Riders of the Purple Sage
Grosset & Dunlap first edition cover
|Cover artist||Wendell Galloway|
|Publisher||Harper & Brothers, Grosset & Dunlap|
|Media type||Paper, 8vo|
|Preceded by||The Heritage of the West|
|Followed by||The Rainbow Trail|
Riders of the Purple Sage is a Western novel by Zane Grey, first published by Harper & Brothers in 1912. Considered by many critics to have played a significant role in shaping the formula of the popular Western genre, the novel has been called "the most popular western novel of all time."
Riders of the Purple Sage tells the story of Jane Withersteen and her battle to overcome her persecution by members of her polygamous Mormon fundamentalist church, a leader of which, Elder Tull, wants to marry her. Withersteen is supported by a number of Gentile friends, including Bern Venters and Lassiter, a famous gunman and killer of Mormons. Throughout most of the novel she struggles with her "blindness" in seeing the evil nature of her church and its leaders, trying to keep both Venters and Lassiter from killing her adversaries, who are slowly ruining her. Through the adoption of a child, Fay, she abandons her false beliefs and discovers her true love. A second plot strand tells of Venters and his escape to the wilderness with a girl named Bess, "the rustler's girl," whom he has accidentally shot. While caring for her, Venters falls in love with the girl, and together they escape to the East, while Lassiter, Fay, and Jane, pursued by both Mormons and rustlers, escape into a paradise-like valley by toppling a giant balancing rock, forever closing off the only way in or out.
The events depicted in Riders of the Purple Sage occur between the mid-spring and the late summer of 1871. Early in Riders of the Purple Sage, we are introduced to Jane Withersteen and the main conflict: the right to befriend a Gentile (in Riders of the Purple Sage, the word Gentile is synonymous with "non-Mormon"; the usage was common in the book). This conflict is best demonstrated in the statement: "Jane Withersteen gazed down the wide purple slope with dreamy and troubled eyes. A rider had just left her and it was his message that held her thoughtful and almost sad, awaiting the churchmen who were coming to resent and attack her right to befriend a Gentile".
We are introduced to Tull, an elder in the church. It was the wish of Jane Withersteen’s father that Jane marry Tull, but Jane refused (saying because she did not love him), causing a string of controversy and leading to her persecution by the local Mormons.
Jane’s Gentile friend and rider (cowboy) Bern Venters is "arrested" by Tull and his men, including Jerry Card, who prepare to sentence him (Venters). It is not clear under what authority the mob is acting, however. As is common in the genre, it seems that might makes right. Jane continuously defends Venters, declaring him her best rider. Her defense is worth very little to her churchmen, who refuse to value the opinion of a woman, as shown by: "Tull lifted a shaking finger toward her. 'That'll do from you. Understand, you'll not be allowed to hold this boy [Venters] to a friendship that's offensive to your bishop. Jane Withersteen, your father left you wealth and power. It has turned your head. You haven't yet come to see the place of Mormon women ...'" It is here where we first hear mention of Lassiter. Venters uses Lassiter’s name to express the waves of terror that Lassiter had been known to cause. Ironically, at the moment when Venters mentions Lassiter’s name, the actual Lassiter is seen approaching in the distance by Tull’s men.
Upon his arrival, Lassiter speaks briefly to Jane without introducing himself. Lassiter expresses his trust in the word of women, at which point Tull rebukes him telling him not to meddle in Mormon affairs. It is at this point that Tull’s men begin to take Venters away, when Venters, realizing who he is, screams "Lassiter!", at which point Tull understands that this man is the infamous Lassiter and flees, leaving Venters.
By the second chapter we have been introduced to many of the major characters in Riders of the Purple Sage. The statement, “'If by some means I can keep him here a few days, a week—he will never kill another Mormon,' she mused. 'Lassiter! ... I shudder when I think of that name, of him. But when I look at the man I forget who he is—I almost like him. I remember only that he saved Bern. He has suffered. I wonder what it was—did he love a Mormon woman once? How splendidly he championed us poor misunderstood souls! Somehow he knows—much.'” explains early Jane’s intent to transform Lassiter to be less resentful of Mormons.
