Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1543
The power and resiliency of love is the primary theme of A Virtuous Woman. Ruby is able to love even after being horribly abused and scorned. Jack trusts love despite his history of repelling women and lacking an affectionate companion. Other characters display differing forms of love, whether in the form of parental love for offspring or companionable love for friends. Love prevails over sinister attempts to kill it, such as John Woodrow savoring his destruction of Ruby's romantic beliefs. Devotion to loved ones is a theme in Gibbons's novel, whether it appears in the form of Ruby preparing meals for Jack to consume after her death or Jack visiting Ruby as she wastes away underneath the hospital oxygen tent. Gibbons shows that love never dies but is present spiritually in the form of warm feelings and memories even when the physical sources of love have been removed. As shown by Ruby and Jack, true love is not the flamboyant, passionate scenes in Hollywood movies but rather the everyday caring, trust, and comfort that are enduring. Ruby acknowledges that she heard no bells signaling that Jack would be her love interest but suggests that the quiet represents the tranquility they found together. She says that people want to love and to be loved but that they should be careful not to let neediness and shallow infatuation blind them and cause them to select their partners unwisely.
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Virtue is one of the main characters' most prized qualities and is a recurring theme throughout the book. Ruby is the virtuous woman described in Proverbs, and Jack is her virtuous husband. Ruby epitomizes virtue by accepting her position in society and not resisting the subservient role of women as expected in her community. Jack displays virtue by assisting Ruby during her marital crisis and not taking advantage of her vulnerability; his consistent kindnesses to her, such as buying candy to surprise her, accentuate his virtuosity. Despite social labels, he is a gentleman, perhaps more so than monied Lonnie Hoover who spends more time in the field than in his home. If Jack's behavior is described as chivalrous, Ruby is the woman he places on a pedestal and serves with emotional generosity and courtesy. She, in turn, sacrifices her interests to take care of Jack and June, their surrogate daughter.
Like the proverbial virtuous woman who busies herself with wool and flax, Ruby uses her hands industriously to perform housework and earn a living. Suffering is a theme that is related to being virtuous, such as when Ruby cooks for John Woodrow even after he has assaulted her. Ruby seems noble, which is another aspect of virtue, by not complaining to others about her illness. She quietly continues her daily responsibilities and spares Jack the extent of the mental horrors she experiences. She is tolerant, compassionate, and forgiving. Ruby relies on herself, not others, to survive. She refuses to indulge in self pity, and like the closing lines of the passage from Proverbs, "Strength and dignity are her clothing; And she laugheth at the time to come."
The acceptance of fate is another prominent theme in this novel. Ruby recognizes that she alone made the decision to marry John Woodrow and is prepared to suffer for her poor choice, calmly accepting her barrenness and cancer as conditions resulting from her mistake. She unquestionably embraces Jack as her destiny when he introduces himself and becomes part of her life. Both Ruby and Jack view her impending death as inevitable. They do not try to seek special, state-of-the-art medical care to combat her cancer or add days to her life. Instead of receiving intensive chemotherapy to kill the malignant cells which ravage her body, Ruby uses her time to prepare meals to nourish and strengthen Jack's surviving body. She accepts suffering and horror as part of her existence. The couple's reactions to Ruby's disease expose their tragic flaw: they refuse to face reality completely and respond proactively. They seem to succumb to momentary confusion and despair and believe that they cannot shape destiny and control their lives.
Sickness and injury are prevailing themes in A Virtuous Woman. Characters seem almost self-destructive, choosing risky, unhealthy lifestyles. Ruby realizes that smoking is dangerous but justifies her addiction as her only vice. Smoking symbolizes John Woodrow's oppression of Ruby even after his death. He provoked her to begin smoking and continues to smother her by giving her an unspecified disease that rendered her infertile (Ruby and Jack long to have children) and a habit which squelches the purity of her life. Ruby's lung cancer and barrenness are symbolic of her not being able to breathe and sustain life; she is so hooked on nicotine that even on her deathbed she demands a cigarette, and Jack at first mistakes her gesture as her blowing a kiss before realizing that tobacco is Ruby's primary interest. Solitude is a theme related to illness. Ruby feels alone as she copes with her terminal disease, foreshadowing Jack's loneliness.
