Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 836
Rita Dove’s Through the Ivory Gate is a tale of a young African American woman’s growing up, learning to use her varied artistic abilities despite obstacles, and beginning her career.
The frame action is set in Akron, Ohio, at the end of the Vietnam War era, with flashbacks to the 1950’s and early 1960’s and to events that took place in Wisconsin and Arizona. The third-person limited-omniscient narrative provides a full portrait of the main character, Virginia King, and an insight into what the coming of age must have been like for a talented African American woman of her era.
The “Prelude” to the story catches a glimpse of the child Virginia rejecting a black doll for a white one, then neglecting dolls, and finally finding the white doll not only outgrown but also ruined and decayed. The grownup Virginia has substituted puppets for dolls. The first chapter begins the present action, which takes Virginia back to her hometown of Akron, where she will begin a season as an artist-in-residence, teaching puppetry in a public grade school.
The time is the unsettled 1970’s, and Virginia’s life is at a standstill. In college, she has trained to be an actress, but at this time there are few calls for African American actresses. The question she must answer for herself is this: What can she and should she do with her abilities, which include mime, music, and puppetry as well as straightforward acting? The artist-in-residence program provides her with some breathing space, but she will shortly need to make irrevocable decisions. Defining her goals is difficult because her sense of self is uncertain, partly owing to the prejudices she has encountered in growing up in the 1950’s, but also because of her family life. She has never understood why her family suddenly moved from Ohio to Arizona and why they seemed personally changed after this move; her young adulthood has been obscured by this mystery. She believes that her return to her former home will help her to solve it, and she thinks that learning more about her family will make her better able to plan her future.
Upon her return to Akron, Virginia learns to be more self-possessed when dealing with groups, and her expertise impresses many. Children with psychic wounds and their equally hurting parents reach out to the artist for healing. The puppets help the children to explain their problems, and this is the first step toward regaining health.
Virginia begins a love affair with the father of one of her students, and speaking more frankly through Gina, the puppet she has created, she makes strides in self-expression. Yet the direction of her life is still undecided. Skillful use of flashbacks show what factors led to her lack of decision: her pleasant childhood’s interruption by the unexplained move, her first real love affair with a fellow musician (who finally left her for a man) and her satisfying experiences with Puppets and People, a talented troupe that went bankrupt. Her life has also been punctuated by indications that African Americans are not encouraged to pursue her kind of goals—especially that of being an actress.
Amid her teaching experiences, she visits her father’s mother, now in a rest home, and her aunt, and she finally learns the family secret from Aunt Carrie. In adolescence, her father had had an incestuous relationship with his sister. When her mother learned about this, long afterward, she made the family move away from Akron to Arizona, although she never got used to the hot, arid climate and always hated Arizona. The father, however, soon made the desert his home, and he taught his children its wonders and dangers. With the gaps in the family history filled in and the success of her assignment in the grade school, Virginia is ready to move on to her next assignment when she receives a call from Nigel, an old colleague who is now a play director. He is now an off-Broadway director, and he has a part for Virginia if she can drop what she is doing (after her next brief assignment) and go to New York. She is now mature enough to take this gamble.
There are some subplots as well: Virginia is so involved in all of her activities that she does not notice the intensity of one hurting child, Renee, who then injures herself in an attempt to win Virginia’s attention; this incident teaches Virginia humility. How she deals with the challenges of getting ordinary, non-intellectual people interested in art is another slight diversion. A third is the preparation for and final presentation of the children’s puppet play. At the end of the story, Virginia is ready to leave Akron, having swept away the shadows from her life and having been reconciled with both her grandmother, who had known the story, and her aunt. Her coming of age completed, she is ready to face the challenges of the uncertain life of the stage.