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Free Study Guide for Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

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The Ever-presence of Death in the Old West

The most prevalent theme concerns the idea of death and its ever-present part of life in the old west. When Call organizes the cattle drive, he sets into motion a dangerous period in the lives of many people. They experience not only terrible living conditions, but also the loss of many of the people who become their friends, sometimes in horrible ways. Newt is especially impacted when he loses his friends, Sean OíBrien to snake bites, and Pete Spettle to a lightning strike, and his mentors Jake Spoon and Gus McCrae. Part of growing up in this time period is accepting the reality that death is more likely early in life than living to a ripe old age.


The theme of maturity is also an important idea. This idea affects all the characters, even Call and Gus who have moved into middle age. It means learning to find some meaning to oneís life even in the middle of death. It means accepting things that cannot be changed and continuing to live. And it means accepting the mistakes that one makes in life, dealing with the pain those mistakes cause, and attempting to change when change is necessary. Call is the ultimate example of this theme. He desperately wants to claim Newt as his son, but his overwhelming pride keeps him from telling the boy even before he takes Gusí body back to Texas. The result is devastating for Newt who bitterly proclaims that he has no kin.

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction

The old physics law (Newtonís Third Law of Motion) - for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction - seems appropriate as theme of this novel. Throughout the story, various characters at various times muse that one particular event set off other events that ended in disaster or death. For example, Gus often states that if Jake Spoon hadnít accidentally killed the dentist in Fort Smith, Arkansas, they would never have set off for Montana. Itís Jakeís glowing description of Montana that encourages Call to organize the cattle drive. From there, the characters meet various fates that would not have occurred if they hadnít set off for unknown territories. Of course, personal decision making impacts on a variety of outcomes for all the characters, but it seems as if one decision frequently brings difficult consequences.


Another theme that is extremely prevalent is that of regret. The main characters have many instances where they come to regret decisions they made. For example, Clara Allen has extreme regret that she was unable to separate Gus from Call, whose decisions keep Gus from her all those years. She also regrets that she never accepted his marriage proposal, even though in her heart, she knew that they were too much alike to have ever been happy in a marriage. The feeling of regret is obviously very human, but in this novel it often sets the mood.

Differences in the life roles that men and women play

Another prevalent theme involves the differences in the life roles that men and women play in this time period in American history. The women in the novel are by and large whores in both reality and in the viewpoints of men. They are dependent upon men even when they strive more than the average woman to find something in life that is theirs alone. In some cases, they accept their fates and learn to live within the barriers they must face because of their sex, like Clara Allen. In other instances, they fight so hard against societyís expectations of them, that it leads to disastrous consequences, Elmira who flees the demands of July Johnson straight into an Indian massacre. As for the men, they are most of the time clueless as to the impact their dominant position in society has on the women they love. That also leads sometimes to disastrous consequences.

Good vs. Evil

The last important theme is the stereotypical good versus evil. However, in spite of the stereotypical aspect of this theme, it is a very important one in Lonesome Dove. The cowboys are the good guys, who seek justice when necessary and become judge and jury in many instances. They also try to bring peace to the settlers and track the bad guys like Blue Duck. Blue Duck is an Indian, but he is not an Indian who seeks revenge for the loss of their culture and their land; he is a killing machine who must be stopped. There are other instances as well where good triumphs over evil, but since life is not always that simple, good and evil often merge and the outcome is not always so straightforward.


This story is filled with sadness, despair, fear, and loneliness throughout much of the novel. But there is also triumph at times and happiness for some of the characters. However, the story ends on a depressing note and the reader is left wondering what the future holds for the characters left behind.

Larry McMurtry - BIOGRAPHY

Larry McMurtry is an award winning novelist, essayist, and screenwriter. He is a descendent of ranchers and cowboys and has become an authority on stories of the Old West and its settlement. He was born in Wichita Falls, Texas on June 3, 1936, and grew up on a ranch outside of Archer, Texas. He earned degrees from North Texas State University (B.A. 1958) and Rice University (M.A. 1960). He taught English at several colleges and even opened his own rare bookstore in Washington, D.C. and later Archer, Texas, which he named Booked Up.

He has won many awards including the Texas Institute of Letters Jesse M. Jones Award and a Guggenheim Grant. He also won the Pulitzer Prize for Lonesome Dove, and most recently, a Golden Globe along with Diana Ossana, and an Academy Award for Best Screenplay and Best Adapted Screenplay for Brokeback Mountain.

Lonesome Dove was first published in 1985. Awards for Lonesome Dove include a 1986 Pulitzer Prize.

McMurtry's other writing credits include:
1961 - Horseman, Pass By - later adapted as a screenplay/film (Hud)
1963 - Leaving Cheyenne - adapted as screenplay/film (Lovin' Molly)
1966 - The Last Picture Show - adapted as a screenplay/film
1968 - In A Narrow Grave
1970 - Moving On
1972 - All My Friends Are Going To Be Strangers
1974 - It's Always We Rambled
1975 - Terms Of Endearment - adapted as a screenplay/film
1978 - Somebody's Darling
1982 - Cadillac Jack
1983 - Desert Rose
1985 - Lonesome Dove - adapted as a screenplay. Produced as a multi-part series for television in 1989.
1986 Pulitzer Prize winner.
1987 - Texasville - adapted into a screenplay/film. Continuation of The Last Picture Show
1987 - Film Flam
1988 - Anything For Billy
1988 - The Murder of Mary Phagan
1989 - Some Can Whistle
1990 - Buffalo Girls - adapted as a television movie
1990 - Montana - television movie
1992 - The Evening Star - adapted as screenplay/film - Continuation of Terms of Endearment
1992 - Memphis - TV movie
1992 - Falling from Grace - TV movie
1993 - Streets of Laredo
1994 - Pretty Boy Floyd
1995 - Dead Man's Walk
1995 - The Late Child
1997 - Commanche Moon
1997 - Zeke and Ned
1999 - Crazy Horse
1999 - Duane's Depressed
1999 - Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen
2000 - Roads: Driving America's Great Highways
2001 - Sacagawea's Nickname (essays on the American West)
2002 - Sin Killer - The Berrybender Narratives, Book 1
2002 - Johnson County War - TV mini-series
2003 - The Wandering Hill - The Berrybender Narratives, Book 2
2003 - By Sorrow's River - The Berrybender Narratives, Book 3
2004 - Folly and Glory: A Novel - The Berrybender Narratives, Book 4
2005 - Brokeback Mountain - screenplay/film (adapted from the short story by E. Annie Proulx)


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