Riders of the Purple Sage
Zane Grey remains one of the most prominent representatives of the so-called Western style of writing. His books readily reflect the realities of the American West, avoiding idealization and excessive romanticism. His most famous Riders of the Purple Sage has created and established the true formula of Western literary opposition, where the unique combination of intellectual novel, drama, mystery, and realism are mixed in ways that emphasize the relevance of personal transformation under the pressure of the cultural and religious traditions and prejudices, and turn it into the continuous process of one’s individual spiritual and moral evolution.
Critics and scholars in the field of literature tend to emphasize the role which Mormons play in the process of Jane Withersteen’s spiritual and moral transformation. Cervo (1997) writes that “In Zane Grey’s novel, the Mormons persecuting Jane Withersteen are described by Lassiter as being ‘as far from Christlike as the universe is wide’”. The problem is, however, that not Mormons themselves, but their cultural and spiritual heritage and the pressure of external standards which Mormons impose on Jane gradually lead her to realize the inevitability of her self-destruction and the strength she may need to cope with the difficulties of her own social and societal position. The process of Jane’s transformation is complicated and comprises numerous literary themes and elements which, when considered separately, reveal the true nature of life in the West. It would be fair to say that Zane Grey might have been the first to have made his fictional heroes real, with the authentic historical background as the central element of his literary plot (Taylor, 1987). All his heroes stand out as extraordinary creatures, who at times of serious crises find sufficient wit, strength and endurance to fight with circumstances and to preserve their inner force and integrity.
The process of Jane’s spiritual and moral transformation is readily observed through the complex and painful gender oppression she experiences from Mormons and her continuous fight for preserving the natural right for self-realization, choice, and physical and spiritual independence. In the midst of the growing tension and in the obvious opposition between her desire to be free and her community obligations, Jane does not lose the sense of reality: “For the first time Jane Withersteen felt Venters’s real spirit. She wondered if she would love this splendid youth. Then her emotion cooled to the sobering sense of the issue at stake” (Grey, 1998). It should be noted, that the standard representation of Mormons as unsavory groups which seek to enslave white women is one of the continuous thematic lines, which accompany the plot from the very beginning to its very end. Grey tries to depict this process of enslaving women as the one which contradicts to the standards and traditions of the reader, thus evoking the sense of sympathy and overt negativity toward Mormons in general, and the Mormons discriminating against Jane, in particular. Finally, at the background of this Mormon discrimination, other characters acquire additional tint of heroism without which the novel would lose its true Western coloring.
It would be fair to say that where Grey exploits the benefits of the literary opposition between Jane, Lassiter, Venters, and Mormons, he cannot avoid combining the symbolism of erotic female abduction with the mysterious role of secrets in his characters’ lives. Mitchell (1998) suggests that Grey combines the two distinct mystery lines into one integral subject to create an impression of complexity, which readers would be willing to resolve. The first line of secrecy goes with Lassiter’s searching his sister Milly Erne: “Ma’m, I have hunted all over the southern Utah and Nevada for – somethin’. An’ through your name I learned where to find it – here in Cottonwoods. […] At the little village – Glaze, I think it’s called – some fifty miles or more west of here. An’ I heard it from a Gentile, a rider who said you’d know where to tell me to find – […] Milly Erne’s grave” (Grey, 1998). In the process of plot development Grey gradually reveals the truth of Milly Erne’s death who had been “chained in a cave” (Grey, 1998), died in Jane’s hands and was buried on the territory of her estate away from the eyes of Mormon community. This line of mystery is designed to emphasize the cruelty of Mormons and their discriminative nature. The second line of secrecy concerns rustler Oldring, Bess, and her being compelled to become a bandit. It appears that conventionality of the Western plot is impossible without the sense of captivity and mysteriousness so characteristic of other Western novels, but in case of Zane Grey, this secrecy reemerges as the integral element of Mormon conspiracy. “The narrative is driven by the insistent threat of an inaccessible conspirational power marked with a strong sexual bias” (Pilkington, 1990). Simultaneously, and in distinction from other writers, Grey’s conspiracy and mysterious symbolism work to reveal the hidden facets of western development in its true realism, as well as to outline the social gap between Jane and her companions (the outlaws) and the rest of the Mormon community (the lawmen).
