Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)
Dove is known primarily as a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and as the poet laureate of the United States (1993), but she has published, in addition to Through the Ivory Gate, a collection of short stories, Fifth Sunday (1985). Even her fiction reveals poetic cadences and rhythms, especially in Virginia’s lyrical outbursts about the puppet shows she attends and stages.
Although her novel has many of the staples of contemporary works by African American women, it is not primarily about race. The storytelling matriarch, the slights and wounds inflicted by a racist society, the sisterhood of black women, and some stereotypical black males are all featured in the novel, but they are background to the action. Unlike many novels by black women, the novel accepts rather than protests the society in which the characters function. It is more romantic and social than political, and it stresses healing and happiness more than pain and suffering. Although Virginia has some psychological problems, they are not insurmountable, and she is a coping, happy woman more than a victimized survivor.
In its narrative, protagonist, and style, however, Dove’s novel closely resembles the work of other black women writers. Although many of these novels use the first-person point of view, the third-person limited point of view also provides readers with a woman’s perspective. The plot, moreover, is not linear. Associations dictate content, so that the reader may go from the present to the past, or even experience flashbacks within flashbacks. The effect is a blurring of time in which the present is tied irrevocably to the past through memory and dream. As is the case with most contemporary African American novels, Dove’s protagonist ends the novel on an affirmative note.