Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2554
Gibbons's characters are for the most part unsentimental and accustomed to their hard lives. Ruby and Jack are the focal characters in A Virtuous Woman as they reveal the history of their courtship and marriage. Readers are introduced to Ruby through Jack's memories after his wife's death. These passages are...
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Gibbons's characters are for the most part unsentimental and accustomed to their hard lives. Ruby and Jack are the focal characters in A Virtuous Woman as they reveal the history of their courtship and marriage. Readers are introduced to Ruby through Jack's memories after his wife's death. These passages are supplemented with Ruby's reflections on her life as she prepares to die. Her lifespan depicts her transition from an unworldly, privileged daughter to a capable, dedicated wife. Already a widow, she is only twenty when she meets Jack, and they are married for twenty-five years. Despite her disastrous first marriage, Ruby believes that unconditional love and service can lead to her attaining wisdom and worth. She devotes herself to becoming the proverbial virtuous woman with the traits of a perfect wife. She worries about Jack's future, freezing meals and securing Burr's promise to look after Jack because "There's not a whole lot a woman can do from the grave." Ruby expresses concern for Jack by including green peas, a food he dislikes, in his meals for their nutritive qualities and laminating his National Rifle Association membership card for him to prove his affiliation to disbelieving people.
Having abandoned her family's money, even giving her inheritance to her brothers, Ruby is not wealthy, yet she discovers the riches within herself and Jack. Ruby's gemstone name suggests her preciousness and hardness. She endures being childless and landless. Her sterility symbolizes her stagnation. Ruby recycles her energy on domestic chores and does not create anything original to bequeath to her community. She retains her self-respect by preparing Jack for widowhood which is her way to seize control of fate. Ruby makes peace with her inappropriate and impulsive choices, including her smoking habit which is residue from her first husband and the sole pollutant in her marriage with Jack. She realizes that Jack is unable to emotionally care for her as she needs and represses any hostile feelings she might have for his shortcomings. He helps heal her damaged spirit which she assumes will survive after her death. Ruby is servile to everyone including herself, and memories of her virtue and goodness complicate and delay Jack's grief process. Jack describes Ruby as being gorgeous. He notes that she dislikes hot water and uses lotion to keep her skin soft, details that remind readers of Ruby's past. Jack is especially touched by Ruby crimping pie crusts, a treat his mother denied him. Ruby recalls her more leisurely days and states, "I'd had such a funny idea about what it took to be a woman." She desired travel to see new places and people, and, ironically John Woodrow enabled her to achieve that goal, only Ruby labored as a migrant worker and suffered indignities. "I started to get an edge on me though, something I'd never had," she said referring to her migrant days when she often worked more than her husband. When he betrays her, Ruby buys a gun to protect herself, although she hints that she might use the weapon for vengeance to prove she was tough. Her mother would be horrified at the spit-baths she takes while waiting for John to return. She lies in wait fully clothed, foreshadowing being a corpse displayed in a coffin.
A social chameleon, Ruby adjusts her opinions and image according to her associates. She has no vices until John ridicules her into smoking. Embarrassed by her situation, Ruby lies to Jack when she meets him and says that she is a researcher traveling with the migrants, a position that she might have attained if she had attended college, showing her awareness of class and disassociating herself from the workers. She admits that she does not like people talking about her, whether it was the migrant women criticizing her lack of care for John or neighbors commenting about the age difference between her and Jack. Ruby, however, does not express rage at these antagonists, John, or her cancer. She confides her true feelings only to readers.
Jack values common sense, hard work, and frugality. He loathes people who think too much. A bachelor until he marries Ruby at the age of forty, he has been starved for love and food. His name suggests that he is stubborn like a mule and capable of almost any task. Homely, women do not consider him attractive, yet his personality is appealing. Thin and sun-worn, he looks a decade older than he is with "clay-red skin." His face flushes red with anger or because of alcoholic binges (he denies that he has a drinking problem). He is Ruby's unlikely Prince Charming (and she is his princess) and the novel's primary hero (Burr's actions also prove heroic). Because he has a tic in his eye, symbolizing his nervousness and inability to see everything, Jack is nicknamed "Blinking Jack" by June, Burr's daughter whom Ruby dotes on. Jack enjoys using his surname to describe his propensity to stir up trouble, such as his encounters with Cecil Spangler. His references to stoking the fires of hell foreshadow their fight and give voice to usually taciturn Jack's fears about Ruby's cancer.
