Date of Award

Spring 2010

Document Type



Languages & Literature

First Advisor

Debra Bernardi

Second Advisor

Kay Satre

Third Advisor

Jeanette Fregulia


For too long the American male protagonist has been allowed to operate without appropriate questioning of the violence inherent in his actions. This paper will look to question just that. Critics such as Richard Slotkin have pointed out that the American fascination with violence began in the frontier and has continued to steadily develop1. Because of this, I will start with one of the most canonical texts of the American West, Owen Wister’s The Virginian. Moving up through the years, I will then integrate the question of race into that of violence with Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. The Virginian presents us with a timeless, nameless hero who is thought to be the embodiment of both maleness and, I argue, acceptable violence. Ellison’s African-American protagonist brings us to a post-war, racially mixed United States that is beginning to question violence and learning how to justify and categorize its uses. However, in much of the current body of criticism, violence has been overlooked or accepted as necessary to the journey of a protagonist to “reside in [the] unsettled wilderness” (Baym “Melodramas” 132). Baym closes “Melodramas” by admitting that American literature has “arrived at a place where Americanness has vanished into the depths of what is alleged to be the universal male psyche” (139); I refuse to think the conversation should end there. Violence has become such an expected part of the American male protagonist’s journey that violence itself is no longer registering with us as readers. Plenty of American male protagonists have fascinated us and achieved their own identity, but now it is time to ask the question: just how much blood can American protagonists spill before we are ready to stop courting and start questioning?