Land is an important theme. Characters equate land with life because it validates their existence as an owner or worker. The landless strive to acquire territory of their own. Jack laments, "Land and children, they're the only things in this world that'll carry on for you, and here I am, going to my grave without either one." Land is closely tied with the theme of family, and women are often seen as property much like acreage. The Hoover family has owned their property for a century, and Lonnie Hoover devotes his energy to this farm. People sacrifice to attain and keep land; Lonnie disregards his family's needs in favor of their farm. Like most characters in this novel, he does not closely examine his behavior or effect on others but carefully tends his land. Lonnie is also careless toward his employees. When Jack's father is killed in a tractor accident on the Hoover farm, Jack assumes that the Hoovers might compensate him for his loss and service with land, but he is denied land, emphasizing his landlord's feelings of superiority over his powerless tenants, and only secures the plot where his house stands as a gift from Burr, the empathetic former tenant farmer and Hoover in-law, after Ruby's death.
Changes and transitions in life are also significant themes. The characters' decisions and choices initiate conflict and plot development. Sometimes choices are disappointing, such as Ruby's immersion in the migrant worker culture which forces her to become someone she dislikes. Other decisions are joyful, like Ruby's and Jack's marriage. Another theme is how the ordinary is seemingly unremarkable but reveals complexities. For example, Jack is not handsome, but he demonstrates deeper love than Ruby imagined was possible. Often, facades mask people's true character. Ruby trusts John because he is movie-star handsome, but his personality is not attractive. Ruby is beautiful both physically and spiritually.
Spirituality is an underlying theme as characters explain their religious beliefs, especially concerning what happens to souls after death and the possibility of an afterlife. At times, the narrative seems like a religious testimony or confessional, as the characters, although admittedly not believers in traditional religions, attempt to purge self-perceived sins and be beatified for their good works. Jack's confrontations with the evangelist Cecil Spangler, whom he ridicules as "Saint Cecil," are how he releases his anger over Ruby's cancer. When Spangler promises that Jack and Ruby will be reunited in heaven if they profess their faith in front of the Ephesus Baptist Church congregation, Ruby and Jack respond rabidly. Spangler has pressed a nerve by suggesting that they have rejected religion, an institution revered in the Deep South.
Ruby and Jack consider their religious beliefs to be intense, personal and not for public dissection. Ruby confides that she does not consider religion comforting because she does not believe in a Supreme Maker and wants to "stay amazed at how it [the world] all happens." Her philosophy underscores the way she lives her life without a plan. Ruby says that she is as upset at the idea of dying as is Cecil and will miss interacting with Jack the most. She thinks that she will be a spirit and exist with her parents and grandparents near their loved ones and not be confined to heaven, where Jack cannot see her until his death. This insight foreshadows Jack's sensing of Ruby's ghost. He enjoys tormenting Spangler and disproving his statements. Their fight about hell and heaven and banishment of Cecil from the Stokes' house precedes the chapter where Jack suffers a living hell without Ruby.
Despair is always present in A Virtuous Woman. The characters seem to have failed lives and are used up by the demands of their jobs, families, and society. Contrasting themes sustain the book's storytelling and characterization. Pride versus humility, the elite versus peasants, and rural versus urban illuminate social relationships. The external world presents many dangers and benefits, such as agricultural science and technology, which can help increase yields and profits but can inflict injuries and lower demand for workers. Private versus public life is explored in the scrutiny and openness of the country people Gibbons depicts. Ruby's reliance on movies to direct her life shows the contradictions of dreams versus reality.