Lassiter inquires as to the location of Millie Erne's grave, to which a transfixed Jane agrees to take him. Venters later tells Jane he must leave her. When she protests, Venters delivers this statement: " ... Tull is implacable. You ought to see from his intention today that ... but you can't see. Your blindness ... your damned religion! Jane, forgive me ... I'm sore within and something rankles. Well, I fear that invisible hand [of Mormon power in the region] will turn its hidden work to your ruin.", showing that Venters could see far into the future, and although Jane rebukes his statement, he is indeed correct.
Jane’s red herd is rustled shortly afterward and Venters ventures to track it and return it to Jane. Bern finds the herd, but, in his travels, wages a gun battle with two of Oldring’s rustlers, killing one and managing to wound Oldring’s notorious Masked Rider. Upon further examination, he removes the mask and shirt of the wounded rider and learns that the Masked Rider is a young woman named Bess whom he believes had been abused by Oldring. Venters experiences a large amount of guilt about shooting a girl and decides that it is his duty to save her.
It is through this guilt that Venters discovers Surprise Valley and Balancing Rock, where he takes Bess, the girl he has found. Bess gradually gains health and begins to fall in love with Venters who begins to fall in love with Bess. Each explain their individual stories ambiguously, but through Venters' dedicated care for Bess, the pair forms a mutual love that leads to their resolve to marry. Bess had also discovered the truth concerning Oldring’s rustlers, who only rustled cattle to disguise their true lifestyle of surviving off gold in the streams and business deals with the Mormons.
Venters then determines that there is a need to attain supplies, thus warranting a trip back to Cottonwoods. On his trip to Cottonwoods, Venters sees Jane Withersteen’s prize horses being stolen. He kills the thieves and retrieves the horses for Jane, but unfortunately loses his horse, Wrangle.
Jane’s horses are returned to her, and are locked in the entry hall to Withersteen house. Venters officially breaks his friendship with Jane at this time. He goes into the village and proclaimed that he was breaking his friendship and leaving. After he leaves, Jane’s other herd gets stolen.
Jane at first pretends to love Lassiter—whom she knows had come to the Utah village to avenge the death of his sister Milly Erne—to prevent him from murdering the Mormon Elders that she knew were guilty. However, through their struggles against the plights calculated against Jane, these two characters also grow to love each other. The climax in their love occurs when Jane's adopted daughter Fay is kidnapped and Lassiter kills Bishop Dyer while risking his own life.
Towards the end of the story, the four main characters—Venters, Bess, Lassiter, and Jane—realize that they can no longer safely stay in Utah. Lassiter convinces Jane to prepare to leave with him, and Lassiter is able to determine the name of a Mormon who contributed to the ruin of Milly and Jane implicates her father in the proselytizing of Milly. In a state of shock, Jane packs and is ready to leave when Lassiter comes back.
Meanwhile, in Surprise Valley, Venters and Bess are preparing to leave (at the same time as Jane and Lassiter start departing), except on burros. Lassiter sets fire to Withersteen House and flees on horseback with Jane. They encounter Venters and Bess in travel. Before they part, Lassiter explains that Bess is not really Bess Oldring, but actually the lost daughter of Milly Erne, Elizabeth Erne.
Jane gives Venters her horses, Venters and Bess gallop for Venters' Illinois home, and Lassiter and Jane continue on their way to find refuge in Venters' valley paradise. On the way, Lassiter rescues Fay, but they are pursued to Surprise Valley, causing Jane to shout to Lassiter "Roll the Stone" and create an avalanche, shutting the outlet to Deception Pass. (Grey uses the term "forever", but this is obviously not correct. Grey describes the "stone" as chiseled by the ancient cliff-dwellers using stone tools. Thus, it should be possible at some point to chisel an opening when Jane and Lassiter decide it is safe. Also, Venters and Bess discuss returning in 10 years and he mentions returning with rope to climb the cliffs.)
