Literary Techniques

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 282

The novel makes some use of literary allusion, not only in its title, which is taken from Shakespeare. Warren abandoned his original title And Pastures New (from Milton) because the Shakespeare tide seemed to suggest a more ironic and tragic work. Slim Sarrett, a bisexual literary opportunist who deceives all in the early sections and works a major deception on Sue before murdering her, is attracted to Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, and he sometimes appears to be a character drawn from John Marston (1574-1634) or John Webster (1580?- 1652?).

Indeed, Sarrett's sarcasm and cynical opportunism are reminiscent of courtiers in a Jacobean melodrama, like Marston's The Malcontent (1602-1604). Yet in his descent into violence with the murder of Sue, Sarrett suggests parallels with one of Webster's disillusioned villains, such as Flamineo in The White Devil (1609-1612) or Bosola in The Duchess of Malfi (c. 1613).

Warren's use of multiple protagonists, especially Sarrett, Jerry Calhoun, and Sue Murdock, gives the novel a divided focus, as does the lengthy embedded narrative, "The Statement of Ashby Windham." However, the use of the Windham narrative with its treatment of the impoverished hill country white's perspective adds an additional dimension to the novel. Moreover, Windham's uncompromising religious vision adds a moral perspective.

Warren's use of master images or controlling metaphors is impressive. At the end of the novel, readers are given a picture of Bogan Murdock's commenting on events and trying to rebuild his image, while a portrait of Andrew Jackson, another arrogant egotist, hangs on the wall in the background. The portrait of one egotist offers an ironic comment on the other. Ironically, the reader may conclude, Bogan Murdock has lost his inner self while creating his self-image.

Ideas for Group Discussions

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 474

Since At Heaven's Gate is based in part on historical events surrounding the scandal involving Rogers Clark Caldwell, a powerful but unscrupulous financier whose company became bankrupt in 1929, one member of a discussion group might take on the responsibility of doing some research on this scandal, in which the main figures went to jail. Another person might research the life of Sergeant Alvin York, who was also on the fringe of the scandal and who served as the model for Private Porsum.

At any rate, it is worthwhile for discussants to know that Warren based many of the events of his novel on actuality, and, following the lead of a reporter friend, he even managed to interview Sergeant York. However, discussants might also want to look at At Heaven's Gate in the light of interesting parallels with more recent scandals in Southern business and politics, such as the Whitewater affair which haunts the past of President William Clinton and Hilary Rodham Clinton. Other scandals may also be cited for comparative purposes.

1. How significant is the historical background of At Heaven's Gate? Do we gain understanding of the novel from a knowledge of the history involving Rogers Clark Caldwell?

2. What is our point of view toward Private Porsurn, the character based on Sergeant Alvin York? Has Warren done a creditable job of depicting a legendary hero? Does Warren's portrait tarnish the legend of Sergeant York? Why or why not?

3. Is Sue Murdock a forerunner of contemporary feminists? Why or why not? What does Sue rebel against? Why is Sue's rebellion thwarted and frustrated?

4. What is our final opinion of Windham? Is Windham merely an eccentric, or can we sympathize with his moral view of events? How does Windham affect the outcome of the action?

5. Is Jerry Calhoun a sympathetic character? Does Jerry learn from his experience that his sense of values was mistaken and based on a bad model, Bogan Murdock?

6. If we encountered the character of Bogan Murdock, without the experience of the novel, how would we tend to judge him? Is Murdock a thoroughly evil man, or merely a fairly typical business tycoon?

7. What are the motives of Slim Sarrett? Is it possible that Warren may have conceived Sarrett as an example of the darker side of literary careerism?

8. How well does Warren dramatize the conflict between labor and management in At Heaven's Gate? Is the character of Jason Sweetwater believable? Is Sweetwater a sympathetic character? Has Warren loaded the dice against Bogan Murdock in his portrayal of the conflict between Sweetwater's forces and Murdock's company?

9. To what extent is At Heaven's Gate a tragic novel? Does the novel offer any themes which may be seen other than pessimistic? Why or why not?

10. Does Warren attempt to deal with too many themes and diverse characters in At Heaven's Gate? Why or why not?

Social Concerns

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 560

Robert Penn Warren's second novel is set in a more modern world than his first, Night Rider (1939), which deals with the Kentucky tobacco wars of the turn of the century. By contrast, At Heaven's Gate deals with the turbulent social world of the 1920's and 1930's, with its loss of respect for traditional moral values. A major concern of the novel is the amoral world of business and capitalism which had characterized America in the 1920's and which Warren had attacked as one of the Southern agrarian writers in I'll Take My Stand (1930). This type of corruption still has relevance since land development schemes and failed banks and savings and loan scandals have continued to plague the Sunbelt in recent years.

