What Was the Theme of “Old Yeller”?

The theme of “Old Yeller” explores the bittersweet but endearing transition from boyhood to manhood of the main character, Travis. The critically acclaimed novel was written by Fred Gipson in 1956. Considered a classic, it won the prestigious Newbery Honor in 1969. Walt Disney produced the screen adaptation of the tale in 1957.

The novel focuses on a Texas family in the 1860s. Pa and Ma have two boys, 14-year-old Travis and 5-year-old Arliss. When Pa goes away, he leaves Travis in charge of the farm. Old Yeller is a dog who provokes Travis by stealing pork from the farm. Later, the dog causes more trouble by getting into the spring water with Arliss. While at first annoyed by Old Yeller, Travis later grows fond of him.

During Pa’s absence, Travis finds that being the man of the house is harder than it looks. Travis instinctively navigates the path from boyhood to manhood while facing excitement, fun and conflict along the way. Toward the end of the adventure, Old Yeller contracts rabies after protecting Ma from a wolf. Travis is forced to make a difficult choice between killing his beloved best friend or risking his family’s health during a time when medical and veterinary care were scarce. The decision Travis makes marks a painful transition into manhood.