season. But no dinginess of travel or shabbiness of attire could tarnish the splendor that radiated from his youth and strength.
No question of what he looks like; I can see him on the train platform now. And what he acts like? As the narrator observes him, he is giving a man he calls Uncle Hughey a hard time about going off to get married, chaffing him gently and giving the narrator a decent entertainment, all the while looking absolutely grave. But when Uncle Hughey leaves, this gravity is enough to make the narrator worry that he might be “invited to dance on the platfor mto the music of shots nicely aimed.” The narrator is, of course, at this point a complete tenderfoot, and little better than a child in judging Western matters. But when the Virginian approaches him (he has, in fact, been sent to collect him), “in his eye, in his face, in his step, in the whole man, there dominated a something potent to be felt, I should think, by man or woman.”
The Judge sent me afteh you, seh,” he now explained, in his civil Southern voice; and he handed me a letter from my host. Had I not witnessed his facetious performances with Uncle Hughey, I should have judged him wholly ungifted with such powers. There was nothing external about him but what seemed the signs of a nature as grave as you could meet. But I had witnessed; and therefore supposing that I knew him in spite of his appearance, that I was, so to speak, in his secret and could give him a sort of wink, I adopted at once a method of easiness. It was so pleasant to be easy wtih a large stranger, who instead of shooting at your heeds had very civilly handed you a letter.
“You’re from old Virginia, I take it?” I began.
He answered slowly, “Then you have taken it correct, seh.”
A slight chill passed over my easiness, but I went cheerily on with a further inquiry. “Find many oddities out here like Uncle Hughey?”
“Yes, seh, there is a right smart of oddities around. They come in on every train.”
The narrator, who has arrived by the most recent one, “[a]t this point…dropped [his] method of easiness.”
And here I am totally off-track. I wanted to tell you what the Virginian really was like, but I have just tried to show you again, all sideways. I wanted to explain his idea of honor, and what makes a man a good man, and whether being a good man is enough. I’ll have to try again tomorrow—this is important too, after all. It’s the narrator’s first encounter with the Virginian! And I want to tell you all about the narrator too.
But I have already gone on, or at least, let myself go on with Wister. So from a completely different angle: what kind of opening is this to The First Western? It’s actually not quite the opening; before the train arrives at the station at Medicine Bow, it’s sitting on a track outside the town. The narrator watches several men try to rope an unbroken horse, all failing until one climbs into the corrall “with the undulations of a tiger, smooth and easy, as if his muscles flowed beneath his skin. The others had all visibly whirled the rope, some of them even shoulder high. I did not see his arm lift or move. He appeared to hold the rope down low, by his leg. But like a sudden snake I saw the noose go out its length and fall true; and the thing was done.” This man, the narrator will realize quite soon after the above-quoted conversation, is the Virginian.
But now I’ve done it; it’s all here. The Virginian looks the part. He talks the part. But before all that, he works, at a task that requires skill, patience, calm, and controlled physicality—that is, the qualities of a man, and not of a boy. He does a thing well, and this will turn out to be one of the most important qualities of a man in the West. It is one thing to have no bad in a person; it is a better thing to have some good in a person; but even better, and to some extent this is really the minimum required for a moral existence in this wild country, is to be good and to do good, to do anything that must be done well.
If anyone was surprised to see Owen Wister’s The Virginian in my “currently reading” sidebar recently, the explanation is quite simple: I want to read Cormac McCarthy sooner rather than later, and before I do that I’m going to make damn sure to read some Westerns. (See, even the first one is affecting my language.) This is my usual sideways way of doing things, and while I often appreciate these background books, I don’t really expect them to be all that good. I’m not sure The Virginian is necessarily “good,” either, but it was a damn good read. I mean, the Virginian is just so dreamy.
That, of course, is one of the things that really does make The Virginian extremely fun. The Virginian is less of a stereotype and more of a prototype—in fact, he seems like the ultimate stereotype for just that reason. And somehow even looking back on it, the birth of a genre makes old feel new again. Also, dreamy.
