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Free Study Guide for Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

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The story is told from an omniscient point of view, but the reader sees events through the eyes of several of the characters even though they are not actually narrating. The novel is divided into three major parts that be simplistically labeled: life in Lonesome Dove, the cattle drive to Montana, and Clara Allenís home. The thread of the plot criss-cross each other and the characters coincidentally meet up with each other when least expected.


The rising action begins when the Hat Creek Cattle Company is introduced as having been in an uneasy existence for about ten years after the Civil War. It continues with Callís decision to drive a large herd of cattle north to Montana after Jake Spoon regales him with the beauty of the new territory. The cattle drive is long and arduous with many losses and much learned about life and climaxes with the death of Gus McCrae.


The falling chapter involves Callís decision to fulfill Gusí request to be buried in Texas. He travels first to Nebraska to take the news to Clara and Lorena, and then, despite Claraís plea that he bury Gus right there in her family cemetery, he continues on to Texas and full circle in Lonesome Dove.


The point of view is omniscient and yet the action is seen from the perspective of many different characters. The most poignant moments on the drive are seen from the perspective of Newt.


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.

The old physics law - 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.

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.

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.


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