Owen Wister’s The Virginian

A famous character in American literature, the Wyoming cowboy who originally hailed from Virginia embodies the ideal of manly virtue and honor identified with the culture of the Wild West. The Virginian is an American hero who epitomizes integrity, responsibility loyalty, justice, chivalry, and magnanimity. Honorable in work, in love, in words, in deeds, in battle, and in danger, the Virginian is always true to his word, faithful to duty, just toward all men, and uncompromising in his moral principles. A man of self-respect, he never stoops to any form of dishonesty, lowers his dignity, or loses his self-possession. An ideal of the Western cowboy, the Virginian earns the praise and admiration of the narrator (familiarly called “Tenderfoot”) who travels from the East to work on a ranch and learn the culture of the American West and the skills of a cowboy.

Arriving by train in Wyoming, Tenderfoot immediately feels like an “outsider” utterly unfamiliar with the customs, storytelling, humor, and manners of cowboys and ranchers. Disoriented upon arriving at the “forsaken hole” of Medicine Bow and then expecting to be at Judge Henry’s ranch in a few hours to enjoy a good night’s sleep, the narrator expects from the judge’s letter that it is a short distance from the station to the ranch as he reads that a cowboy (the Virginian) would “drive me over.” Learning that 263 miles of the journey await him, the narrator is in a state of disbelief: “Yes, I was dazed. How did they count distance in this country! You spoke in a neighborly fashion about driving over to town, and it meant—I did not know yet how many days.” Tenderfoot is about to receive an education not taught in the prestigious universities of the East.

Tenderfoot also is not accustomed to the silence and reserve of the Virginian who keeps his distance, respects privacy, and avoids familiarity with the newcomer. Never unapproachable or aloof, the Virginian plays the part of the unobtrusive servant accommodating the guest but always with a wry humor and a gentle touch. When they stop for the night at an eating house and the narrator is looking for a place to wash, the Virginian with “internal mirth” politely leads him to “the first wash-trough of my experience” and a wet, overused rag of a towel. The narrator also learns that the lodgings for travelers require “doubling up” two to a bed when there are more guests than beds. Observing the Virginian win at poker and provoke the spiteful loser (Trampas) to swear at him, the Virginian puts his pistol on the table and, “with a voice as gentle as ever,” responds, “When you call me that, smile!” Tenderfoot soon learns that manners and morals in the West assume a different form than the teaching of the churches and schools in the East.

After these introductions to the West and the ways of cowboys, the narrator notices the innocence of their character—lighthearted, good-natured, affable, robust men who performed hard work, endured uncomfortable living conditions, and never complained about hardships. He admires the simplicity of their life, their plainspoken honesty, and their uncorrupted moral nature. Their countenances wore the mark of men who knew sadness and the reality of evil but not debauchery. The narrator comments that the men of the West saw “more of death … but less of vice” than their counterparts in New York: “In their flesh our natural passions ran tumultuous; but often in their spirit sat hidden a true nobility, and often beneath its unexpected shining their figures took a heroic stature.” The narrator learns that culture and civilization do not depend on cosmopolitan cities, famous universities, or aristocratic families.

As they travel the two hundred miles in relative silence through the wilderness of the Rocky Mountains and see the wildlife of antelopes and coyotes, they encounter a herd of cattle that makes their horse skittish. As they pass through the crowded herd, the horse loses its footing in the soft earth, “and we plunged downwards into water, rocking some stones, and upward again through some more crumbling earth. I heard a crash, and saw my trunk landing in the stream.” Terrified that they did not plunge to their deaths, Tenderfoot admires the Virginian’s good judgment, confidence, poise, and self-control. Never ruffled by dangers, threats, or accidents, the Virginian’s quiet strength always provides comfort and serenity even in the midst of fear. Rather than punish the nervous horse that nearly caused their deaths, the Virginian makes light of the event: “some folks would beat you now till yu’d be uncertain whether yu’ was a hawss or a railroad accident. I’d do it myself, only it wouldn’t cure yu.’” The self-mastery of the Virginian, his unerring practical judgment, the “incapacity to be put at a loss,” is a rare virtue that the narrator is unaccustomed to seeing in the East.

