The Gates Ajar

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Few today may have heard of either the novel The Gates Ajar (1868) or its author Elizabeth Stuart Phelps (1844–1911), though it was a best-seller in its time. Nearly 100,000 people had read it in the United States by 1900, and even more in Britain. The novel was later translated into French, German, Dutch, and Italian. The Gates Ajar gained entrepreneurial recognition, too, as mourning apparel (such as collars and tippets), cigars, songs, patent medicines, and floral funeral arrangements were named after it, according to Phelps in her autobiography Chapters from a Life (1896). The book met an urgent need for hope and consolation of bereaved people everywhere but especially in the United States, where women mourned the loss of their beloved husbands, fathers, brothers, friends, and lovers in the recent and most bloody Civil War (1861–1865). A catastrophic 623,000 soldiers died while 500,000 were wounded and some 30,000 received amputations. Many dead bodies were never buried; hence the bereaved lacked the comforting closure of end-of-life ceremonies.

On the book's title page Phelps quoted the nineteenth-century Swiss novelist and memoirist Madame de Gasparin: "Splendor! Immensity! Eternity! Grand words! Great things! A little definite happiness would be more to the purpose." Phelps provided a means to achieve such "happiness" in her book. Instead of an orthodox abstract heaven, she sought in The Gates Ajar to console bereaved Civil War women through her message that their lost loved ones remained spiritually close and readers might expect to rejoin them in a domestic afterlife. Phelps drew upon the domestic regional realism of her mother, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, whose The Sunny Side; or, The Country Minister's Wife (1851), in its depiction of an unending round of household duties, reflected the lives of many of its 100,000 first-year readers. The daughter also followed the domestic sentimentalism (a literary mode evoking sympathy) of her Andover, Massachusetts, neighbor Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose Uncle Tom's Cabin; or, Life among the Lowly (1852) engaged more than 100,000 readers in less than a half year with its heart-rending portrayal of mothers black and white aching from the loss of their children through slavery or death, thereby pleading for mothers everywhere. To losses from the ensuing Civil War, Phelps then responded with The Gates Ajar, which she cast in the first-person diary entries of orphaned twenty-four-year-old Mary Cabot, who had just lost her brother Roy in the war. Mary finds that "the house feels like a prison" and the telegram words—"'shot dead'—shut [her] up and walled [her] in, as . . . in Hell" (p. 7).


Phelps developed a domestic view of heaven from a focused course of reading, evident in the many allusions to religious and theological authors appearing in The Gates Ajar (well-explicated in the introduction and notes by Helen Sootin Smith in the novel's 1964 edition). This reading required "two or three years spent in exceptional solitude" from her own despair over the 22 October 1862 death following the battle at Antietam (17 September) of her dear friend Samuel Hopkins Thompson. She likely wrote The Gates Ajarfrom about 1864 to 1866. Although she claims, in Chapters, that the novel grew "more of nature than of purpose"—"The angel said unto me 'Write!' and I wrote"—she also acknowledged her "steady and conscientious toil" (pp. 95, 99). She was twenty-two when she completed the work.

Two more years would pass before The Gates Ajar reached an audience: the manuscript rested with the Boston publishing firm of Fields, Osgood, notable for its booklist of most of the major nineteenth-century British and American authors. The partner James T. Fields was reluctant to move forward until his wife (the well-known Boston literary hostess Annie Adams Fields) said decidedly, "Take it" (Chapters, p. 108). The literary reputation of the twenty-four-year-old Phelps was firmly established by The Gates Ajar. By 1884 Houghton Mifflin, which succeeded Fields, Osgood, had run fifty-five printings, and in 1910 Regent Press of New York made the last consecutive printing. It has since been reprinted in 1964 and 2000. The 2000 reprint includes novels continuing Phelps's particularization of a heavenly afterlife, Beyond the Gates (1883), in which a woman joins her father, who has been keeping house, and finds the lover she missed in life, and The Gates Between (1887), in which a husband assumes a mother's domestic duties and cares for their son as they await her arrival. Not reprinted and less important is Within the Gates (1901), a dramatization of the 1887 novel. James D. Hart in his study The Popular Book (1950) lists all four "Gates" books among those most widely read in the United States in the years following their publication.

Contemporary reviews for The Gates Ajar were mixed, the least favorable objecting on religious grounds. They complained that Phelps had gone astray in her book, which would do harm; no one could know that heaven would have pianos, statuary, strawberries, and gingersnaps, as Phelps averred. By contrast, more favorable notices stressed Phelps's literary skill. The Scottish novelist Margaret Oliphant, writing in Blackwood's Magazine in October 1871, found The Gates Ajar to be the first worthy successor to Nathaniel Hawthorne and Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Although reviewers expressed disagreement over the novel's merits, common readers flocked to the book. A mourning manual, the book gave readers ways to cope with losses of family members and of one's very self, since the self may be viewed to be premised upon these family relationships. Readers found in Mary a character who validated their own stages of grieving as they re-experienced initial shock followed by anger, a flood of grief and hopeless despair, then finally being able to let go and move on. Through guidance of Mary by her aunt Winifred, readers might experience in their own reading of The Gates Ajar the "exchange of sympathy" that Mary Louise Kete calls "sentimental collaboration" (p. xv).

