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Written by Timothy Sexton
Shane himself is the most symbolic figure in the plot, since he is nothing more nor less than a symbol of the West. His past is a mystery, just like the past of the West was a mystery to the first settlers. His actions in that past may have been less than his heroic actions in the present just as so many of the pioneers may have been done things better left out of the history books. His purpose in the present is clear and manifest: put an end to the reign of the cattlemen who laid claims to land well beyond their legal right to do but then used their superior force to subdue homesteaders. The land barons represent a part of the settling of the frontier whose time was over; for civilization of the frontier to continue, westward expansion needed to cater to needs of homesteaders, not land-grabbers. His purpose complete and civilization ensure, Shane heads into the sunset to become mythic figure. Just like the Wild West.
The stump is most important inanimate symbol in the book. Working at the job alone, Joe has barely been able to make any noticeable progress in removing it. So curiously stubborn has the stump been n its refusal to budge that Joe has even come to admire it for its tenacity. The symbolic value is expressed through the fact that it is only when Shane enters into an unwritten contract with Joe that the stump is finally defeated. That unwritten contract is in the spirit of cooperation to achieve two distinct goals: Joe needs Shane’s help to remove the stump and Shane senses something about this family that makes him want to stay for a while. The stump is removed and Shane is given a temporary home. Cooperation, not competition, satisfies two needs rather than one. Or none.
The Corner Post
Marian reminds her family after Shane has disappeared as mysteriously as he arrived that he is not entirely gone. She points to the corner post Shane buried when he building a new section of the corral while Joe was gone as a wedding anniversary surprise. The post here is symbolically endowed with the memory of Shane, but the metaphorical meaning goes deeper. She urges Joe to try to pull the post free and one again he tries to remove an immovable object and once again it won’t budge. If he had help, the post could come up, but the post will remain in place, unlike the stump. The post is not just a symbol of Shane, but a symbol of his civilizing presence. Fences more than any other man-made structure are what settled the west. Fences set boundaries, protected livestock, marked progress and as the one symbol most at odds with what was there before the settlers arrived.
Food is a very specific symbol in the novel as it directly applies to Marian. The narrator recalls his mother saying that she would still feel civilized even out there on the hardscrabble frontier as long as she still had the means and ability to prepare a proper meal. Thus food is the symbol of civilization on the edges of American society.
Shortly after Shane arrives at the Starretts, a salesman stop offering a shiny new cultivator that Joe could really use to break up the hard soil and make planting easier. Shane tells Joe that he has seen the same machine selling for less; the price is too high and the man is trying to cheat Joe. The cultivator thus becomes a symbol of all the ways in which the system is stacked against the west being settled fairly and equitably and the balance of power is unfairly weighed down in favor of men like Fletcher. Shane’s presence and advice is yet another example of how is situated as a symbol of the civilizing of the untamed frontier.
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