The baseness of cattle thieves, dishonesty of gamblers, cruelty to horses, and abuse of brute power especially provoke the Virginian’s sense of justice and nobility. Trampas, the cowboy who cheats at poker, resents the Virginian’s authority as foreman, steals cattle, and slanders his character, violates by his crookedness every moral principle and the sense of decency the Virginian holds hear. In the wild West this situation cannot continue with tolerance and resignation, and it is only a matter of time before Trampas and the Virginian have a confrontation and fight to settle the conflict of good and evil that hovers ominously throughout the story: “Since that first moment, when in the Medicine Bow saloon the Virginian had shut the mouth of Trampas by a word, the man had been trying to get even without a risk.” Trampas and his followers, who desert the Virginian during the cattle drive and defy his ultimatum about stealing calves, force him to hang “rustlers” in the name of justice, honor, and law and order—a deed he performs with stoic fortitude because in the West “There’s no other way.” The narrator discovers that, even though the institutions of the church and the judiciary have no influence in the West, the natural law governs the consciences of good men who know right and wrong in their hearts.

As honest man, manly cowboy, dutiful foreman, and straightforward uncomplicated thinker (“Romeo is no man”), the Virginia intrigues and captures the interest of Molly Stark, the cultivated schoolteacher from the East who belongs to a distinguished family. His down-to-earth common sense more than compensates for his lack of formal learning: “One God and fifteen religions…. That’s a right smart of religions for just one God,” he comments when explaining that he is neither religious nor “un-religious” From their first encounter when he saves her from an accident on her journey to Wyoming to teach, the Virginian knows that Molly is the woman he loves and desires to marry. He travels one hundred miles on horseback to spend one hour with her; he reads the books she recommends and enjoys their exchange of ideas; he takes her horseback riding to his favorite spots. In the letters Molly writes to her relatives in Vermont, the family hears frequent mention of the cowboy but resist any thought of romance. The incompatibility of their family backgrounds and their imaginary idea of a cowboy as “A savage with knives and pistols!” makes the idea of courtship unthinkable. Knowing his wooing of Molly will meet resistance in New England, the Virginian writes to Molly’s mother with direct honesty: “I know you would never choose such a man as I am for her for I have got no education and must write humble against my birth. I wish I could make the news easier but truth is the best.” With a clear mind and a pure heart, the Virginian always acts on his convictions with firm determination.

Molly expects that her lover will be “underrated” by her family and not afforded their unconditional acceptance, but her Grandmother Stark surprises her with her approval. Finding the Virginian handsome, gentle, cordial, intelligent, and unruffled in his introduction to the Stark clan, the grandmother remarks to her niece, “And I think I understand why you wanted to marry him” and tells herself “He’ll do.” The New England conscience of daughter, mother, and grandmother cannot question the reality of true love. As Molly’s great aunt reflects, “She is like us all. She wants a man that is a man.” The narrator learns another invaluable lesson: “But if a chosen lover cannot stand being treated as a specimen by the other family, he’s a very weak vessel, and not worth any good girl’s love. That’s all I can say to him.” In his education in Wyoming the Tenderfoot sees manly strength in its glorious form: fearlessness before danger, the courage of conviction, the will power to keep promises, and the loyalty of undying love.

Editor’s note: The image above is a detail of “The Cowboy” painted by Frederic Remington.


Dr. Mitchell A. Kalpakgian (1941-2018) was a native of New England, the son of Armenian immigrants. He was Professor of English at Simpson College (Iowa) for 31 years. During his academic career, Dr. Kalpakgian received many academic honors, among them the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar Fellowship (Brown University, 1981); the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship (University of Kansas, 1985); and an award from the National Endowment for the Humanities Institute on Children's Literature.

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