Likewise, the work of at least three important United States writers also revealed the impact of The Gates Ajar. The poetic imagery of Emily Dickinson (1830–1886) seems to have sprung from a source similar to that of Phelps. Barton Levi St. Armand finds that Dickinson and Phelps share a view of heaven as "a very private kind of paradise furnished with very concrete and material wish fulfillment" (p. 128) and that a voice like that of Phelps's Winifred counseled Dickinson's acceptance of the kind of "spiritual materialism" (St. Armand, p. 149) exemplified in Gates (p. 84). Howard G. Baetzhold and Joseph B. McCullough have pointed out how, in Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven (1909), Mark Twain (1835–1910) wrongly claimed that he had "burlesqued" Phelps's book as "a mean little ten-cent heaven about the size of Rhode Island" (p. 130): actually Twain emulated a number of the heavenly features of The Gates Ajar, including a critique of contemporary views of a heaven abounding in halos and wings, harps and hymnbooks. And the fiction of Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860–1935)—who read The Gates Ajar in July 1897, as well as many other Phelps novels—includes characters who act to enhance the growth of others through their own expression of thought, action, and feeling: Phelps's heroine Winifred anticipates Gilman's heroine Ellador, the wife of Vandyck Jennings in With Her in Ourland (1916), in that each enhances the insight of others.


The Gates Ajar fomented much religious debate over its spiritualism, a belief in communication with spirits of the dead, and heretical unorthodoxy, discounting human sin and divine punishment. Phelps had read works by the Swedish philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772), whose thought influenced spiritualism. Winifred reveals that she "used to fancy [she] believed in Swedenborg—until [she] read his books" (p. 114), but she recommends to Mary a passage from his Heaven and Hell (1758) describing his materialist view of homes in heaven. Later Winifred complains that "the Spiritualistic notion of 'circles' of dead friends revolving over us is . . . intolerable" (p. 148). Though their influence is clear, these passages indicate Phelps's ambivalence concerning spiritualism. Winifred also agrees with the essayist Gail Hamilton (a pseudonym for Mary Abigail Dodge, 1833–1896), who expressed "righteous indignation" for any Bible but the "original Greek" (p. 62). Phelps reports in Chapters that some theologians—including her father, Austin Phelps, president and professor of rhetoric and homiletics (the art of preaching) at Andover Theological Seminary—considered her view of heaven heretical. Lisa A. Long argues that Phelps "deftly foregrounded the gap between abstract social systems and beliefs, and the physical and emotional realities of life in [the United States], which crystallized during the Civil War" (p. 83). According to Marcia Ian, Phelps's views overall fit the emergent religious perspective documented by William James's Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) of an "affectionate religion," one based in individual feeling and experience rather than rationality, and a "material Protestantism" (p. 36) that evoked emotion by engaging sensory experience of material objects. In her study of figuration in The Gates Ajar, Gail K. Smith finds that Phelps "attempts to reconcile the long history of Christian theology, new currents in biblical criticism, the needs of the contemporary believer, and the words of the Bible in a form accessible to the ordinary reader" (p. 124), as for example Winifred's query, "Can't people tell picture from substance, a metaphor from its meaning?" with regard to the concrete though symbolic biblical descriptions of heaven (p. 54).

In contrast to focus upon an afterlife, the nineteenth-century social gospel movement directed believers' attention toward doing God's work on earth. The social gospel, which encompassed belief in the perfectibility of humanity and use of religious faith in the service of social amelioration, especially for the working urban poor, was an element of various utopian movements during the same period, some communitarian, others reformist. These movements overlapped and fed each other, often the same adherents participating in several. The Gates Ajar has been considered in this context, too, as Phelps sought in it to effect relief for her largely female and grieving readership, through the lay ministry exemplified in Winifred.

