Shane : Theme
One aspect of the story is the way Shane helps Bob to grow up, showing him what it is to be a man. Looking back in adulthood, Bob realizes how strong an influence Shane was on him all those years ago. “I wanted more and more to be like Shane,” Bo says (chapter 5). Shane has a way of explaining things to Bob that he understands and responds to, more even than his father. When in chapter 11, for example, Bob asks whether the trouble with Fletcher is over, his father speaks to him in a rather patronizing, as if he is a child, but Shane, Bob relates, spoke to him “the way I liked, as if maybe I was a man and could understand all he said” (p. 104). Shane also has a knack of drawing out general truths from particular situations, and Bob no doubt remembers these aphorisms for many years. “When there’s noise, you know where to look and what’s happening,” Shane tells him. “When things are quiet, you’ve got to be most careful” (p. 105). Shane also teaches Bob some practical skills, most importantly how to use a gun, which his father had not yet done. But it is mainly his presence, what he stood for, how he acted, that sticks with Bob and helps him all the way through his life. He never forgets Shane, even long after the gunslinger has departed.“Whenever I needed him, he was there,” Bob says in the last chapter. It is Shane who inspires Bob to grow up in the right way, to be all that a man should be. When Shane discovers that Bob has been following him into town for the final confrontation with Fletcher, he not only reassures him that everything will be all right, he tells him to look at the beauty of the valley in which he lives. It is “a good place to be a boy and grow straight inside as a man should.” That Shane is able to do this is in large part due to the influence Shane had on him.
While the external struggle is between the homesteaders and the ranchers, there is also an internal struggle, within Shane himself. He arrives in the valley trying to put his past behind him. He does not want to live by the gun anymore, and he adapts well to life as a farmhand. He does not carry a gun. In the first confrontation with Chris at the saloon, he behaves with admirable restraint. He would prefer to defuse the situation and continue his quiet, more peaceful life. But it is as if he is fighting against destiny. Inevitably, he is drawn into the conflict between Joe Starrett and Luke Fletcher, and he knows, once Fletcher brings in the gunslinger Wilson, that he is the only one who can settle it in Starrett’s favor. But his decision to enter the fray is not reached without a great internal struggle. This comes in chapter 11, as the family discusses the situation the night before the final confrontation. Bob observes that Shane “was battling something within him, that old hidden desperation, and his eyes were dark and tormented against the paleness of his face. He seemed unable to look at us” (p. 115).The inner conflict reappears in chapter 13, and Shane manages to resolve something within himself. After Shane kills Wilson and Fletcher and is about to ride off for the last time, Bob catches up with him. “A man is what he is,” Shane says, “and there’s no breaking the mold. I tried that and I lost” (p. 143). He has discovered that he cannot effect the change he so much wanted to achieve. The life he created for himself as a gunslinger is the only life he has and he has to accept that now.
The Evolution of Civilization and Community
The situation in the valley is at a crucial point in the evolution of civilization in Wyoming. Fletcher the rancher represents an older way of living. This is made clear by Joe Starrett in the first real conversation he has with Shane: “The open range can’t last forever. The fence lines are closing in. Running cattle in big lots is good business only for the top ranchers, and it’s a poor business at that . . . . in terms of the resources going into it. Too much space for too little results. It’s certain to be crowded out.” 8 The conflict between the ranchers, embodied in Fletcher, and the homesteaders who are fairly new arrivals in the valley, is what fuels the plot in the novel.
The farms that the homesteaders are creating represent a more advanced form of human civilization, in the sense that they involve putting down roots, cultivating the land, and creating some of the hallmarks of a civilized way of life.This is suggested early on in the description of the Starretthouse, which has wooden floors and is painted “white with green trim, rare thing in all that region.” The roof is also shingled. “Few places so spruce and well-worked could be found so deep in the Territory in those days,” (p. 3)Bob says. The Starretts, modest though their endeavor is, and just begun, are nonetheless in the vanguard of civilization in the valley.Marian Starrett in particular strongly identifies with being civilized. Even when life gets tough, her ability to “prepare a proper dinner” (p. 7) is to her a reminder that she is civilized.
As James C. Work writes in “Settlement Waves and Coordinate Forces in Shane,” the novel depicts two waves of civilization in the American West. The ranchers are the pioneers, the first wave. The ranchers use the land as they find it, making no effort to improve it. But the availability of cheap land brings the homesteaders, the second wave of civilization, “who in their turn will subdue the wild range, clear the land, and generally “civilize the area for the establishment of steady commerce, education, churches, and law” (p. 311 in Shane: The Critical Edition, edited by James C. Work).
The growth of civilization also involves the growth of a sense of community in the area. There may still be a place for individualism—as the homesteaders all work hard as individuals—but gradually the townis developing a more collective spirit. This can be seen in the way the townspeople come together to give Ernie Wright, a homesteader who was killed by Wilson, a good funeral. Thirty-four people attend and no one has a good word for Fletcher. Weir donates a coffin and another man creates a headstone for Wright. Neither will accept any money for what they do. This shows that a new feeling is developing in the town. As far as community is concerned, the valley still lacks adequate law enforcement, which is why Shane is the one who has to settle the dispute between Starrett and Fletcher. Shane represents a throwback to an earlier era in which justice was meted out by individuals rather than by a process of collective law. But the latter will surely come soon, along with the growth of community.