Unfortunately for her, Miss Molly Wood, the Virginian’s love interest, is not aware of generic conventions as I am and thus does not realize that of course she will marry this handsome, wild, dangerous young man. So she makes him court her for a couple years, during which time they go on lots of rides and walks and she lends him books to improve him. They have a number of entertaining conversations about those books (see, for example, Chapter 12, “Quality and Equality,” available at Project Gutenberg), and he also discusses some of them with the narrator, who is an educated man. When he meets the narrator on a business trip, he has Kenilworth with him, and comments, “Right fine story. That Queen Elizabeth must have cert’nly been a competent woman.” The narrator agrees, and the subject resumes again when the Virginian’s men are playing poker and the narrator suggests he join them.
“Poker? With them kittens?” One flash of the inner man lightened in his eyes and died away, and he finished with his gentle drawl, “When I play, I want it to be interestin’.” He took out Sir Walter’s Kenilworth once more, and turned the volume over and over slowly, without opening it. You cannot tell if in spirit he wandered on Bear Creek with the girl whose book it was. The spirit will go one road, and the thought another, and the body its own way sometimes. “Queen Elizabeth would have played a mighty pow’ful game,” was his next remark.
“Poker?” said I.
“Yes, seh. Do you expaict Europe has got any queen equal to her at present?”
I doubted it.
“Victoria’d get pretty nigh slain sliding chips out agaynst Elizabeth. Only mos’ prob’ly Victoria she’d insist on a half-cent limit. You have read this hyeh Kenilworth? Well, deal Elizabeth ace high, an’ she could scare Robert Dudley with a full house plumb out o’ the bettin’.”
I said that I believed she unquestionably could.
“And,” said the Virginian, “if Essex’s play got next her too near, I reckon she’d have stacked the cyards.”
The Virginian is not a bad poker player himself, and he has a wide view of the game.
“Now cyards are only one o’ the manifestations of poker in this hyeh world. One o’ the shapes yu fool with it in when the day’s work is oveh. If a man is built like that Prince [Hal] boy was built (and it’s away down deep beyond brains), he’ll play winnin’ poker with whatever hand he’s holdin’ when the trouble begins. Maybe it will be a mean, triflin’ army, or an empty six-shooter, or a lame hawss, or maybe just nothin’ but his natural countenance. ‘Most any old thing will do for a fello’ like that Prince boy to play poker with.”
The Virginian proves himself not unlike the prince on the way back home from this very business trip, when his men—he is acting foreman on the way back to the ranch after selling cattle—threaten mutiny to chase after claims of gold. Trampas, enemy to the Virginian, has been coaxing the other men from under his power, and the Virginian has no real way to stop them from leaving. The narrator, who happens to be present, wonders how the Virginian will pull it off. And the Virginian plays his hand in possibly the best scene of the novel.
The Virginian, the narrator, the men, Trampas, and several trainloads full of Easterners heading out West on vacation are all stuck on one side of a bridge that needs repairing, and they’ve eaten everything in the nearby town. The Virginian, who saw frogs’ legs on a menu for the first time just a few weeks earlier, when the narrator explained to him a bit about Delmonico’s, notices that they are all hanging around a swamp full of frogs and goes off to catch a sackful, proceeding to fry them up to everyone’s delight (they’re very hungry). Then, to this crowd full of people who can hardly believe what they’ve just eaten, he spins a mad yarn: there was once a great frog farm-swamp, and Delmonico’s and a competing restaurant in Philadelphia send frog prices through the roof in a wild fancy-food arms race with each other. The crowd is riveted; some of them know he is telling tales, others are ready to go find a swamp of their own and strike it rich. Eventually, the Virginian explains how greed and sickness drove the frog craze to end in a crash, a dénouement that, by design, blows the lid off the whole story.
Trampas is among the losers at this particular hand of poker. He was taken in, and he’s been made too much a fool by the reveal for him to lead the men off anymore. The Virginian has triumphed and will bring his men home, with not much more than his natural countenance to help him do it.