Kaye Gibbons Gibbons, Kaye (Vol. 145) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Kaye Gibbons 1960-

American novelist.

The following entry provides an overview of Gibbons's career through 1999. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 50 and 88.

Gibbons is best known for novels that focus on self-reliant southern women and the challenges they face in their lives. Typically set in her native rural North Carolina, Gibbons's stories are told in the dialects of first-person narrators. Her characters are often guided by shared virtues, such as an innate common sense or a refusal to suffer from self-pity. Common themes in her work include the vicissitudes of love and marriage, sickness, death, racism, poverty, and the horrors of child abuse.

Biographical Information

Gibbons was born to Charles and Alice Butts in Wilson, North Carolina, on May 5, 1960. Her father was a tobacco farmer, and the family lived on a farm in rural Nash County. Gibbons was very close to her mother, who committed suicide at the age of forty-seven. Gibbons later wrote about this painful childhood event in her semi-autobiographical work Ellen Foster (1987). She lived with her father before moving to live with her aunt. This was a brief arrangement, however, and after her father's death in 1972, Gibbons stayed with a foster family until she was able to live with her brother in 1973. She lived there until fall 1978 when she started attending North Carolina State University in Raleigh. In 1980, the summer before transferring to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Gibbons discovered that she suffered from manic depression and was eventually hospitalized several times for treatment. In 1984, she married Michael Gibbons, with whom she had three children, but later divorced. While at the University of North Carolina, Gibbons studied southern literature under Louis Rubin, who had a profound influence on her writing and her career. Rubin encouraged her to finish the manuscript for Ellen Foster, and to publish the novel through the university's Algonquin Press. Gibbons has won numerous awards, including the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters for Ellen Foster; a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts; and the PEN/Revson Foundation Fiction Fellowship for a writer thirty-five years old or younger in 1990. Gibbons continues to write and lives in Raleigh with her second husband and their five children.

Major Works

Gibbons's first novel, Ellen Foster, is about a displaced young girl who watches her mother die as the result of a self-induced overdose. After suffering sexual and psychological abuse at the hands of her father, state authorities eventually intervene and remove Ellen from the house. Ellen then experiences a series of difficult situations and suffers various forms of abuse from her biological family. Only when Ellen joins a “foster” family is she able to find nurturing and acceptance. Along her journey, Ellen undergoes profound changes, including abandoning her inherited prejudices against African Americans and learning to accept her best friend, Starletta, as her equal. A Virtuous Woman (1989) tells the story of Jack and Ruby Stokes, who reminisce about their unlikely relationship, while they deal with Ruby's imminent death from cancer at the age of 45. A Cure for Dreams (1991) follows four generations of women as they live through hardships and learn from each other's stories. The novel is narrated by Marjorie, the great-granddaughter in a large southern family. Charms for the Easy Life (1993) revolves around Charlie Kate, a folk healer in North Carolina whose husband left her to raise their daughter, Sophia. Years later, Sophia discovers that her own marriage is dissolving, and that she will have to raise her daughter alone. When Sophia's husband dies, Charlie Kate moves in, and the three women form a feminine collective. Sights Unseen (1995) relates the effects that a mother's manic depression has on her daughter and is based on Gibbons's own experiences with depression. In On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon (1998), Emma Garnet Tate, a nineteenth-century daughter of a Virginia plantation owner, seeks to escape her father's tyrannical rule. Her escape is ultimately achieved by a marriage to Quincy Lowell, a well-to-do doctor, who takes her away to a new life in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Critical Reception

While reviewers have compared Gibbons to Eudora Welty and other southern writers, most have recognized Gibbons as a unique voice in southern literature. Kathryn McKee has stated, “In focusing her novel on female discourse, Gibbons distinguishes her work both from the fiction written by the forefathers of the southern renascence and from the writing produced by her southern literary contemporaries.” Many critics have applauded Gibbons's realistic portrayal of contemporary southern life. They also have commended her deft use of dialogue, because it generally avoids the contrivances of southern colloquialisms and skillfully arranges a cadence to give the characters' voices their southern flavor. Nancy Lewis has stated, “With a vernacular authenticity that leads us to believe she didn't need to do her homework, she has presented us with stories and characters most definitely real, uncontrived, and of their time.” While well-received by critics and readers alike, one of the criticisms voiced against Ellen Foster has been that the anti-racism message is somewhat dulled by the characterization of Starletta as a voiceless cog in the machinery of Ellen's life. Earlier in her career, some critics accused Gibbons of drawing one-dimensional male characters who act as mere foils for her female heroines. However, Gibbons has been frequently praised for the economy of her writing style. Lewis has surmised, “Perhaps it is the southern storyteller's inherited practice of honing and editing to please the listener's ear that has given Kaye Gibbons her skill in economy and structure.” Throughout her career, Gibbons has found a loyal audience of readers and largely appreciative critics. Jane Fisher has summed up her popularity stating, “This wide acclaim stems from her ability to find comedy in tragedy and moral beauty in ugliness.”

