Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

One major theme of the novel is that disguises and masks may facilitate truth and healing. Another is that growing up is difficult, especially for an African American girl born in the 1950’s, particularly if she wishes to be an artist.

The title of this novel comes from Homer’s Odyssey (c. 800 b.c.). Homer’s epic contains a passage that describes two gates from which dreams issue, the gate of horn and the gate of ivory. Those dreams that come through the gate of ivory are deceptive, but those that issue from the gate of horn are truthful. It is Virginia’s job to distinguish truth from falsehood in understanding her family’s past. On the other hand, she is also a puppeteer, a dealer in illusion, but this kind of illusion is a healing fiction that helps those who become involved in it to learn to accept themselves and others. Memories as well as dreams are deceptive in this narrative, which interweaves imagination and reality, illusion and truth, to create a fable of healing through art.

The puppets themselves are a strong presence in the story. Through their apparent artificiality and their pose as amusement, they allow their creators to speak otherwise hidden truths. Virginia speaks through Gina, and the children speak through the characters they have created. Through these masks, they arrive at genuine communication. Masks, puppets, acting, and other ways in which meaning is communicated...

(The entire section is 472 words.)

Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Through the Ivory Gate begins with a conversation about a child’s doll and ends with children in Halloween costumes, assuming new roles and identities. In the course of the novel, there are recurrent references to dolls, puppets, and masks, all of which relate to Dove’s focus on the theme of identity. Virginia’s childhood selection of dolls reflects her attitude toward race. She keeps and identifies with her white Penelope doll and rejects the African American doll her grandmother gives her. Grandmother Evans senses the unconscious motive for Virginia’s choice: “Your daughter is ashamed of being a Negro.”

When the family visits a Hopi reservation, Dove returns to the theme of identity. Donning a mask, a Hopi man loses his identity, “forgets his name,” and assumes the identity of a god. Virginia puts on metaphorical masks, assumes different roles (majorette, for example), and changes her hair to become someone else. She repeats this tendency in college, where she majors, appropriately, in drama. She is more interested in mime and cello, neither of which involves verbal expression. Although she can express herself through music, her playing is the expression of someone else’s composition.

Believing that there are few roles for black actresses, she decides to use her talents in a puppet troupe. The puppet becomes the channel for the puppeteer’s emotions. Virginia even creates Gina, a puppet alter ego that lacks...

(The entire section is 486 words.)