Lonsome Dove: Theme Analysis
Lonesome Dove features a tangle of characters, stretches across vast distances, and describes a time past. Many readers feel that it gently critiques the tendency of people to mythologize the West, the time of the cowboy, and the frontier spirit. Two themes of the novel are embedded in the actions and experiences of its characters.
The Costs of Living Up to the Code
One of the persistent myths of the Old West, often reinforced in novels, movies, and television shows, concerns a code of behavior that men were supposed to internalize and uphold. The Texas Ranger, the scout, the cowboy, the frontiersman, the lone wolf—these heroic archetypes have common characteristics in many stories of the West and the frontier. The characters of Gus and Call draw on this archetype: Both adhere to a code of action and honor. They do not evade hard or unpleasant tasks, such as the hanging of Jake. They reserve their respect for those who share this code, such as Deets, on whose grave marker Call carves the approving words “Cherful in all weathers, never sherked a task. Splendid behaviour.” Such archetypal characters draw readers’ admiration as well. But the novel demythologizes the archetype by making clear, through the characters and their stories, the cost of living up to this code—in particular in the stories of Gus and of Call, the only main character who is present on the first and final pages of the novel. The criticism of the code—how it fails the men who live by it—is part of the novel’s larger critique of the myth of the west.
Gus is the novel’s optimist and sensualist. He enjoys life himself and enjoys helping others enjoy it, as when he gives Dish money to buy sex and, later, encourages Lorena to stop looking for happiness in San Francisco and instead relish daily joys. Call complains (silently) that Gus is happy to leave leadership, with its tough decisions and constant pressures, to others; yet throughout the novel it is clear that Gus steps up to tasks great and small when called upon. His loyalty to Call and other lawmen, and to the crew, is intense and well-tested. However, these very qualities are the ones that make it impossible for him to have the one thing that might make him truly happy: Clara. Clara’s importance to him is clear when he cries as he and Call pass the spot on the Guadalupe River where Gus and Clara once picnicked, and where she turned down his proposal. Gus is already married, in a sense, Clara knows—to the code of behavior that he and Call require of each other, to their mutual ruin, in her opinion. Gus is a “rambler” and always will be; Clara turns him down—twice—because she knows that Call and their shared Ranger experiences will always have the greater claim on Gus. Po Campo senses this truth about Gus, too, telling him that his only wife now is “the sky,” a truth that makes the usually cheerful Gus temporarily “sour” as he continues north on the quest that Call, not he himself, set.
Call, the novel’s taciturn, joyless protagonist, suffers most for his holding to the archetype, however. His strength of character and his leadership skills, on the one hand, make possible not only his own achievements but the success of the Rangers who served under him in the past and of the Hat Creek crew. Members of the crew regard him with something like awe: He mystifies Newt, who feels at first that nothing he can do will impress the Captain; Pea Eye thinks of him as a man who cannot die and worries about how the ranch will survive when Call leaves for Texas. Call’s reputation is widespread; even the brutally capable Blue Duck knows better than to harm Gus if Call is alive to avenge the act. Call endures everything nature can throw at him, seemingly untouched—just as a hero should, archetypically.
Yet Call is a profoundly incomplete man. Violence surges just beneath his ideal of justice, as readers see in the incident with Dixon. Relationships are beyond him, requiring as they do an admission of human need. Even purely physical relationships, the kind Gus enjoys with various women, threaten Call, who holds himself severely apart from women except in the disastrous case of Maggie. Call seems able to sustain one relationship only, his contentious friendship with Gus. His code of behavior drives him away from the crew; forces him to hang Jake even though he knows that Jake’s failure is due to laziness, not malice; sets him against Clara and Lorena; and, worst of all, keeps him from acknowledging his son, an act that he perceives as more difficult than death. In essence, having internalized a dysfunctional code that is still popularly regarded as grandly heroic, Call misses out on much of the joy life has to offer and calls into question the archetype on which he is based.
Journeys and Self-Knowledge
Many of the main characters in the novel choose or are compelled to travel long distances, incurring risks and sometimes meeting with tragedy. Regardless of the outcome of a journey, the traveler learns something about him or herself. For example, Roscoe Brown, who would much rather stay in the Fort Smith jail drinking and napping, is forced to follow July to Texas. Roscoe begins the journey full of self-doubt and, indeed, trying not to cry; and he immediately demonstrates how ill-equipped he is for his assigned task. Roscoe loses his way, rides into nests of stinging insects, and finds himself upstaged by a girl whose skills guide, provide for, and protect them till the climactic moment when, sluggish from sleep, he cannot even lift a hand to defend Janey or himself from Blue Duck. Roscoe’s journey consistently confirms his suspicions about his inadequacies and is humorous despite its bloody conclusion.
Roscoe’s boss, July Johnson, by contrast, starts his journey confident in his ability to apprehend Jake Spoon but deeply worried about his wife. The farther he travels, the more doubt and indecision creep into his thinking till they come close to paralyzing him. Though dogged in his pursuit of Ellie—he foolishly draws his people into Blue Duck’s path, loses several horses, turns his back on reality, and arrives in Nebraska injured and ill in body and spirit, still resisting the painful knowledge that Elmira has utterly rejected him. A pivotal moment comes when July writes to Peach to tell her to give the sheriff’s job to someone else—someone who can handle it. At the novel’s end, Clara pities July but also finds his continued indecisiveness deeply annoying, yet readers may feel hopeful that July will gradually find his place in Clara’s household.
Other characters move toward self-knowledge till their journeys are cut short. Lorena Wood, who has lived much of her young adulthood trapped in a room, owned in a sense by one man and rented by many, grows strong, tan, and relaxed as she travels near the Hat Creek crew. Readers see the silent, passive young woman find her will and become more assertive, earning Jake’s anger and Augustus’s admiration. Her journey toward self-knowledge is dramatically interrupted when Blue Duck kidnaps her, and after her ordeal she seems to be able to define herself only in terms of others—as Gus’s lover or wife, and as Clara’s ward. As with July, readers can guess what Lorie may discover about herself in Clara’s care.
The longest journey—from the Rio Grande to Montana and back again—is Call’s. On the way north, Gus serves, as he has throughout their friendship, as the prod to Call’s emotions; and Call, irritated as always by Gus’s insistence that he feel—for Maggie, for Newt, for others—resists Gus’s arguments. But after Gus’s death, as Call prepares to return to Texas, takes his leave of Newt and the crew, and travels alone, he does begin to feel and to consider how and why he feels. The most silent man in the novel, and the character whose thoughts readers have least access to, is the one who many readers most want to change. But self-knowledge for Call is deeply painful, reminding him only of what he perceives as failure. McMurtry, writing about Call, claims that he assumed during the novel’s creation that Call would finally acknowledge Newt and was in fact surprised that that moment never came.
Other major and minor characters also journey to self-knowledge in the novel; readers can consider the journeys, for example, of Deets, Newt, Jake Spoon, and Elmira. Bolivar presents an interesting case, too: He refused to take the journey at all. Readers can consider how that decision worked out for Bol.