Critical Context (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series)
Rita Dove is better known as a poet than as a novelist. Her third poetry collection, Thomas and Beulah (1986), received a Pulitzer Prize, and she was named poet laureate of the United States. Through the Ivory Gate is clearly a poet’s novel—it is lyrical, it contains patches of near-poetry, and its plot, despite the suspense, is secondary to its other elements. Passages of the novel would be well suited to oral presentation, as it is clear that attention has been paid to sound as well as to meaning.
The book may be read for the sheer lyricism of it, for its description and demonstration of the healing power of art. It also provides a good example of a relaxed and relaxing coming-of-age novel, or Bildungsroman. Virginia King is an appealing protagonist whose experiences may be matched or approximated by readers of varied ages and races. The novel also provides a strong sense of the time periods it represents; the subtle changes in background provide a sense of the differences between these time periods, especially as these differences relate to race relations. The book is also a Kunstlerroman, or novel about the development of an artist, and those factors that directed the heroine toward her art are painstakingly detailed.