Places: The Ox-Bow Incident

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1940

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Regional

Time of work: 1885

Places DiscussedBridger’s Wells

Bridger’s Ox-Bow Incident, TheWells. Nevada town in which most of the novel’s characters live or do business. Two cowboys, Croft and Gil, ride into this town after spending the winter in solitude on the range. While in town, rumors quickly spread that a local cattleman has been murdered and his cattle have been stolen.

The town scenes are important for several reasons. First, this is the place of civilization. In contrast to the open range country, the town, with its churches, businesses, and legal authorities, represented by Sheriff Mapes and Judge Tyler, all suggest a civilization where moral and ethical judgment is presumed. Second, in the town scenes, Clark is able to introduce a large number of characters who either live in Bridger’s Wells or who are present to do business. These characters all have an economic interest in the town. They are rightly concerned about cattle rustling and murder, and they are eager to make sure evil is punished so that their status will be protected. Third, in front of the saloon, these various characters gather to hear and respond to the announcement of murder and cattle rustling. This is a natural setting where readers can readily see the range of emotional speeches and futile attempts at reason provoked by the announcement.

Finally, after the tragic miscarriage of justice occurs, most of the riders return to Bridger’s Wells. Readers see various responses to the deed, including drunken attempts at stoic callousness, guilty introspection, and even suicide. After the foolish hangings occur outside town, the plot returns to where the rush to judgment began, thereby providing a powerful contrast in the characters, from their initial public energy to a secretive, shameful reflection. Readers are brought back to the place of civilization as the characters are brutally reminded that, although justice may not be swift, it must be accurate.

Ox-Bow Valley

Ox-Bow Valley. Valley outside the town in which the hangings take place at the conclusion of the novel. There, the three falsely accused cattlemen have stopped to spend the night and avoid a snow storm. This place is important because, as the vigilante posse recognizes, it is the only possible place rustlers could have taken the supposedly stolen herd. This valley has only one entrance and is surrounded by steep mountains on the three remaining sides. The posse thinks the rustlers are foolish for stopping here and that a relatively easy capture and enforcement of justice will follow. Ironically, the cattlemen stop here because it is a natural place to wait while the weather clears, and since they are innocent, they have no reason to find a better hiding place or escape route. This valley also reminds readers of a noose and a question mark. Clark seems to use the geographical shape of this valley as an ugly symbol that portends the trap in which the falsely accused find themselves, where the question of justice is arrogantly pretended and where the three die by hanging. After the truth is realized, however, readers more accurately see that those rushing to judgment also trapped themselves in this valley, having committed themselves to a group process that no individual could prevent without serious consequences.

BibliographyAndersen, Kenneth. “Form in Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s The Ox-Bow Incident.” Western Review 6 (Spring, 1969): 19-25. Discusses literary devices Clark uses to give The Ox-Bow Incident its “clean, ordered, classical” structure. Analyzes the novel’s proportions, dramatic sequencing of events, unified tone, and use of irony, nature imagery, and contrasting sounds.Bates, Barclay W. “Clark’s Man for All Seasons: The Achievement of Wholeness in The Ox-Bow Incident.” Western American Literature 3 (Spring, 1968): 37-49. Finds a serious flaw in every character in The Ox-Bow Incident except Swanson, Rose Mapen’s husband, who alone is free, guiltless, rational, eloquent, and in control.Laird, Charlton, ed. Walter Van Tilburg Clark: Critiques. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1983. A collection of original material by Clark and evaluations of his work by several critics, most notably Wallace Stegner (on “Clark’s Frontier”) and Robert B. Heilman (on justice, male camaraderie, communities in opposition, and artistic techniques in The Ox-Bow Incident).Lee, L. L. Walter Van Tilburg Clark. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University, 1973. Regards The Ox-Bow Incident as more than an anti-Western novel. Analyzes ambiguities and compares and contrasts major characters in The Ox-Bow Incident and their complex responses to physical and moral courage, the limits of nature as a force for good, and justice.Westbrook, Max. Walter Van Tilburg Clark. New York: Twayne, 1969. Analyzes The Ox-Bow Incident not as an antilynching novel but as a tragedy of those who willingly alienate themselves from the “grace of archetypal reality.”
Categories: Places