Unlike many Western novels, which are often straightforward and stylized morality tales, Riders of the Purple Sage is a long novel with a complex plot that develops in many threads. The story is set in the cañon country of southern Utah in 1871. Jane Withersteen, a Mormon-born spinster of 28, has inherited a valuable ranch and spring from her father, which is coveted by other Mormons in the community. When Jane refuses to marry one of the (polygamous) Mormon elders and instead befriends Venters, a young Gentile rider, the Mormons begin to persecute her openly. Meanwhile, Lassiter, a notorious gunman, arrives at the Withersteen ranch in search of the grave of his long-lost sister, and stays on as Jane's defender while Venters is on the trail of a gang of rustlers that includes a mysterious Masked Rider. Jane is intent on preventing Lassiter from doing further violence to Mormons and is eventually driven off her ranch as the persecution escalates, but she and Lassiter fall in love, Lassiter solves the mystery of his sister's death and the fate of her child, the Masked Rider is unmasked, and Venters finds his own romance. Along the way, Jane also finds time to adopt Fay Larkin, a young Gentile orphan who accompanies her and Lassiter at the end of the story
Riders of the Purple Sage was written in 1912 and is set in a remote part of Utah after the influx of Mormon settlers (1847-1857) as a backdrop for the plot (1871). The Mormons had been centered in Kirtland, Ohio in the 1830s and Zane Grey would have been aware of the Mormon sect given that he grew up in Zanesville, Ohio.
Plural marriage was only officially prohibited by the Mormons with the issuing of the First and Second Manifesto in 1890 and 1904 respectively, enacted primarily to allow the territory to attain statehood. In 1871, mainstream American society found plural marriage offensive. Even after the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act was passed in 1862, the practice had continued. Therefore, Zane Grey described the distaste of the institution through Lassiter in 1912, some 22 years after the practice had officially ended.
- Jane Withersteen
Jane Withersteen represents the force of established legal and religious law in Cottonwoods. From the beginning, Zane Grey describes the characteristics of Jane, "Trouble between the Mormons and the Gentiles of the community would make her unhappy… Jane prayed that the tranquility and sweetness of her life would not be permanently disrupted". This identifies her as a lover of tranquility and peace, topics that seemed foreign to the other Mormons in 1871, a time of change when the Mormon communities struggled against the invasion of Gentile settlers and the forays of rustlers.
Likewise, Jane’s wealth has made her stubborn in her efforts to preserve the peace, which on several occasions lack logic and common sense. This is evident in her effort to disarm Lassiter despite her knowledge that he is persecuted by her townsmen, as well as her intent to relinquish her struggle and consent to marry Tull when the peace is on the verge of breaking. Lassiter had said, "The blindness I mean is blindness that keeps you from seein' the truth. I've known many good Mormons. But some are blacker than hell. You won't see that even when you know it". Nonetheless, she is able to understand, in the end, the importance of questioning the authority of her spiritual guides, that misdeeds can be hidden in a disguise of goodness, and that violence is sometimes required in the absence of established law.
Throughout the story her perception of family changes, as she is able to acknowledge the wrongs committed by her father, and is able to speak more candidly about the guilt of her Elders to Lassiter. "Truly, Dyer ruined Milly Erne—dragged her from her home—to Utah—to Cottonwoods. But it was for my father! Blind I may be ... fanatically faithful to a false religion I may have been but I know justice, and my father is beyond human justice. Surely he is meeting just punishment—somewhere". After her tribulations, Jane also loses her vanity; in the beginning, she "cared most for the dream and the assurance and the allurement of her beauty ... Hordes of Mormon and Gentile suitors had fanned the flame of natural vanity in her". This transformation eventually allows her to abandon her townsmen and many Mormon customs, and in the end, she is left only with the two Gentiles—Lassiter and Fay Larkin—that constitute her new family.
"Jim" Lassiter symbolically enters the story as an answer to Jane’s prayer to spare Bern Venters of his fate. "She found herself murmuring, 'Whence cometh my help!' It was a prayer, as if forth from those lonely purple reaches and walls of red and clefts of blue might ride a fearless man, neither creed-bound nor creed-mad, who would hold up a restraining hand in the faces of her ruthless people". Lassiter’s black clothing represents his personality as an anti-hero. He is thus similar to the depictions of Shane and Zorro in later works and closely presages Chris in The Magnificent Seven. His act of saving Venters and his other characteristics (e.g., watering his horse before allowing himself to drink, honorable treatment of Jane, and frankness in honestly revealing his identity) quickly affirm his status as an enigmatic protagonist.
