Lonesome Dove, part 2. Big Zwey: I Will Always Love You

HI 80/ LO 54
I Will Always Love You: Big Zwey

If you’re not already hearing Whitney Houston in your head, cue the song now. Or if you prefer, Dolly Parton. Neither of these women knew it, but they were singing about a buffalo hunter named Big Zwey.

Big Zwey is a bit of a Forrest Gump character, famous for that line to Jenny, “I’m not a smart man, but I know what love is.” Big Zwey isn’t smart either, but he is loving. And to Elmira, of all people! At least Jenny knew she didn’t deserve Forrest.

To Big Zwey, to love someone means to take responsibility for them. He takes responsibility for Ellie on the whiskey boat, protecting her from the other men. He continues to be responsible for her when she joins him and Luke in the wagon. In fact, this sense of responsibility means — to Zwey — that he and Ellie are married. It has nothing to do with sex. In fact, Luke suspects that Big Zwey doesn’t know how things work in that department.

“Zwey had always been considered the dumbest of the dumb, but Luke knew that none of the hunters had suspected him of being that dumb. That much dumbness was hard to believe — Luke wanted to make sure he hadn’t misunderstood.

‘Now, wait a minute, Zwey,’ he said. ‘Why do you think that baby was yours?’

Zwey was silent a long time.

Luke pressed him.

“What’s the matter with you, Zwey?” Luke said. “You and Ellie ain’t really married. You ain’t married to somebody just because she comes on a trip with you.”

Zwey began to feel very sad — it might be true, what Luke said. Yet he liked to think that he and Ellie were married.

‘Well, we are,’ he said finally.

Ironically, Big Zwey proves to be the most faithful man to any woman in the entire novel. He never touches Ellie except to care for her when she is ill from a difficult childbirth. He goes when she says to, even though obeying her last command leads them both to their death at the hands of Indians.

At least when Jenny died, she left Forrest their son.


  1. You bring it all back so clearly. I pondered over these same characters. i wanted to shoot Ellie myself or at least shake some sense into her. I wanted to open Big Zwey’s eyes and expand his brain. I wanted July to come to his senses and dump Ellie. Somehow, I wanted to set all of them straight, make them all right, which would lead them all to being happier people with better lives. But then I’m not God or the author of the book. Maybe that’s one of the things that made the book such a success was that none of the characters had their acts together. Each one had a heartache, it seemed, that propelled him through life and shaped his decisions. Now I’ll have to ponder that while I look at the stars.

  2. You’re getting me hooked. Seriously.