Much of the power that readers responded to in The Gates Ajar derived from Phelps's skillful deployment of familiar cultural practices. The rural cemetery movement was a material manifestation of the nineteenth-century religious effort to join heaven to earth and to eradicate dying from earth. Mary refers to the "ivied cross" in the cemetery under which Roy lies with her "dreams," assuring herself that her dreams "will come back to me with him" (p. 127). The cemetery, a landscaped park, became a place for the family to remain united as they gathered at gravesides to commune among themselves: its tasteful natural beauty was expected to refine visitors as it reminded them of heavenly eternity. Even pets lay under gravestones. A religion of love replaced the Calvinist focus upon sin: under Winifred's guidance, Mary comes to realize that loving Roy and loving God are synonymous. Though Phelps parodied the complicated condolence system of exchanges expected to comfort the bereaved and keep the dead in the minds of the living, she acknowledged mourning's ritual attire in Winifred's wearing the white collar and cuffs of half-mourning, customary for a widow of three years, a practice that alerted others to approach her with sympathy.

Not only religious but also secular in its impact, The Gates Ajar concerns gender stereotypes, especially women's roles. Phelps attests in Chapters that when she was twenty-five (in 1869), she approved the "enfranchisement and elevation of her own sex": "I believe in women," she vowed, "and in their right to their own best possibilities in every department of life" (p. 250). Many critics of the book since the late twentieth century have affirmed its utopian feminist features. For example, the heroine Winifred challenges established patriarchal organization for her own welfare and, though a woman, presumes herself a lay minister. She offers a collaborative model for comforting the grieving, what can only be considered as realizable utopian social reform. In her 1871 essay "The True Woman," Phelps denounced the personality without a self required of that "enormous dummy . . . the 'true woman,'" expected to immerse herself totally in family to the exclusion of any self-care (p. 269). Early in The Gates Ajar, Mary bemoans to her diary that Roy "had grown to me, heart of my heart, life of my life. . . . Roy was all there was," her acknowledgment that her own self was buried in Roy (p. 9). Later she confides her sense of a merged self to her aunt Winifred: once in heaven, Mary despairs that she "hasn't talent, nor even a single absorbing taste . . . : what shall she do?" (p. 109). Winifred urges Mary to reveal her own self's feeling to her aunt and, in so doing, find and strengthen her own self: Mary's loss of Roy becomes the occasion for her self-discovery. Later in the novel Mary fears that she shall never "[sound] her own nature" as has Winifred who "knows the worst of herself, and faces it . . . fairly" (p. 65).

The Gates Ajar reveals Phelps's broad understanding of literary strategies and her astute deployment of them to console her readers, expressed in the familiar voice of a bereaved young woman. Its wide popular appeal derives from the many social practices and issues that Phelps touched upon. Given a belief that heaven would be an improvement over earth, placing social innovations in heaven made a claim for their desirability.

See alsoCivil War; Death; Domestic Fiction; Female Authorship; Feminism; Mourning; Religion; Sentimentalism; Spiritualism


Primary Works

Phelps, Elizabeth Stuart. Chapters from a Life. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1896.

Phelps, Elizabeth Stuart. The Gates Ajar. 1868. Edited and with an introduction by Helen Sootin Smith. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1964. In-text citations are to this edition.

Phelps, Elizabeth Stuart. Three Spiritualist Novels: The GatesAjar (1868), Beyond the Gates (1883), and The Gates Between (1887). Introduction by Nina Baym. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000.

Phelps, Elizabeth Stuart. "The True Woman." Independent 23, no. 1193 (12 October 1871): 1. Reprinted in The Story of Avis (1877). Edited and with an introduction by Carol Farley Kessler. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1985. In-text citations are to the reprinted version.

Secondary Works

Baetzhold, Howard G., and Joseph B. McCullough, eds. The Bible according to Mark Twain: Irreverent Writings on Eden, Heaven, and the Flood by America's Master Satirist. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995.

Bennett, Mary Angela. Elizabeth Stuart Phelps. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1939.

Hart, James D. The Popular Book: A History of America'sLiterary Taste. New York: Oxford University Press, 1950.

Ian, Marcia. "Psychology and the of Impasse Reason: William James's Religious Experience." Streams of William James 4, no. 3 (2002): 34–37.

Kete, Mary Louise. Sentimental Collaboration: Mourning and Middle-Class Identity in Nineteenth-Century America. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2000.

Knight, Denise D., ed. The Diaries of Charlotte PerkinsGilman. Vol. 2, 1890–1935. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1994.

Long, Lisa A. Rehabilitating Bodies: Health, History, and the American Civil War. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.

Oliphant, Margaret. Review of The Gates Ajar. Blackwood's Magazine 10 (October 1871): 422–442.

St. Armand, Barton Levi. Emily Dickinson and Her Culture:The Soul's Society. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Schnog, Nancy. "'The Comfort of My Fancying': Loss and Recuperation in The Gates Ajar." Arizona Quarterly 49, no. 3 (1993): 127–154.

Smith, Gail K. "From the Seminary to the Parlor: The Popularization of Hermeneutics in The Gates Ajar." Arizona Quarterly 54, no. 2 (1998): 99–133.

Carol Farley Kessler

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The Gates Ajar

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