Zane Grey describes him as a gentle-voiced, sad-faced man who was a hater and killer of Mormons; together, these characteristics appear to be a paradox for the people around him. He is in his late thirties, and he has spent nearly half of his life riding into the West in search of his proselyte sister Milly Erne, who was forced to abandon her family and join the Mormon sect under the influence of Bishop Dyer and the elder Withersteen. Due to this tragedy and his experience as a gunman in Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska, Lassiter showed no compassion to the Mormons that he deemed to be guilty but treated all others, like Jane Withersteen, with respect.
Nonetheless, he continues to doubt the Mormon way of life, and believes that its teachings are constructed from mal-intent. When Jane tells him, "The men of my creed have been driven in hate, up until they've become cruel, but we women pray for the time when their hearts will soften", he responds, "That time will never come". The disdain for Mormonism is social, instead of religious, in nature. Lassiter says, "These Mormons ain't just right in their minds. Else could a Mormon marry one woman when he already has a wife, an' call it duty?” Indeed, Lassiter takes little heed of religion but follows his own system of values that places his dedication for justice/vengeance above all other things. This system is briefly disrupted by his love for Jane, but when Fay Larkin is abducted by the Mormon Elders, he regains his dedication and kills Bishop Dyer. His dedication toward his work is also shown when he single-handedly saves Jane's stampeding White Herd.
- Elizabeth Erne
Elizabeth "Bess" Erne is Milly Erne’s daughter and Lassiter’s niece, whom Oldring had sheltered for nearly two decades under the terms of a business deal with the Mormon Elders. She possesses more of a Western personality than her companion Bern Venters, having been born in Texas and raised by cattle rustlers. She also became the most skillful equestrian in the region after Jerry Card’s death. While riding was enjoyable for her, she loved stability the most. When Venters asks her of her history, she says, "As long as I can remember I’ve been locked up there at times, and those times were the only happy ones I ever had. It’s a big cabin high up on a cliff, and I could look out. Then I had dogs and pets I had tamed, and books. There was a spring inside, and food stored, and the men brought me fresh meat. Once I was there one whole winter".
Elizabeth brings optimism to the story and helps Zane Grey emphasize that men are easily changed by women; through Jane’s influence, Lassiter became more peaceful, and through Elizabeth’s company, Venters becomes more human. He realizes, "We can’t be any higher in the things for which life is lived at all…. relationship, friendship—love". Throughout the novel, Elizabeth remains very static when compared to the other protagonists, and she only changes psychologically to accommodate the new love that she has for Venters. Even after recovering from her wounds, she appears very submissive to Venters while her personality remains childlike (e.g. fear of thunder even though she has lived in the West for all her life, regard for most of Venters' schemes with enthusiasm, etc.). Even after she learns that Venters had killed Oldring, the man who had protected her, she quickly forgives him for the mere reason that Oldring was not her biological father.
Nonetheless, through love for Venters and freedom from the rustlers, Elizabeth does learn more about herself, "I’ve discovered myself—too. I’m young—I’m alive—I’m so full—oh! I’m a woman!” The change is physical as well, "She no longer resembled a boy. No eye could have failed to mark the rounded contours of a woman". Though she had been raised by rustlers, her innocence and love for Venters allows her to join the list of the novel’s protagonists. At the end of the story, she again expresses her spirit as a Western woman who is saddened to enter civilization, "Oh! Bern! But look! The sun is setting on the sage – the last time for us till we dare come again to the Utah border… Oh, Bern, look, so you will never forget!”
- Bern Venters
Bern Venters is Jane’s young Gentile rider who also embodies some traits of the Western hero and lives by his own code of honor. He and Lassiter share many parallels, and Venters is eager to learn from and follow the famous gunman, but Venters' history is essentially in the East. He reveals his own respect of animals, which is often a protagonist trait, through favors for his dogs, Ring and Whitie. "Whitie watched him with somber eyes of love, and Ring, crouched on the little rise of ground above, kept tireless guard. When the sun rose, the white dog took the place of the other, and Ring went to sleep at his master’s feet". He displays his chivalrous code when he shoots Oldring’s Masked Rider and nurses her back to health upon discovering that the rider was a female. Venters is described to stand tall and straight with a "blue flame of defiance" in his eyes.
