What does it mean to be Western?

Having read “The Ice Man,” “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky,” and other Western stories, both for class and beforehand, some common elements, style, settings, and characters, stand out. As stated in a previous blog, the western genre seems to be the literary embodiment of the prevalent frontier mentality that still exists in the shadows of American mentality, coupled with typified individualist characters that Americans hold in such high regard. In some ways, many of the elements of those stories can be associated with that idea. I chose these two stories in particular because I was interested in the temporal distance between them. The former is a relatively new western, while the later was written by one of the earlier western writers. The commonality between them, then, suggests the immutability of any genre characteristics that they share.

Rugged, tough, and defiant characters are common in westerns. Indeed, in the two stories under review, both protagonists and antagonists in the stories generally match this description. In “The Ice Man,” Victor internally recognizes the smart, passive thing he ought to reply to the immigration office if he wished to be left alone, but decided against it despite the trouble it will bring. In “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky,” both Jack Potter and Scratchy Wilson are hard men willing to participate in gun fight, when necessary for the former, and when he is drunk and feels like it for the later. Potter reacts unlike a normal man might, ducking at hiding at the sight of the gun, or even acting in deference toward the man wielding it. He remains steadfast and informs Wilson that it might well be his best opportunity to kill him if he wishes so. In this way, our protagonists are both willing to stare down the odds and face their adversaries.

The taming of the wild is an elements that seems common in western and is associated with the aforementioned frontier mentality. Both stories, each in their own way, represent that struggle. The civilized man, Jack Potter, who was so ashamed that he could have abandoned his sense of propriety and duty to his community in something as personal choosing a bride for himself, must face down the wild, drunken, gun toting maniac with whom is he always willing to do battle. “The Ice Man” keeps one element of the man facing the wild, but turns another on its head when Leonard made the law man the antagonist. Victor still tests his might and courage against bulls, so he is, in that regard, our normal western hero. Nothing of a coward shows inside of him, unlike the dishonest, self-serving law enforcement official. The good wins out in the second story in a unique way, that our protagonist retains his dignity in the face of his opposition. 8 seconds on a mighty bull is more fearsome than a short time in a cell on account of a dishonest law man.

In Westerns, there is generally a clear sense of right and wrong, good and bad. While the characters may all exhibit signs of each of them, their actions are plainly interpretable. In “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky” the antagonist, himself a duality, recognizes his good side at the resolution of the story even if he is personally incapable of understanding it. When he hears about the Sheriff’s marriage, he abandons his cause and lets the sheriff be. In “The Ice Man,” there is very little doubt that the uncouth immigration and customs officer is the bad man, his way of trumping up charges against Victor and his friend makes his nature plainly evident to the audience.

The simple narrative structures, admirable, albeit somewhat stock, characters, the good versus evil, man versus wild, elements of westerns are evident in both stories, despite the differences. Rugged individualism is a mainstay of American idealism, and the idea that there is always something out there that needs civilization to be bestowed upon it still reign in American literature, western and otherwise.


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