Different Sides of the Western Coin
John J. Murphy
Owen Wister in The Virginian and Willa Cather in My Antonia portray contrasting versions of the American West through characters of epic, almost archetypal, dimensions. The representative purposes of both novelists are inherent in their adoption of the first-person point of view, enabling their heroes to be evaluated and associated with certain ideals and meanings by other participants in the action. Elizabeth Sergeant explains that when My Antonia was being planned, Cather compared her new heroine to an apothecary jar filled with orange-brown flowers in the middle of a table. She was to be a rare object examined from all sides and to stand out "because she is the story." 1 The male narrator functioning as examiner involves a difficulty, however; he is placed in the awkward position of being able to appreciate Antonia from a man's perspective without being romantically involved with her, thus eliminating romantic love from the core of the novel. In presenting his Western hero, Wister avoids this limitation at the expense of violating technique, by having a male narrator focus on certain qualities in the development of the hero and then switching to an omniscient authority to highlight others. In both novels, these technical peculiarities merely reflect similar efforts to embody Western experiences and attitudes in heroic lives. That one hero is of the cattle frontier and the other of the agricultural frontier is an occasional distinction; more importantly, one is a man and one a woman, and the situations and heroic qualities of each underscore distinct concepts of Western potentials, of what constitutes success in individual lives and in the history of the country. After summarizing the development of Wister's hero, I will suggest Cather's conscious dismissal of this type in order to develop her own, summarize that development, and then indicate the clearly divergent views of the West implied in the characterizations.