To readers, Venters has been persecuted and ruined with his people by the Mormons. From the start, his anger with Tull is apparent, "Haven't you already ruined me? What do you call ruin? A year ago I was a rider. I had horses and cattle of my own. I had a good name in Cottonwoods. And now when I come into the village to see this woman you set your men on me. You hound me. You trail me as if I were a rustler. I've no more to lose—except my life". Although he has been protected and sheltered by Jane and later Lassiter, his people, whom the Mormons classify as "nonbelievers", are left impoverished and uneducated. The Mormon Elders eliminate all opportunities for the Gentiles to rise to prosperity, and they thwart Jane’s efforts to bring equality into the region.
Venters' relationship with Bess transforms his personality. At the start of the novel, he claims that his "position is not a happy one", saying, "I can’t feel right—I’ve lost all… I mean loss of good-will, good name—that which would have enabled me to stand up in this village without bitterness. Well, it's too late ...” After loving Bess, he regains his determination and confidence. Of this Grey writes, "He climbed a great yellow rock raising its crest among the spruces, and there he sat down to face the valley and the west. 'I love her!’ Aloud he spoke—unburdened his heart—confessed his secret. For an instant the golden valley swam before his eyes, and the walls waved, and all about him whirled with tumult within. 'I love her! I understand now.'”
- Bishop Dyer
Bishop Dyer is a corrupt Mormon minister who shows that fallibility of religion in a lawless society. Lassiter described the situation with anger, "You'd think churches an' churchmen would make it better. They make it worse. You give names to things—bishops, elders, ministers, Mormonism, duty, faith, glory. You dream—or you're driven mad. I'm a man, an' I know. I name fanatics, followers, blind women, oppressors, thieves, ranchers, rustlers, riders". Instead, religion has become an excuse for exercising tyrannous power. In the story, Dyer operates the "invisible hand", representing the law of the region, and assuming a position similar to Fletcher’s in Shane.
Dyer is physically described to possess a stern demeanor, "The Bishop was rather tall, of stout build, with iron-gray hair and beard, and eyes of light blue. They were merry now; but Jane had seen them when they were not, and then she feared him as she had feared her father". As a bishop, he practices plural marriage; despite already having several wives, he informs Jane of his own intent to marry her if Tull did not. All of Cottonwoods' Mormons were taught to love and revere the bishop investing alls of their "religious fidelity" and "acceptance of mysterious and holy Mormon truths" in him. As a result, he was valued as an "entity ... next to God. He was God’s mouthpiece to the little Mormon community… God revealed himself in secret to this mortal".
Bishop Dyer is also known to have fallible characteristics, sometimes "forgetting the minister in the fury of a common man". With his authority, he could declare any person a heretic, and with the threat of excommunication from the Mormon sect (causing them to "face the damning of [their] soul to perdition"), force them to act in ways that would benefit the Mormon Council. To Jane he had said, "Remember, you're a born Mormon. There have been Mormons who turned heretic—damn their souls!—but no born Mormon ever left us yet". Despite his transgressions, Dyer was a true believer of his faith, but according to Judkins, he had realized the weight of his wrongs too late to find salvation.
- Elder Tull
Elder Tull is another member of the Mormon Council who utilizes the "invisible hand" against those such as Jane Withersteen who rebelled against the Mormon faith. As a character, Tull is portrayed cowardly. Ideologically, he is an "empire builder", but physically, he relies on strength in numbers, and he is unable to face Lassiter or Venters alone. His cowardly demeanor is shown early in the story, when he, with the help of seven others, threaten to beat Venters. Yet, despite their superiority in numbers, they flee at the sight of Lassiter. Instead, Tull, who has been "in love with [Jane] for years", uses his authority to attempt to convince her to marry him or risk damnation. His goal is to control her inherited wealth and prevent it from being used to aid the region’s impoverished Gentiles.
In Grey’s descriptions, he said of Tull, "[He] spoke with the arrogance of a Mormon whose power could not be brooked and with the passion of a man in whom jealousy had kindled a consuming fire". Like Dyer, Tull is able to use his power for his selfish needs "[Tull] loomed up now in different guise, not as a jealous suitor, but embodying the mysterious despotism she had known from childhood—the power of her creed". Dyer and Tull both remain unchanged in the story, being representations of unredeemable evil in Cottonwoods. However, Tull is presented even more lowly than Dyer. Where Dyer had calmness, Tull possessed reckless and violent rage.
