Best Selling Western Novels: The Oxbow Incident
The Saturday Review calls the Oxbow Incident "a sinewy, masculine tale that progressively tightens its grip on the reader." In other words, once you start reading it, it's hard to put down. That's why it's a best selling western novel.
Walter Van Tilburg Clark exposes the inherent dangers of mob justice as a posse is formed to hang alleged cattle rustlers. Although The Oxbow Incident takes place in the Old West, it could happen anywhere. The novel forces readers to take an introspective look at the tendency of individuals to be swayed by their peers. The novel raises the following issues:
- Mob Justice: The accused get neither a trial nor a chance to defend themselves.
- Right vs. Wrong: Sometimes doing the right thing will get you killed; sometimes it's impossible to even know what the right thing is, until it's too late.
- The U.S. Constitution: The novel serves as an excellent springboard to a discussion on rights guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution.
- Peer Pressure: Actions in a mob are based, not on reason and logic, but on emotion and fear.
- Influence of the Media: Although TV did not exist in the Old West, the same principles apply.
- Father-Son Relationships: One of the novel's main conflicts focuses on a father who wants his son to be something he is not. the results are catastrophic.
Analyzing the Oxbow Incident
Walter Van Tilburg Clark masterfully utilizes the following literary devices:
- Irony: The phrase mob justice itself is ironic. The more characters do what they believe is right, the more they go wrong.
- Foreshadowing: The horrific end is hinted at throughout.
- Suspense: Van Tilburg Clark deftly uses foreshadowing, dangerous situations, and pacing to create excitement in the reader.
- Conflict: The obvious conflict in a novel includes individual vs. society; however, a deeper look reveals the inner conflict each member of the mob undergoes as the quest for (in)justice moves forward.
- Symbolism: Some consider the novel allegorical; I would not venture as far; however, it is rich in symbols.
- Theme: Van Tilburg Clark has an important message, one that we all need to hear.
Readability and Appropriateness
The ultimate measuring stick for any literary work is whether the reader continues. For the advanced, the novel surpasses even the optimistic reader's expectations. For average high school readers, the novel may be too complex. Implement some fun reading activities to motivate them. You may also try these reading strategies to help struggling students get more out of the novel.
In addition, it contains racial epithets considered acceptable in 1940 when the book was published that many readers deem offensive today. The incidents are few, but noteworthy. There are also sexual innuendo, not blatant, and graphic violence. I find it difficult to believe any student would find the novel offensive.