American Masterpieces: American Westerns

Grant T. Smith, Ph. D.

Shane -- Discussion Questions

 

1. What scenes and/or passages in Shane did you find especially powerful, puzzling, provocative, descriptive, insightful, confusing, or misleading?

2. In her essay "Melodramas of Beset Manhood," Nina Baym claims that in the "myth" of the American individual the essential quality of America comes to reside in its unsettled wilderness and the opportunities that such a wilderness offers to the individual. The wilderness or the frontier is the medium in which the individuals may inscribe, unhindered, their own destiny and their own nature. Theoretically, the individual should be male or female, but Baym argues that in classical American literature (and for our concerns, American Westerns) those elements that proscribe the individual's mobility are depicted in unmistakably "feminine" terms. Thus she claims, this sexual definition of the individual and the participants that impede the individual's individuation has misogynist implications.

 

Is Marian an obstacle to Shane's self-discovery and self assertion? Does Marian represent a threat even to her husband's pursuit of the opportunities that the West offers? How do you read Marian? Does she restrict (domesticate) the natural man? Or does she offer in any way a practicable and preferable alternative to the ultimately destructive definition of self that Shane signifies? Some scholars even claim that Shane is the story of a love triangle--with Marian as the "other woman" who breaks up a homosexual attraction between Shane and Joe. Is there evidence in the text of homoeroticism?

 

3. What are the social and political implications of Shane's statement: "A gun is just a tool, Marian. It's as good or as bad as the man that uses it." How does Shane's comment echo gun control sentiments today?

4. Shane is often read as a paradigm of frontier freedoms (Luke Fletcher) and the strictures of civilized law (Joe Starret). The homesteaders represent the value of home, family, civilization, and the future; whereas, Fletcher represents the primitive, the violent, and the past. Find textual evidence to support this dialectic: the individual versus the society. Does anything emerge from the dialectic? Are there contradictions within the dialectic that cause the reader to challenge the assumptions of such a "tidy" conflict?

5.  Paul Seydor identifies as "masculine" the principle in American culture of insisting that knowledge is gained through firsthand experience without any kind of mediation. Is this what the narrator, Bob, recognizes in Shane? Does he perceive this sense of risking one's self--living on the edge, daring to define one's life according to one's terms--as a positive way of being? How do you read Shane? Is his defiant individualism glorious, perhaps even transcendent? Or does this "masculine" principle ultimately lead to self-annihilation?

6. Discuss how Shane is clearly a romance, the story of a knight-errant figure who makes possible the establishment of essential codes of human conduct, and thus makes life tolerable in a "kingdom" he cleanses of evil. What romantic conventions can you identify in the narrative? How does the story depart from a romance?

7. Traditional Western heroes don't talk a lot. Why do you think this is so? What does this absence of words, and presence of acts reveal about Shane? The Western hero? Men? Women? The Western view of life?

8. What are your thoughts of the film, Shane? What cinematic conventions were used effectively and for what purpose? What myths were reinforced or dispelled? How is the film a "typical" western? How is it atypical?