In a literary perspective, Tull represents a pestilence that cannot be avoided. Jane Withersteen constantly reminds Lassiter and Venters to avoid Tull in order to prevent violence. However, stereotypical of a Western, readers understand that either Jane’s words will one day be ignored by Lassiter and Venters, or Jane one day will change her position regarding the topic to facilitate for the deaths of Dyer and Tull in a final showdown. By the end of the novel, both Elders had been killed by Lassiter—who ignored Jane’s pleas to kill Dyer, and who obeyed her command to "roll the stone" to kill Tull—who reaffirms his position as the Western hero who carries out his own forms of justice.
- Oldring's rustlers
Oldring, rustlers, et al. rustled cattle and aided the Mormon Elders in their "invisible hand" campaigns. Therefore, they acted as antagonists by creating obstacles for the protagonists. In this respect, Oldring’s rustlers resemble hired mercenaries, whose existences are only tolerated due to their willingness to act for the Mormon Elders. In short, the Elders allow the rustlers to inhabit the valleys and steal cattle from nearby villages, a disguise for their living off the gold in the streams, in return for action against rebellious persons. This act, in itself, reveals corruption on the part of the Mormon Elders, as their actions cause them to victimize the only people wealthy enough to possess cattle: the Mormon followers of their own faith.
Those oblivious to the invisible hand speak of Oldring with anger, "For years my riders have trailed the tracks of stolen cattle. You know as well as I how dearly we've paid for our ranges in this wild country. Oldring drives our cattle down into the network of deceiving canyons, and somewhere far to the north or east he drives them up and out to Utah markets". Similar to the other antagonists in the novel, the rustlers do not change their lifestyle or their ideology. The only disruption of their social order occurs when Oldring, Dyer, and Tull are killed. Despite this, readers do not learn the impact that these events had on the rustlers. It is assumed that the institution of cattle rustling will continue in the region until it becomes civilized with a legitimate government.
The final twist in plot regarding the rustlers is Oldring’s capability of honor and pity, "[Bess] was the rustler's nameless daughter. Oldring had loved her. He had so guarded her, so kept her from women and men and knowledge of life that her mind was as a child's. That was part of the secret—part of the mystery. That was the wonderful truth". Yet, Oldring’s sudden death creates guilt in Venters for his rash murder and shrouds forever the human characteristics of Oldring.
Setting and theme
Setting and Theme have been combined in this analysis to prevent sounding repetitive. In Riders of the Purple Sage, much of the setting affects the theme.
Riders of the Purple Sage is set in 1871 in Utah. It is set in a fictional area of Southwest Utah called Cottonwoods. Cottonwoods was founded by the father of Jane Withersteen, therefore Jane Withersteen inherited the worth of the village, "And then she sighed, remembering that her father had founded this remotest border settlement of southern Utah and that he had left it to her. She owned all the ground and many of the cottages. Withersteen House was hers, and the great ranch, with its thousands of cattle, and the swiftest horses of the sage. To her belonged Amber Spring, the water which gave verdure and beauty to the village and made living possible on that wild purple upland waste. She could not escape being involved by whatever befell Cottonwoods".
In the above quote, several archetypal aspects of the west can be seen. The west is very often, like other epic stories, seen with a religious connotation. Based on this interpretation, the village had been founded by one person with religious motives. Colonizing under Brigham Young, the Mormon prophet, was considered a "call from God." The spring could represent the giving of life.
One of the main aspects of the west highlighted by Riders of the Purple Sage was the distance between towns and the mostly uncharted areas between them. The west was often characterized by little towns approximately 50 miles apart from each other. In these sections, locations like Deception Pass and Surprise Valley are found often.
Several thematic elements play a role in Riders of the Purple Sage including the significance of morality, honor, redemption, isolation and religious confrontation.
