The Ox-Bow Incident: Theme Analysis
The theme of guilt is drawn on predominantly in Chapter Five as Davies uses the narrator as a form of confessor. With Davies questioning himself obsessively, and because of the suicides of Gerald and Tetley, it is possible to understand how this novel exposes the flaws that become apparent when one assumes the authority to judge and condemn others.
This is written of in a complex fashion as Clark refuses to simplify this emotion. Croft hints through his narration that he does not share (or does not choose to share) Davies' feelings of indebtedness to those who have been lynched. It is also worth remembering, though, that Croft neither likes to express emotions nor does he want to hear other men revealing theirs. To a certain extent, Croft is as embroiled in the destructive trope of masculinity as Tetley.
Davies, however, is characteristically devastated by the lynching of the men as he has been the most fervently opposed to this occurring. His guilt highlights a continued idealization of his moral stance, and this is emphasized in comparison to Croft's reticence on the matter. Further to this point, it must be remembered that to experience guilt one must also have a conscience. Davies' distress in Chapter Five and his attempts to stop the lynching are depicted as a paradigm for humanity. If all the men were as courageous as Davies, it is implied, the innocent would not have been killed.
The slow legal process of the justice system is the reason, or excuse, for denying the accused innocent men the fairest judgements available. Winder and Farnley are the most vocal ones to criticize the effectiveness of the law in this frontier society.
Justice is also considered on a more transcendent level. This novel does not only question the inadequacies of the law, it also denounces those who prefer to resign their moral values in a society that is compromised by bullies and stereotypes of gendered behavior. Although superficially the arbitrary justice of the frontier society is castigated, this work is also concerned with such philosophies as fairness and the challenging of prejudices.
When considering the theme of masculinity, it is worth noting how this novel manages to simultaneously criticize and uphold values associated with this gender role. This occurs through Croft's distanced narration; distanced in that his decisions are based on his perceptions of survival rather than ethical or moral judgements. Croft recognizes that in this 'pack', as Gerald describes the organized mob, it is imperative to portray oneself 'like a man'. To show one's emotions or any form of weakness, a man would be considered effeminate. Because Croft never fully separates his ideology from the pack's, his perspective never fully relinquishes masculine values.
This work clearly criticizes the negative associations attached to masculinity, though, when one interprets Croft's voice as an unreliable narrator. This is not to say that the reader is being lied to, necessarily, but that an obviously prejudiced account is being offered.
It is primarily with the depiction of the struggle between father and son (Tetley and Gerald) that the male struggle with gender stereotyping is revealed. Through these characters, the novel demonstrates the conflict between the prescribed way to live and the desired one. Tetley and Gerald are in opposition to each other and both find life untenable by the end.
This heightened sense of fear is achieved through the retrospective voice of Croft. From the time that he and Gil enter Canby's saloon, the tone of distrust and fear of exposure (even when innocent) is evoked. Croft's mental asides inform the reader of his paradoxical cowardly fear that he may not be regarded as brave enough.
It is conclusively this fear of not appearing brave, or masculine, or of not belonging to the community that inspire Gil and Croft to join the hunting party that is the lynch mob. The anxiety of being perceived as an outsider is voiced initially when Canby and Moore discuss the actions of the rustlers and Canby then refers to Gil and Croft as 'strangers'.
By invoking the fear of outsiders, this novel travels beyond its Western genre classification and examines the underpinnings of racism and, more broadly, the intolerance of difference. This community's reactionary position when faced with a threat indicates how dangerous the actions of a group can be. The group will have only become civilized when it tries to understand rather than obliterate difference.
The novel is based around a primary narrative of the hunting and lynching of the men who are accused of killing Kinkaid and rustling cattle. Before the truth is revealed, that Kinkaid is not dead and the wrong men have been lynched, the mob (which includes Croft) and the reader, wait for others to get their guns, and wait for orders of others to perform the task of seeking revenge. This deliberation over waiting is, of course, a ploy to keep the reader engaged. Moreover, it is also emblematic of the indecision of the group as Clark portrays them. This group of men await orders and in a general sense behave as the others do in order to appear unified, and brave.
Waiting is also used in another sense too in that Tetley draws out the time the accused have to spend until they are lynched. Time is used here as a weapon and as a symbol of his power to decide the fate of others.