The Virginian is a Western. The plot outline sounds stupid and generic: Tenderfoot Nameless First Person Narrator goes out west and meets Handsome Strong Silent Hero Who Lives By A Perfect Code of Honor And Therefore Must Occasionally Take The Law Into His Own Hands (aka "The Virginian"). Tenderfoot also meets Beautiful Young Schoolteacher Who Loves Hero But Fears Her Family Won't Accept Him Because His Lineage And Manners Aren't As Classy As Hers. Oh yes, and there's also Mean Drunken Yellow-bellied Bad Guy Who Makes Things Difficult For Hero.
How does this book rise above these generic plot elements? Well, for one, it has a bit of humor. One of my favorite parts is Schoolteacher's first appearance in the book. She's written a letter inquiring about the teaching position, and Tenderfoot, Virginian, and Minor Character are discussing it. The letter is hilarious: she inquires whether she could sue if the Wyoming climate ruins her complexion, she comments that she may be unsuited for teaching because she leaves out the "u" in "honor," and finally she signs it "your very sincere spinster." Though Minor Character "over whose not highly civilized head certain portions of the letter had highly passed" takes the letter at face value ("I guess that means she's forty"), The Virginian immediately susses that she couldn't be more than twenty, and thus "the seed of love" is sown.
For another, it is so much about the land. Here's The Virginian and Schoolteacher on their honeymoon:
They passed through the gates of the foot-hills, following the stream up among them. The outstretching fences and the widely trodden dust were no more. Now and then they rose again into view of the fields and houses down in the plain below. But as the sum of the miles and hours grew, they were glad to see the road less worn with travel, and the traces of men passing from sight. The ploughed and planted country, that quilt of many-colored harvests which they had watched yesterday, lay in another world which they had watched yesterday, lay in another world from this where they rode now. No hand but nature's had sown these crops of yellow flowers, these willow thickets and tall cottonwoods. Somewhere in a passage of red rocks the last sign of wagon wheels was lost, and after this the trail became a wild mountain trail. . . . Full solitude was around them now, so that their words grew scarce, and when they spoke it was with low voices.
Sigh! This book was written almost at the time that it takes place (first published in 1902). Owen Wister was really there. The characters may be idealized heroic/romantic stereotypes, but Wyoming -- that's what he really saw!
The Virginian is not without flaws. The worst, in my opinion, is that for much of the book Tenderfoot is narrating events, conversations, thoughts, and feelings that he wasn't privy to. Once or twice his deep friendship with Schoolteacher is briefly alluded to, and we must assume she told him "everything" -- but it doesn't quite work. And Tenderfoot is not a well-defined character. Why is he even in Wyoming? Maybe Wister didn't want to delve too deeply into Tenderfoot's character for, ahem, other reasons, such as the fact that Tenderfoot's first description of The Virginian is "a slim young giant, more beautiful than pictures."
Another thing I didn't like was that although it's mentioned many times that The Virginian must take matters into his own hands because the judicial system is so corrupt, we don't really see the corruption. I would have liked the corruption to be more integral to the plot since it's so integral to The Virginian's motivations.
Still and all, I love Westerns, and I love idealized romantic heroes. This one was a page-turner. I was so worried that The Virginian might not live through the final showdown with Bad Guy that I actually flipped ahead to check -- something I normally would never, never do.
Thanks again, Ella!