“Heaven's Tense” is about Elizabeth Stuart Phelps's best-selling nineteenth-century text, The Gates Ajar, which was published in the aftermath of the Civil War for the emotional benefit of the immense number of women who had lost their loved ones in the conflict. The overwhelming popularity of this book, like that of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, has produced critical accounts that tend to shy away from formal, textual analyses in the interests of developing more culturally oriented readings. My essay attends both to the cultural contexts that inform the novel and to its specific stylistic oddities. The narrative theories of Gerard Genette and Roland Barthes provide my reading with the vocabulary that allows me to establish and explicate the text's formal complexities—particularly its inconsistent use of tense—and interpret them in relation to the religious imperatives of the novel. The religious goal of the novel is to console women with the belief that the men they have lost are not dead, not absent, but present. The narrative implication of a belief in which death does not mark the difference between past and present is a story that does not know what tense to tell itself in. Phelps's text vacillates between tenses, seeking to make all people inhabit the present; however, narration depends on keeping these time frames discrete, and as the religious goal of the novel is achieved, its narrative cohesion is undermined.

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