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ellen Foster (novel) 1987

A Virtuous Woman (novel) 1989

A Cure for Dreams (novel) 1991

Charms for the Easy Life (novel) 1993

Sights Unseen (novel) 1995

On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon (novel) 1998

Veronica Makowsky (essay date Winter 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘The Only Hard Part Was the Food’: Recipes for Self-Nurture in Kaye Gibbons's Novels,” in Southern Quarterly, Vol. 30, Nos. 2-3, Winter, 1992, pp. 103-12.

[In the following essay, Makowsky discusses the relationship between food and nurturing in Gibbons's Ellen Foster and A Virtuous Woman.]

In an article on Katherine Anne Porter's Miranda stories, Kaye Gibbons observes that “Porter's language, for all its superficial simplicity, pulls the reader vertically towards submerged meanings and horizontally backward through time and memories” (“Planes of Language” 74). The same could be said of Gibbons's own novels. The narrators of Ellen...

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Stephen Souris (essay date Summer 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Kaye Gibbons's A Virtuous Woman: A Bakhtinian/Iserian Analysis of Conspicuous Agreement,” in Southern Studies, Vol. 3, No. 2, Summer, 1992, pp. 99-115.

[In the following essay, Souris uses the narrative theories of Mikhail Bakhtin and Wolfgang Iser to analyze the multiple narration of Gibbons's A Virtuous Woman.]

And after it all, after it's all said and done, I'll still have to say, Bless you, Ruby. You were a fine partner, and I miss you.

—Jack Stokes

The bare story of Kaye Gibbons's A Virtuous Woman (1989) is simple enough. When we stand back from the...

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Julian Mason (essay date 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Kaye Gibbons (1960-),” in Contemporary Fiction Writers of the South, edited by Joseph M. Flora and Robert Bain, Greenwood Press, 1993, pp. 156-68.

[In the following essay, Mason provides an overview of Gibbons's life and career.]

Kaye Gibbons has now published two more novels since she burst upon the public's awareness with her 1987 novel, Ellen Foster, to acclaim and awards. She has shown herself to be a skillful, imaginative, sensitive, and interesting novelist, who has taken the perseverance of the human spirit and Nash County, North Carolina, where she grew up, for her continuing literary domain, as she explores its people, ways, and past. Her...

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Kaye Gibbons with Bob Summer (interview date 8 February 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Kaye Gibbons,” in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 240, No. 6, February 8, 1993, pp. 60-1.

[In the following interview, Summer and Gibbons discuss Gibbons's change of publishers and the development of her fourth novel, Charms for the Easy Life.]

In the decade during which she published her first three novels, Kaye Gibbons won critical acclaim, a legion of readers and literary prizes. Yet when she approached her fourth novel, the 32-year-old writer momentarily lost her voice. Gibbons had recently weathered some difficult times: a reluctant but pragmatic move to Putnam from Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, the publisher of Ellen Foster, A Virtuous Woman...

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Judith Beth Cohen (review date October 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Daughters of the South,” in Women's Review of Books, Vol. 11, No. 1, October, 1993, p. 24.

[In the following review, Cohen discusses the Southern women in Gibbons's Charms for the Easy Life, Pam Durban's The Laughing Place, and Elizabeth Berg's Durable Goods.]

Sensitive daughters and powerful parents are the focus of these three recent Southern novels. Charlie Kate, part folk-healer, part-scientist, the North Carolina grandmother in Kaye Gibbons' fourth novel, Charms for the Easy Life, defies labels as she rises off the page. Louise Vess, the mother in Pam Durban's first novel, The Laughing Place, is a formidable figure with...

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Gale Harris (essay date Winter 1993/1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Beyond the Scarlett Image: Women Writing about the South,” in Belles Lettres, Vol. 9, No. 2, Winter, 1993/1994, pp. 16-8.

[In the following essay, Harris asserts that the heroines of several contemporary Southern novels, including Gibbons's Charms for the Easy Life, go beyond the image of Scarlett O'Hara in portraying life for women in the South.]

Whether presented in the context of tragic, humorous, or almost mythic circumstances, the southern women portrayed in five recent works do more than rebuild their lives and nurture their offspring. They create an environment in which truth can come to light, intimacy can be undertaken and...

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Tonita Branan (essay date Spring 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Women and ‘The Gift for Gab’: Revisionary Strategies in A Cure for Dreams,” in Southern Literary Journal, Vol. 26, No. 2, Spring, 1994, pp. 91-101.

[In the following essay, Branan describes how language empowers the women in Gibbons's A Cure for Dreams.]

