Riders of the Purple Sage Analysis

Literary Techniques

Even though his characterization is weak, Zane Grey can tell a story. Riders of the Purple Sage contains one of his most involved and interesting plots. He accomplishes this by keeping five intriguing situations going simultaneously. The reader knows that by the end of the novel he will discover who caused Milly Erne's death, who the mysterious "Masked Rider" is, and who will win the battle between Jane Withersteen and the Mormon Church. There are two blossoming love affairs in the novel in which the reader recognizes the attraction before the characters themselves are aware of it. Minor intrigues develop along the way: Which of Jane Withersteen's horses is the fastest and what is the real connection between Bess and Oldring? The resolution of these situations involves rough and tumble action complete with shoot-outs, life-and-death chases across the stretches of sage, escapes up precarious canyon walls, and stampeding cattle. The villains experience a number of early successes which put the potential heroes and sympathetic characters at a temporary disadvantage. The action moves rapidly from one episode to another with a minimum of tedious emotional scenes, sweeping the involved reader along with the story. Grey presents this action in cinematic detail, giving the reader a clear picture of each significant step, rock, sage bush and canyon.

The technique that Grey is most often praised for is his descriptive ability, rendering the colors, the...

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Riders of the Purple Sage Social Concerns

Riders of the Purple Sage is a romance, and like all romances it is several steps removed from reality. Zane Grey wrote about a time and place that never existed quite as he described it. Although he described the Western landscape as he had actually seen it and defended his characters as being drawn from reality, he was, at the same time, aware that he was writing romance and providing escape from the realists. In the foreword of To the Last Man (1922) he wrote that he was providing ideals for "this materialistic age, this hard, practical, swift, greedy age of realism." These characteristics of the time were especially obvious to him after World War I, which confirmed him in his opinion that the world, especially America, was in a state of degeneration. The West of Grey's imagination was the ideal, and he wanted to provide an ideal at a time when Americans desperately needed one. For Grey the West, even in the 1920s, was a place to which men and women could come from the degenerate East and be cleansed by the landscape and by facing the essentials of life.

A pervading social concern throughout Riders of the Purple Sage is the character of the Mormon Church, The Church leaders in the novel. Bishop Dyer and Elder Tull, are vain, crafty, cowardly men who use their position of authority for personal gain. These men automatically hate non-Mormons and are intolerant of anyone in the Church who questions their authority. In a broader sense...

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Riders of the Purple Sage Literary Precedents

Zane Grey is a loner in literature, and one will search in vain for signs of influence from among his literary peers. In some ways his novels are descendants of the novels of James Fenimore Cooper, which he enjoyed reading as a boy. Both Cooper and Grey blend history and fiction, with greater emphasis placed upon the fiction. They both had a good eye for the landscape, describing it in accurate, vivid detail and making it an important aspect of their novels. They both depict the people living in the wilderness as more noble than is realistic. Cooper and Grey have a poor ear for dialogue and vernacular, and as a result their characters speak awkwardly and out of character. Grey has a much better sense of plot than Cooper, and his novels contain unified series of events that are full of action.

The dime novels of his day intrigued Grey and probably convinced him that action was essential if his stories were to be popular. He read about the West and cowboys and Indians, seeking out fiction of a historical nature. Not until he was married did Grey read the literary greats, among them Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Darwin, Alfred Tennyson, and Matthew Arnold. Of these, only Darwin seems to have made a significant impression. Throughout Grey's novels only the fittest survive by adapting to their environment.

Although there is no indication of a direct influence or connection, Grey's novels have been placed in the tradition of such epic romances as...

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Riders of the Purple Sage Related Titles

Riders of the Purple Sage bears a close relationship with all of Grey's novels. It is broader in scope and less restricted in plot than his other works, but it shares many of the elements he incorporated in every Western he wrote. Mormonism as a major issue occurs also in The Heritage of the Desert (1910) and in The Rainbow Trail (1915). Grey did not like Mormons as a rule because he felt that they mistreated women and were religious fanatics. In these three novels he shows the vicious, intolerant nature of fanatical Mormons, suggesting that the Church needs to change by becoming more tolerant to outsiders and less authoritarian to its own members. Later in 1930, however, Grey wrote a short novel, Canyon Walls, in which he pictured young Mormons as honest, sensitive, and friendly.

Grey often let one novel inspire a sequel. His first three novels formed what he called the Ohio River trilogy. Riders of the Purple Sage inspired The Rainbow Trail (1915), which continued the life of a baby girl in the first novel. The same pattern repeated itself a few years later when The Light of the Western Stars (1914) inspired Majesty's Rancho (1942), which dealt with the later life of a child from the earlier novel.

In The Heritage of the Desert, Grey uses a plot which he repeats, with only slight variation, in many subsequent novels. An Easterner who is sick, discouraged, aimless, or of...

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Riders of the Purple Sage Adaptations

Hollywood filmed three of Grey's novels in 1918: Riders of the Purple Sage, The Rainbow Trail, and The Border Legion. Since then, a total of 113 movies have been adapted from his books; in some instances, one title has produced four or five movies. Grey's early movies were silent films, and it was on these that he worked closely with the producer and director. He was especially concerned that the movie be shot on the location described in the novel and that the result be true to the spirit

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Riders of the Purple Sage Bibliography (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Farley, G. M. Zane Grey: A Documented Portrait. Tuscaloosa, Ala.: Portals Press, 1986. A meticulous study of Grey’s career, listing everything he ever wrote and every movie adapted from his works.

Hardy, Phil. The Film Encyclopedia: The Western. New York: Morrow, 1983. One volume in a nine-volume series. Contains cast and production information as well as critical evaluations and synopses for hundreds of Western films from the sound era, including the 1931 and 1941 versions of Riders of the Purple Sage.

Jackson, Carlton. Zane Grey. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1989. A biographical-critical entry in Twayne’s United States Authors Series. Contains a chronology and a selected bibliography.

Scott, Kenneth W. Zane Grey, Born to the West: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1979. A thoroughly annotated bibliography containing a biographical-critical introduction and chapters on “The Fiction of Zane Grey,” “Zane Grey on Film,” and “Writings About Zane Grey” from 1904 through 1977.

Zane Grey: The Man and His Works. New York: Harper, 1928. A valuable compilation of articles by and about Grey, brought out by his longtime publisher at the height of his popularity.