Tuesday, September 06, 2011

The "Modesty Paradox" in Larry McMurtry's novel "Lonesome Dove"

At least that's what I like to call it -- the "modesty paradox." I think it's actually a rather clever convention of McMurtry. We can see it in just about every male character with, perhaps, the singular exception of Gus McCrae. It is this: all the men in this novel have very cavalier attitudes towards casual sex, especially with prostitutes; but these men also are very shy and modest when it comes to actual intimacy, even to the point of being mortified with shame at seeing women's undergarments hung to dry on laundry lines. I think this tells us how free morals were when it came to sex, especially in how normal prostitution seemed, but also how behavior in the wild west was nonetheless colored by convention. As "wild" as the west was in the 19th Century, it was still heavily influenced by the mores of East Coast Victorian propriety. It makes for an almost incomprehensible paradox of life and morality in the American west.

1 comment:

Eric said...

I never really considered it in realtion to Lonesome Dove, but you make an excellent point here. Casual sex in the face of Protestant sexual ethics is a common theme in McMurtry's writing, and I enjoy his (always somewhat humorous) take on it.

In his series of books about the fictitious rural Texas town of Thalia, you repeatedly see a sort of existential rural boredom getting people into trouble when it comes to sex. As somebody who grew up in exactly that kind of small town, is intimately familiar with the awkward social situations caused by a small group sinners "fraught with horn" living in close proximity to eachother with nothing much to do, and who has seen more than a few local preachers run out of town over sex scandals... McMurtry's take on the duplicitous nature of sexual morality in the American West (either the Old West or the modern) is probably one of the main reasons I enjoy reading his books. Good call.