Several months before her third novel appeared, Kaye Gibbons voiced anxiety over “the recent dispersal and watering down of language, the lost language in the South” (Wallace 8). With her (then) forthcoming work, A Cure for Dreams, she intended to “take the language back to a very pure time … the Depression,” noting that “the hardest part of writing … has been trying to...

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Kate Kellaway (review date 2 June 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Sights Unseen, in London Observer, June 2, 1996, p. 16.

[In the following review, Kellaway complains that there is not enough material in Gibbons's Sights Unseen to sustain an entire novel.]

Kaye Gibbons is a young American writer and [Sights Unseen] is her fifth book. It is a portrait of a manic depressive mother, by her daughter, and it reads like autobiography.

Madness may be a dramatic subject for fiction but it can also be a closed door, so that although the focus of this novel is on Maggie Barnes and the details of her breakdowns, she stays foreign, unknowable to her daughter and to the reader. There is a...

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Nancy Lewis (essay date 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Kaye Gibbons: Her Full-Time Women,” in Southern Writers at Century's End, edited by Jeffrey J. Folks and James A. Perkins, University Press of Kentucky, 1997, pp. 112-22.

[In the following essay, Lewis praises Gibbons's characterization in her novels and discusses some of Gibbons's memorable heroines.]

“I think the Southerner is a talker by nature,” said Eudora Welty in an interview twenty years ago, “but not only a talker—we are used to an audience. We are used to a listener and that does something to our narrative style” (Conversations 94).

Storytelling is a Southern tradition. In local stores, on porch steps, the...

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Kathryn McKee (essay date Summer 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Simply Talking: Women and Language in Kaye Gibbons's A Cure for Dreams,” in Southern Quarterly, Vol. 35, No. 4, Summer, 1997, pp. 97-106.

[In the following essay, McKee analyzes the uniquely feminine language in Gibbons's A Cure for Dreams and the way that language binds the female characters to a community of women.]

Not coincidentally, the final word of Kaye Gibbons's third novel A Cure for Dreams (1991), is “talking.” Pairing that word with the work's first one, “simply,” reveals the primary activity of the novel—simply talking. The talkers in this case are the women of small-town North Carolina who take pleasure in the...

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Giavanna Munafo (essay date 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘Colored Biscuits’: Reconstructing Whiteness and the Boundaries of ‘Home’ in Kaye Gibbons's Ellen Foster,” in Women, America, and Movement, edited by Susan L. Roberson, University of Missouri Press, 1998, pp. 38-61.

[In the following essay, Munafo discusses Ellen's changing attitudes toward racial differences in Gibbons's Ellen Foster and the implications Ellen's attitude has on the novel as an antiracist text.]

Whether they are able to enact it as a lived practice or not, many white folks active in anti-racist struggle today are able to acknowledge that all whites (as well as everyone else within white supremacist...

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Jane Fisher (review date 2-9 January 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon, in America, Vol. 180, No. 1, January 2-9, 1999, pp. 17-8.

[In the following review, Fisher discusses Gibbons's On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon in terms of its relationship with the author's other works.]

During her brief career, Kaye Gibbons has earned an impressive number of literary and popular honors—awards and grants from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, the Ernest Hemingway Foundation and the National Endowment of the Arts, as well as the tribute of having two novels featured by Oprah Winfrey's Book Club. This wide acclaim stems from her ability to find comedy in...

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Kristina K. Groover (essay date Spring 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Re-visioning the Wilderness: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Ellen Foster,” in Southern Quarterly, Vol. 37, Nos. 3-4, Spring, 1999, pp. 187-97.

[In the following essay, Groover contrasts the quests in Gibbons's Ellen Foster and Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn.]

Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.

—Author's note [Adventures of Huckleberry Finn]

Mark Twain's disclaimer notwithstanding, Huck Finn's...

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Sharon Monteith (essay date April 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Between Girls: Kaye Gibbons' Ellen Foster and Friendship as a Monologic Formulation,” in Journal of American Studies, Vol. 33, No. 1, April, 1999, pp. 45-64.

[In the following essay, Monteith studies how the structure of Gibbons's Ellen Foster as a monologue affects the presentation of the relationship between Ellen and Starletta, demonstrating how Ellen's first-person narration essentially robs Starletta of her own voice in the novel.]


In the work of contemporary writers who explore the racial and social geography of growing up in the American South, fleeting encounters between white and black girls abound but...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Bellante, Carl and John. “Janowitz and Gibbons: Feminist Fatales.” Bloomsbury Review 13 (May, 1993) 13.

The Bellantes assert that Gibbons's A Cure for Dreams and Tama Janowitz's The Male Cross-Dresser Support Group both fall short of their artistic aims.

Dodd, Susan. “A Sentimental Education.” Washington Post Book World 28 (12 July 1998): 9.

Dodd praises the fairy-tale aspects of Gibbons's On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon.

Wolcott, James. “Crazy for You.” New Yorker 71 (21 August 1995): 115-16.

Wolcott discusses the difficulty...

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