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“The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains” by Wister Essay (Book Review)

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Updated: Sep 18th, 2020

It is worth noting that Owen Wister was among the first writers to make a cowboy the central character of his works. He was able to romanticize this literary character and their life and to give such a hero the traits of a positive personality. It is crucial that the image of such a hero arose in his earlier stories, but he kept it within the limits of a characterological sketch; however, later, the writer deeply mastered the Western types and conflicts and created a new literary form that dominated throughout his works. Wister’s works laid the ideological mood and style of the western. One of the most popular works in this genre is his book The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains. At present, it is believed that this writing opened up the era of the western. The purpose of this paper is to review this book by Owen Wister.

Short Description of the Novel

The Virginian was the main hero in the book who worked at a cattle ranch. Not much was known about him, but he had a courageous character and an attractive personality. He fell in love with a woman while repelling enemy attacks in the new place in which he resided. He had to cope with the hanging of one of his close friends since the latter was engaged in cattle rustling. Apart from that, he had a gun duel in which he had to overcome moral suffering (the need to shoot a person) and killed his enemy (Wister 281). In the end, the main hero became a respected person and married the woman he loved.

Key Points and Critical Analysis

The main hero comes to Wyoming from the South, and he is referred to as Virginian throughout the entire book. It is crucial that he does not appear in the story from the beginning since the narration is performed on behalf of another character (tenderfoot) who gradually becomes a close friend of the Virginian. The narrator is a protagonist who observes the main hero from a distance and gives the reader the opportunity to assess the originality and character of the cowboy independently (Wister 39). In addition, through the descriptions of the protagonist, the reader can consider the unusual exotic environment in which the events unfold. Therefore, until the Virginian becomes the central figure, the narrator’s point of view dominates.

In general, there are several conflicts in this novel that can be evidenced both directly and indirectly, and some form of double dichotomy could be observed in the story. First, one of the main arguments revolves around the feud between the Virginian and Trampas. Second, a significant part of the reading concentrates on a love story between the protagonist and a schoolteacher named Molly Wood (Wister 36). Third, the central conflict permeates the entire way of the Virginian to becoming a respected rancher and a happy family man. Nevertheless, all these ramifications occur against the background of the opposition of the American West to the East. Also, it can be assumed that the New World is opposed to the Old one.

Further Details

In addition to the clear plot lines such as romantic relationships, the issue of male domination, and so on, the novel has an ideological coloring, which contributes to the importance of the whole work. Throughout the story, the reader can notice allusions to the themes of morality and democracy, equality, and arbitrariness. For instance, the author has devoted three chapters to discussing equality and the issue of pretended equality in rights. This topic is raised indirectly, and it is introduced in conversations between the main characters through phrases like “I touched upon that theme of equality on which I knew him to hold opinions as strong as mine” (Wister 121). This method helped the reader to comprehend the values of the main hero as well as to understand the issues faced by general society at that time. It can also be assumed that multiple discussions of democracy and aristocracy were an attempt to change the traditions of Jeffersonian democracy.

It is significant that the opposition of the two sides can also be observed at the level of Virginian’s love relationship with Molly Wood. The woman intends to make the cowboy a more civilized person by initiating classical literature discussions. Molly embodies literary experience, which has been partially borrowed while the Virginian personifies experience obtained from the local environment, which is based on common sense. This juxtaposition reflected the opposition of the New World to the Old one, which was characteristic of America. Molly tries to substantiate to the main character the ideological and legal essence of the Old World.

During their discussions, the protagonist chooses several books that vividly reflect the author’s personal position. One of these books is a novel by a Russian author, in which the protagonist goes to a riot in the name of democracy. Through the words “I’ve never saw a book could tell the truth like that one does”, the author exhibits to the audience his individual views (Wister 81). Nevertheless, the writer provides the reader with the opportunity to assess the core of civilization independently.

The Importance of the Main Hero

The Virginian has a solid and strong character, which makes him a memorable person. He gradually supplants the narrator as an individual who cannot comprehend the West with its characteristic features. The hero captivates the reader with his good nature and cordiality, which contrasts with the negative or less remarkable characters. In addition, the Virginian has a strong sense of dignity and strives for independence. The character’s attractiveness lies in the fact that indigenous roots are manifested in him, and his personality and destiny underscore the importance of southerners in the development of the West.


Thus, it can be concluded that the novel The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains by Owen Wister is a valuable book, which has gained popularity and recognition due to various reasons. It has an exciting plot, which immerses the reader in the atmosphere of the West and depicts not only the exotic environment but also the local color. By keeping the cowboy with his character and destiny central to the entire book, Wister was able to open up a new genre in writing. In addition, the book had a significant ideological meaning, which was the conflict between democracy and aristocracy, the New World and the Old one, and so on. By making his characters speak openly about their representations, the author tried to express his viewpoint as well. Nonetheless, he allows the reader to make his or her own judgments based on their individual analysis and interpretation of the story and its events.

Work Cited

Wister, Owen. The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains. Dover Publications, 2012.

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