First, Zane Grey defends morality in characters like Jane. Jane is heavily persecuted for her views on what is moral and what is not moral. In the eyes of the reader, Jane is the righteous one, and thus, she is moral. She is troubled by the leaders of her local congregation not adhering to the professed principles of her faith. This theme could be generalized to any religious organization, since religious leaders can and do seek power, wealth, and oppress outsiders. Morality plays a role in most westerns in that the community questions the morality of the hero, as Jane questions the morality of Lassiter.
Second, Zane Grey shows honor in his characters including Jane. Despite her persecution, Jane’s prized possessions, the Blacks (Arabian stallions), bring her great joy and her friends seek to protect her prized steeds. In the conclusion, Jane surrenders the Blacks to help Venters and Bess escape. Through this close relationship of honor, the trio is able to keep fighting.
Third, a major theme in this story is isolation. Jane, Fay, and Lassiter are isolated as they are forced to live forever in Surprise Valley after Balancing Rock fell. Bess and Venters spent quite a bit of time there, avoiding Oldring's rustlers. Because of the isolation of the location, they were protected for a great time.
Finally, the story is based on religious confrontation. The LDS Church is portrayed very poorly in Riders of the Purple Sage. The local Mormons are shown as very intolerant of the Gentiles and even of Mormons who befriend the non-Mormons. Jane seems to believe that many Mormons do not live up to the standards of the religion. Lassiter admits that he has met some Mormons who are not evil. The LDS Church generally is portrayed as oppressing women within the church and all non-Mormons. Non-Mormon characters are either killed or flee from Cottonwoods, including Jane and Lassiter who voluntarily cut themselves off from all human society to avoid being under Mormon dominion. Social pressure, xenophobia, and threats based on religious salvation are shown as major problems in the novel. Lassiter attributes this to a vague Mormon desire for "empire." Ranchers and railroads later became the common villains seeking for empire in Western stories.
In some of his later Westerns, Grey treated Mormon men in a more neutral way, but in Riders of the Purple Sage they are simply villains who use their religion as an excuse for greed and lust. The character of Lassiter is clearly recognizable as the archetype of the Western gunman hero; dressed in black, the fastest gun around, a loner, laconic and soft-spoken, combining a deep respect for women with a quick willingness to use his guns to dole out his own ideas of justice.
The Rainbow Trail, a sequel to Riders of the Purple Sage that reveals the fate of Jane and Lassiter and their adopted daughter, was published in 1915. Both novels are notable for their protagonists' strong opposition to Mormon polygamy, but in Rainbow Trail this theme is treated more explicitly. The plots of both books revolve around the victimization of women in the Mormon culture: events in Riders of the Purple Sage are centered on the struggle of a Mormon woman who sacrifices her wealth and social status to avoid becoming a junior wife of the head of the local church, while Rainbow Trail contrasts the fanatical older Mormons with the rising generation of Mormon women who will not tolerate polygamy and Mormon men who will not seek it.
Riders of the Purple Sage has been adapted to film five times. The first film version of the novel was the silent film Riders of the Purple Sage (1918) starring William Farnum as Lassiter and Mary Mersch as Jane. A second silent film version was released in 1925, starring Tom Mix as Lassiter and Mabel Ballin as Jane. The first sound version appeared in 1931, starring George O'Brien as Lassiter and Marguerite Churchill as Jane. In 1941, a fourth film version was released, starring George Montgomery as Jim Lassiter and Mary Howard as Jane. Fifty-five years later, a television film, Riders of the Purple Sage (1996), was released, starring Ed Harris as Lassiter and Amy Madigan as Jane.
- Riders of the Purple Sage (1918), starring William Farnum and Mary Mersch
- Riders of the Purple Sage (1925), starring Tom Mix and Mabel Ballin
- Riders of the Purple Sage (1931), starring George O'Brien and Marguerite Churchill
- Riders of the Purple Sage (1941), starring George Montgomery and Mary Howard
- Riders of the Purple Sage (1996), starring Ed Harris and Amy Madigan
In 1952, Dell released a comic book version of the novel (Dell # 372).
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- May, Stephen J. (1997). Zane Grey: Romancing The West. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press. ISBN 978-0821411810.
- Pauly, Thomas H. (2005). Zane Grey: His Life, His Adventures, His Women. Chicago: University of Illinois Press. ISBN 978-0252074929.
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