The Virginian ran away from his home at 14 to escape from his family’s chronic lack of ambition. He traveled through much of the West and developed a keen understanding of the character of men. This understanding is indeed the focus of much of the book, especially the opening chapters, where he is sent to bring the Eastern narrator to Judge Henry’s ranch. Through his astute predictions of character he proceeds to outsmart a traveling salesman, thereby winning drinks for all from his friend Steve, and we are treated to a scene of Western revelry.
On the trip to the ranch the Virginian encounters a letter by Miss Molly Wood, of Vermont aristocracy who is thinking of going West to become a schoolteacher to escape the marraige of Money that her parents desire for her. Falling immediately in love with her, he begins the slow process of winning her. She is at first put off by his rustic appearance but his charm and gentlemanliness (and general intuition about her) establishes him as a favored visitor. He teaches her horse riding and takes her all around the country. The time comes, however, when he must leave her for extended periods because of his work for the Judge and he borrows classic books to read. (Some, like Shakespeare and a Russian novelist, who have been written by authors also endowed with observation of men, he enjoys greatly. Others he finds unbelievable.)
About this time he is entrusted with the task of bringing the Judge’s cattle to Chicago and of bringing the men back again. He accidentally meets up with the narrator on the way to Chicago, learning about the delicacy of frog’s feet. Their paths cross again on the way back, when the Virginian’s men have heard about gold in Montana and are considering leaving for the diggings and not returning to the Judge. Through a carefully crafted events he fights against the gold contingent, culminating in serving frog legs to famished fellow travellers (the trains have been stuck while a washed-out bridge is repaired) and the telling of a great tale of the frog boom in Arizona (in response to two supposed chefs from Philadelphia and New York popularizing the dish) and subsequent demise of the frog industry. His men, not being familiar with Eastern culture, are completely taken in by the story (although the Eastern travellers are not) and when they realize it, they all opt to return to the Judge with the Virginian, where the Virginian is made the Judge’s foreman.
The wooing of Miss Wood continues somewhat spottily, for although she loves him she is unwilling to admit this to herself and tries to push him away, going so far as to return to the East unknown to him. It transpires, however, that she discovers the Virginian dying from wounds inflicted by Indians shortly before she leaves and nurses him back to health over the ensuing weeks. During this time she finds that she truly does love him and wants nothing more than to marry him and so they plan a June wedding.
Before the wedding, the narrator joins the Virginian somewhat early to discover that he has discovered some of the cattle thieves and is in the process of hanging them (the law having been bought by the thieves), including his former friend Steve. After this unfortunate affair, they come across tracks of the remaining party, ascertaining their identity but being unable to catch the remaining member. Although done in secret, what happened is known to everyone in the territory and word gets back to Miss Wood, who being Eastern, abhors this murderous justice and is highly displeased that the Virginian would murder someone. It takes the Judge to explain that the Law comes from the people and when the government fails to do its duty, the burden of enforcing the Law returns to the people (also pointing out that while killing is bad, not punishing theft, etc. leads to even worse).
This theme is developed to its conclusion when the Virginian meets Trampas, his long-time enemy (and thieving ringleader), on the eve of his wedding. Trampas challenges the Virginian to a duel, despite ample opportunities that the Virginian provides for Trampas to save himself. The duel announced, the Virginian must follow through, even though Miss Wood is opposed so vehemently that she cannot marry him. The Virginian’s honor is shortly satisfied and Miss Wood discovers that her love for the Virginian exceeds her abhorrance of killing. The wedding proceeds, they spend a very satisfying honeymoon, and live happily ever after.
In The Virginian Wister writes a superbly crafted novel that captures the spirit of the Old West, of the cowboys and their interactions with other people. The main strength of the book lies in Wister’s descriptions of people, both the overt and the subtle description through their conversations (the Virginian in particular). Yet the book also portrays in vivid imagery the pictures of the West, the natural beauty of the landscape. Tied together with a love story that does not embarrass the reader like so many do, the book is so believable that the characters appear to have been taken directly out of reality.
Wister obviously is a master of character himself to be able to craft a master like the Virginian in a manner that is both believable and yet imparts the same humbling that the narrator feels to those of us with lesser abilities than the Virginian. The observations of human nature are intuitive accurate, unlike the many pronouncements made by other authors that are mostly right but just a little too vague. The writing style is at the same time humourous, serious, and descriptive and of the highest quality. This book should be on everyone’s reading list.
||Astute judge of character, a hard and truly competent worker, and a gentlemen with regard to women. Is able to lead men with wisdom. Holds honor in high regard and will not permit anyone to slander his or someone else’s (Miss Wood’s, in particular) honor. Refuses to go into cattle-rustling with his former best friend Steve. Consumate tracker, woodsman, cowboy, and shooter.|
|Miss Molly Wood
||Daughter of Eastern aristocracy
which has fallen on hard times. She has no interest in a marraige
of money. Very independent. Does not consider the Virginian
to be worthy of marraige until she nurses him back to health.
“And his roughness was a pleasure to her, yet it made her afraid of herself. When he was absent from her, and she could sit in her cabin and look at Grandmother Stark, and read home letters, then in imaginiation she found it easy to play the part of the guide, and superior and indulgent companion. But when he was by her side, that part became a difficult one. Her woman’s fortress was shaken by a force unknown to he before. Sam Bannatt did not have it in him to look as this man could look, when the cold lustre of his eyes grew hot with internal fire.”
||Easterner who is friends with Judge Henry and who eventually wins the respect of the Virginian.|
||Prominent Judge in the Idaho
territory. A wealthy cattle rancher, he employs the Virginian,
first as a cow-hand and (after a somewhat stormy relationship) as a
||Man of black character who first meets the Virginian in a game of poker. Is repeatedly publically embarrassed by the Virginian who will not put up with his black nature when it crosses the respectability of others. Because of this he cannot stand the Virginian and looks for an opportunity to rid the world of him. Corrupts Shorty and later shoots him in the back to escape quickly from the Virginian’s pursuit in the mountains.|
||Possesses the same qualities as the Virginian but to a lesser degree and without being a consumate gentleman.|
||Well-meaning but naive man who
never adjusts to the realities of life. He is easily corrupted by
||Lives in Dunbartan, Vermont, some distance from the rest of the family. Is the only member of the family that sees the value in the Virginian. She seems to have turned down a man like the Virginian for a marraige of money.|
||Wife of the man who organized the school. Molly lived in a cabin they built for her. She is of the strong opinion that Molly should marry the Virginian.|
||A man cruel to animals, which was especially distasteful in a country where horses (in particular) were well-respected and, indeed, necessary. Molly knows his wife and it is through her that she is invited to teach the school at Bear Creek.|
||Suitor of monied but bland
“There before her stood Sam Bannett, asking if he might accompany her...'No!’ she told him with a severity born from the struggle she was making with her grief [at leaving home]. ‘Not a mile with me. Not to Eagle Bridge. Good-bye.’ And Sam—what did he do? He obeyed her. I should like to be sorry for him, but obedience was not a lover’s part here. He hesitated, the golden moment hung hovering, the conductor cried ‘All Aboard!’ the train went, and there on the platform stood obedient Sam, with his golden moment gone like a butterfly.”