Although characterized more by his power and influence than by direct presentation of character, Bogan Murdock is the symbol of the ruthless and amoral spirit of the modern world. Warren's novel attempts to show how several lives are ruined, or at least damaged, by Murdock's financial chicanery and opposition to unions. Murdock's companies and widespread holdings eventually are revealed to be involved in many scandals: doctoring the company books; using the money of Murdock's bank (of which Private Porsum is the figurehead president) for questionable business purposes; using influence to get the state to buy some of Murdock's timber holdings and iron foundry in an illegal and profitable transaction; and, of course, unfair labor practices in Murdock's efforts to break the strike of the Massey Mountain miners. Nearly all the characters are touched by Murdock's actions, and the naive Jerry Calhoun is involved in a felony simply through following orders. Sympathy for the social activism of the loggers who, led by Jason Sweetwater, go on strike against Murdock's timber company is a lesser theme, but it reveals concern for economic and social justice, a theme Warren would develop further in later novels.

Another concern of the novel is the erosion of religious values in the twentieth century, a condition depicted indirectly through the statement of Ashby Windham, the committed fundamentalist visionary. While Windham's religion is one that Warren had rejected, Windham offers an indictment of the sins and the spiritual emptiness of the modern world.

An embodiment of the mean-spirited nature of literary opportunism is offered in Warren's characterization of Slim Sarrett, one of the most vicious characters in Warren's fiction. Sarrett has been seen as a figure of satire, or as a portrait of the jealousy and malice that may lurk in every man. On the other hand, Warren's treatment of Sue Murdock's quest for understanding and spiritual fulfillment offers some insight into the feelings and concerns of twentieth-century women. Rejecting her father's smothering love, Sue undertakes a search for a fulfilling role or vocation of her own; but she suffers a succession of disillusionments with the various men she takes as lovers. Moreover, Sue's tragic death at the hands of her rejected lover Sarrett may be seen as a vicious crime enacted by a possessive male against an independent woman.

Although Warren is often viewed as an author concerned with masculine themes, it is worth noting here that Sue Murdock occupies center stage of the novel, and is one of three impressive female protagonists in Warren's fiction (the other two being Amantha Starr in Band of Angels, 1955, and Cassie Spottswood in Meet Me in the Green Glen, 1971).

Literary Precedents

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 416

Warren is somewhat indebted to American fiction of the twenties and thirties, especially that of F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner. Sue Murdock is perhaps reminiscent of Temple Drake in Faulkner's Sanctuary (1931; see separate entry): Both are rebellious young Southern women who come from a background of wealth only to fall among men who take advantage of them. However, Sue is more intellectual and more sympathetic than Temple, a circumstance which makes her death seem more tragic than Temple's retreat into a doll-like passivity. Moreover the story of Jerry Calhoun, a poor boy from a rural background, setting out to become a robber baron like Bogan Murdock, has parallels in Faulkner's depiction of the rise of Flem Snopes in The Hamlet (1940) and The Town (1957). However, Flem Snopes lacks the conscience Warren gives Calhoun; in this respect, Calhoun is closer to Flem's brother, Colonel Sartoris Snopes, the protagonist of the short story "Barn Burning." The "Statement of Ashby Windham," written in the Kentucky-Tennessee mountain dialect familiar to Warren from his youth, would probably remind early readers of the experiment with rural white narrators made by Faulkner in As I Lay Dying (1930).

In some cases, however, Calhoun is reminiscent of the amiable young men dazzled by the prospect of wealth and social prominence in some of F. Scott Fitzgerald's stories. Even Fitzgerald's Jay Gatsby may be seen as a precedent, since Gatsby disavows his heritage and invents a new persona; moreover, Calhoun, like Gatsby, becomes involved in corrupt business activities. In one of the book's climactic sequences, Jerry is forced to admit to himself that he has wanted his real father dead. In essence, because of shame over his rural origins, Calhoun has tried to kill his father symbolically and to replace him with a surrogate father, the powerful Murdock.

The fiction of Theodore Dreiser, especially An American Tragedy (1925), may also be seen as a precedent, since there Dreiser tells a tale of a young man destroyed by his fascination with wealth and a wealthy young woman, a theme similar to Jerry Calhoun's beguilement by Bogan Murdock and his daughter.

Another precedent may be found in the protagonists of Sinclair Lewis, particularly the wayward idealist Martin Arrowsmith, whose deepest desire is to become a medical researcher. Although arrowsmith ultimately fulfills his destiny by becoming a medical researcher, Arrowsmith often allows himself to be diverted by the siren call of those using modern business and advertising methods which tend to make the practice of medicine into a profitable industry.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access