The Ox-Bow Incident: Essay Q&A
1. How is the depiction of paranoia achieved in this novel?
From the time when Gil and Croft enter Canby's saloon in Chapter One and the rustling of cattle is mentioned, Croft (the first-person narrator) reveals his anxiety about being considered an outsider even by those who know him: 'Most of the men who came in were riders and men we knew. I thought they looked at Gil and me curiously and longer than usual, but probably that wasn't so.' The outsider, it is clear, is understood as suspicious by Croft and the other men. This is depicted closely in the card game between Gil and Farnley, and in Croft's desire for Gil to lose in order to avoid attracting any more attention. Furthermore, it is stressed several times that the men have been worried that the rustling may have been committed by people they know. This is a salient point because if the men had known the rustlers they would have been less able to use the criminals as scapegoats. The outsider is always a more convenient form of sacrifice for uniting the group as the outsider has no allies.
The lynching of outsiders (Martin, Hardwick and Juan 'the Mex') confirms the mob's preference to blame those from outside the community. The sense of belonging is fostered by paranoia, and this also drives the group to search for a necessary stranger. The concept of the scapegoat is as ancient as the Old Testament as is the practice of using one to form a community of sorts. By ousting an individual or a minority (that is, by electing a scapegoat), the group has the means to unite in hatred. This practice, which is as old as civilization, is demonstrably under attack in this work.
2. Examine the treatment of justice in this novel.
The central theme of justice is interrogated through the questioning of the actions of the lynch mob. The accused men are certainly innocent and are denied any type of legal process. They are judged, instead, by prejudiced opinions and by the group's desire for violence which is passed off as vengeance. Characters such as Winder and Farnley are some of the strongest negative voices that rail against the legalities involved in a frontier society. Their impatience with the law evokes little sympathy for the reader as they prefer to be the ones to judge and, as Davies points out, the question is why should they be the ones to rashly decide on the fate of the accused.
Beyond these criticisms of arbitrary justice, it is also possible to see this novel engaging with the philosophy of fairness and morality as Davies insists that these accused men should be given due consideration. He understands that their lives are of value. Because of this, he intrinsically represents justice for humanity's sake and is a symbol of how men should respond to crime and punishment. Morality is barely engaged with by those who are more concerned with conformity (as with Croft and Gil), or vengeance (which is Farnley's foremost consideration). The actions of the bully, as represented by Tetley, are shown to be amoral as power and sadism are is his only motivations.
3. Consider the relationship between masculinity and violence as portrayed in this work.
Characters such as Tetley and the others who subscribe to the lynching tend to conflate masculinity with violence. This connection is not overtly questioned; instead, it is regarded as an unpleasant norm at most by the narrator. Croft's perspective outlines Tetley as a bully who takes pleasure in inflicting fear and murder. However, it is also implied that when Croft is displeased with Gerald for revealing his emotions, Croft becomes comparable to Tetley. Further to this, Croft is also more concerned with looking weak in front of the men when he is shot and passes out than he is with his own physical well-being. This novel, therefore, looks at violence and masculinity critically because of the depiction of the lynching, but it also offers complexities because the narrator is as entangled as Tetley in the stereotype of how a man should perform his assigned gender role.
The lynching of the accused, innocent men depends on Tetley performing his prescribed role accurately. Dressed in his army uniform, he leads the men into action, and destruction. Undoubtedly, it is the connection between masculinity and violence that brings about the murders of the accused and the suicides of Gerald and Tetley; therefore, the ideology which underpins a traditional understanding of masculinity is deconstructed. Although closure is avoided, as the novel ends with Croft appearing to agree with Gil that it is time to move on and Davies is incapacitated, the judgement against the sadism that is elemental to Clark's masculinity is evident.
4. Consider how this both belongs to the Western genre and is also an allegory.
Drawing on Wallace Stegner's argument that this novel is an allegorical critique of civilization, it is possible to understand that this work is depicting more than the typical Western story. Stegner argues this in the Random House Introduction to The Ox-Bow Incident (2001): 'I suspect that The Ox-Bow Incident's unchallenged place on the shelf of Western classics is due not to its being fully appreciated and comprehended but to its persistently being misread as the kind of mythic Western Walter Clark was actually all but parodying.' The expected plots, characters and settings are employed, as with the description of Canby's saloon, and with the emphasis placed on the fear of the outsider. However, this is also more sophisticated than the usual novel belonging to the Western genre in that it extends to question human failings in society. By arguing that this works as an allegory as well as a Western, it should be remembered that this is not meant to imply that genre fiction is somehow less worthy than novels which transcend their categories. The point remains, though, that by operating on different levels this novel may be considered more complex in its scope than the formatted Western. Primarily, an allegorical reading is available because of the insight offered by Croft. His view constantly reiterates the dangers of standing out from the crowd and of appearing to be different. Consequently, the narrative occasionally confuses who is good and who is evil. Even the acutely sadistic Tetley is eventually given some complexity in his act of suicide after finding out that his son has killed himself. The ambivalence of Croft's response to these suicides and to the lynching of three innocent men helps the reader to understand that the decision to follow rather than stand out (and attract suspicion) is a cause of the denigration of the meaning of civilization.
Further to this, it is through the characterization of Davies that the allegory of the uncivilized life may be noted more fully. Davies embodies the innocent and the voice of reason, yet it is he and not Croft who suffers with guilt in Chapter Five. Closure, which is usually evident in Westerns, is denied here as the symbolically good (in the shape of Davies) is fractured with remorse.
5. Analyse the relevance of the title.
The Ox-Bow valley is not referred to until Chapter Three when it is mentioned as the ideal place for the suspected rustlers and murderers to hide or rest. It is also a trap as there is only one way in and out for men with cattle. In addition to this, the 'incident' of the title is the understated reference to the lynching of three innocent men. This understatement should not be overlooked as this serves to emphasize the horror of what occurs. The title avoids invoking superlatives and depends on a flatter, more mundane response to a terrifying event. By playing the violence down in the title, the gritty descriptions of the lynching become exaggeratedly more effective. This is not only an effective style technique, it is also indicative of the everyday injustices that prevail in not only nineteenth-century frontier society, but in the twentieth and twenty first century too.
The murders of Martin, Hardwick and Juan (who is referred to as 'the Mex') are decided by a number of circumstantial details and it transpires that none of these are valid. The initial factor in their downfall is their presence in this nearby valley. The decision to camp at Ox-Bow is trivial yet desperately important. This accident of geography has played a part in their murders and because of this the title points up immediately how this novel examines the arbitrariness of justice and civilized behavior.