Historically, writers have been particularly interested in using the line of opposition between outlaws and lawmen to shape a kind of a Restoration drama, where mixed-identities plot and the growing number of desperate outlaws would serve the sources of unique impressions and would attract readers’ attention to the hidden facets of the Western life. For Zane, however, the line of female abduction, sexual and gender oppression, discrimination, and mysteries form another “frame-up” plot standard, where the protagonist forced to become an outlaw readily recognizes the ineffectiveness of objective laws and standards in the American West (Taylor, 1987). In other words, neither Jane, nor Venters or Lassiter deny the relevance of the objective law promoted by courts, but they cannot but recognize the inapplicability of these laws in specific real-life situations. This very inapplicability and the search for immediate solutions create that Western image of literature to which readers are used. This inapplicability and this search for immediate solutions signify the long process of individual transformation, through which Jane has to go in her fight for personal independence and her inner ideals and beliefs. This individualism which borders on romanticism and excessive freedom are equally admired by readers and criticized by scholars, but still remain the essential components of the traditional Western style in literature.
Does that mean that showing individual transformation in literature is impossible without opposing the protagonist to a whole set of real-life complexities? Moreover, how appropriate is it for a writer to use the subject of female sexual oppression as the instrument of self-realization and one’s search for individuality? For Grey, “self-transformation in itself is hardly a process to be disparaged” (Mitchell, 1998), and avoiding the line of opposition to Mormons for Grey would mean nothing else but the impossibility to show the process of acquiring manhood or true womanhood by each of the four main characters. Where Lassiter recognizes that he has outgrown revenge, and where Jane seeks to explain the relevance of the so-called invisible hand and its impact on her life, stating that “God would be merciful to a driven woman who had lost her way” (Grey, 1998), both emphasize the overwhelming role which conspiracy, secrecy, the force of circumstances, sexual discrimination and one’s desire to combat external forces shape the basis for continuous personal evolution, which to some extent is similar to the evolution in Darwinian terms. In certain instances, Grey (1998) seems to celebrate the principles of female oppression and favors Mormons’ attempts to suppress Jane and her companions in their desire to deny the long-standing Western traditions and acceptable patterns of behavior. In reality though, these elements are designed to underline the seriousness of the human spiritual condition and are presented in the form, which helps readers look deeper into the essence of this social and gender opposition – the opposition, which becomes even more understandable against the real historical background of the American West.
This eroticism of gender opposition, sexuality of social conflicts and female abduction as the essential components of Western realities have been heavily criticized by scholars. Some of them tend to believe that the combination of conspiracy, the symbolic secrecy and the significance of self-transformation as the central narrative line “fail to meet the qualifications for literary fiction, for that fiction which strives to become significant in both theme and form. For this reason the western remains a subliterary genre in spite of its many fascinations” (Milton, 1980). Others suggest that Grey tends to be too unrealistic in his desire to construct the reality, and that his commitment to the principles of morality plays distorts the vision of everything Western in his books (Pilkington, 1990).
Nevertheless, this very opposition and this very search for self-transformation which occurs under the pressure of circumstances, traditions, events, and accidents that cannot be easily changed make this book a true literary success. The long process of self-transformation, through which Grey’s characters in Riders of the Purple Sage go, shapes a new vision of the American West, which does not have any sympathy to outlaws but still gives them a chance for realizing their inner potential and preserving their individuality. Grey (1998) builds this process of self-transformation in ways that establish a close connection and easy association between Jane, Lassiter and the readers. Mysterious symbolism creates a sense of poetic or even mythological realism. Romance and adventure also find their place in Grey’s novel, and when Jane finds enough strength to say “Roll the stone!… Lassiter, I love you!”, she exemplifies the culmination of her transformation and the creation of the new spiritual unity, which also works for Lassiter’s benefit: “Under all his deathly pallor, and the blood, and the iron of seared cheek and lined brow, worked a great change. He placed both hands on the rock and then leaned his shoulder there and braced his powerful body” (Grey, 1998). This change is the expression of the broader contextual changes, which Grey depicts in his book and which create a new image of everything Western in literature.
Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage combines unique literary elements and themes to create a long-standing negative impression about Mormons and to use the social and cultural opposition and oppression as the tools of one’s individual self-transformation. Gender oppression, mysteries, conspiracies, and violence form the basis for one’s continuous striving toward self-realization. This long fight for one’s self looks even more compelling under the pressure of external circumstances and forces which each of Grey’s characters seeks to combat. Despite the overt criticism of Grey’s writing style, his book has become a true literary success, giving readers a chance to plunge into realities of the American West.
Cervo, N.A. (1997). Grey’s ‘Riders of the Purple Sage’. The Explicator, 55 (4): 214-216.
Grey, Z. (1998). Riders of the Purple Sage. PGCC Collection, Ebook.
Milton, J.R. (1980). The novel of the American West. University of Nebraska Press.
Mitchell, L.C. (1998). Introduction. In Z. Grey & L.C. Mitchell, Riders of the purple sage,
Oxford University Press.
Pilkington, W.T. (1990). Critical essays on the Western American novel. Boston: Hall.
Taylor, J.G. (1987). A literary history of the American West. TCU Press.