The opening of The Old Gringo (1985), by Carlos Fuentes, sets in place the chief organizing principle of the novel, the narrated memories of Harriet Winslow, an unmarried schoolteacher from Washington, D. C., who, the reader discovers, once came to Mexico to instruct the children of the rich hacendado Miranda family and there became embroiled in the Revolution. Her contacts with the villista general Tomas Arroyo and the Old Gringo polarize her experiences between an apparent infatuation with Arroyo and an attempt to substitute the Gringo for her lost father. In her memories of the incidents which led her to place the body of the Old Gringo in her father's empty tomb in Arlington, an elegiac tone — one of mourning for lost experience as well as a questioning of the value of that experience — is clearly discernible. Like the heroine of a classic Western film such as The Virginian (1929), Harriet, as the "Eastern school marm" character type, confronts the heroic Westerner, in this case "doubled" into the figures of the Old Gringo and Arroyo, and in the process re-examines her own preconceptions about civilization. She becomes conscious of her marginalization from the society around her, as an intellectual woman who questions her past and present. One concern of the discussion here will be the importance of the female perspective in the elegiac Western narrative: rather than a mere foil or pretext for the hero's actions, the female character serves a critical function in clarifying the degree and nature of the hero's loss of relevance in present-day society. The heroic figures themselves, the Old Gringo and Arroyo, can lay strong claim to kinship to the heroes (and villains) of Western film and fiction. Equally larger-than-life and ironically viewed, the Old Gringo has the superhuman marksmanship and courage of classic Western heroes such as the Ethan Edwards of John Wayne or the Shane of Alan Ladd. But he carries about him a cynicism and world-weariness which, though mirroring his real-life source in Ambrose Bierce, yet recall the elegiac musings of the aging gunfighters J. B. Books of The Shootist, Steven Judd of Ride the High Country, and Pike Bishop of The Wild Bunch.



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