Jack is devoted to Ruby, who stimulates his previously dreary and mundane life. Symbolically, Jack identified himself before meeting Ruby as a tenant boy, then stated that he was a husband and a man after their marriage at the county courthouse. Unlike John Woodrow, Jack respects the tenets of marriage and wants to do right for the woman he loves. When she is placed in her coffin, Jack hides the nicotine stains on her fingers, trying to avoid evidence of the habit that removed her from his life. His first words to Ruby were admonishments to stop smoking. Ruby realized from his brashness and empathy toward another human being that he was not a stereotypical tenant or migrant worker. Jack told Ruby about John's knifing and death and offered to assist her mourn. Later, Burr and June would fill a similar role for him. By opening his home to Ruby, Jack insured that she would remain in his world and not return to her parents and a middle-class lifestyle. Ruby is attracted by Jack's simple, matter-of-fact manner; he smells of soap, indicating he has self-respect and is pure.
Together, Jack and Ruby are an imperfect, seemingly mismatched couple whose bond seems based more on their need to be taken care of (Jack offering Ruby shelter and she sustaining him with domesticity and companionship) than passionate feelings for each other. Each character rescues the other from a disappointing past: Jack reassures Ruby that men can act honorably, and Ruby fills the emotional void in Jack's life. They understand each other, although readers can detect by comparing the couple's testimony that often the pair was alienated from each other. The couple rarely fights. Ruby is frustrated when Jack refuses to take a list to the store and buys candy but forgets such essentials as cornmeal. The dynamics of their relationship consist of kindness, respect, and the ability to overlook flaws. They admire people who work with their hands, not only their brains, and who serve others. They dote on Burr's daughter June and the dog Prince Albert. Secure with each other, they sit silently outside together waiting for dusk to obscure nearby pine trees, symbolizing the end of Ruby's life but the constant nature of evergreens which thrive even in winter. He buries Ruby next to his mother in a winter grave reminiscent of the deep freeze she filled with herself in the form of food. Her death begins Jack's metaphorical hibernation.
Jack's life following Ruby's death is unbearable. He cannot accept that she is gone and gives voice afterwards to his loneliness by eating his way through the deep freeze. His despair emphasizes the irony of a younger person predeceasing their elder. Jack clings to memories of Ruby's ways and imagines her ghost visits him; he senses her presence and weight on the bed while he dozes. Paralyzed with grief, Jack permits the house to become filthy, almost like the migrant workers dirtied Mrs. Pitt's home. He does not clean the mirrors, suggesting that he is afraid to see himself without Ruby's approving support. Like a Faulknerian or Dickensian character, he keep Ruby's wedding gown (which Burr had paid for). He manages to wash and powder the sheets, hoping to entice her spirit to return to him. Frustrated that she does not come, Jack sinks into a drunken stupor, watching cartoons in pajamas and bringing the first bottle of bourbon in the house since he met Ruby. When Burr and Jane find Jack in this condition, they realize that he is as bonded with Ruby in death as they were in life. Jack erupts in a livid rage at their interference and only calms down to appease Ruby's spirit.
Minor characters include Jack's, Ruby's, and Burr's parents and family. Big Daddy and Sophie, Ruby's grandparents, lived next door, and provided Ruby a glimpse in how ineffectual men are at coping with women's deaths, as evidenced by Big Daddy being unable to comfort Sophie as she died in the hospital. Ruby's father and mother strived to provide her with material goods and to fulfill her emotional needs, yet some unspoken event or issue which she did not discuss might have prompted her urgency to leave the homestead. She retained a relationship with her brothers Paul and Jimmy and sometimes fantasized about telling her mother about her life, so perhaps, despite her protestations that there were no conflicts within her family, her father had been responsible for her eagerness to flee home and accept her initial poor choice of a mate. Jack's father, whom he despised for forcing him to attend religious revivals (perhaps provoking Jack's dislike of organized religion), died in a tractor accident. He deeply loved his mother, who was part Cherokee and died of food poisoning (exacerbated by his father's carelessness) when he was fourteen years old. Jack compared his wife and mother, admitting that his mother was hardened while Ruby was soft and wishing each could share some qualities of the other. Burr's parents, Leon and Pansy, were Jack's contemporaries. Like many men in the community, Leon was abusive, and Pansy resigned herself to an early death. He was jealous of his son's fortune to marry into the Hoover family and refused to attend the wedding. Burr tried to reconcile posthumously with his father by placing a model Buick in Leon's coffin and burying him wearing a new suit.
In direct contrast to the heroic Jack, John Woodrow is the archetypal villain in this story. He is the antithesis to virtue. A scoundrel, liar, and a con artist, John recognized that Ruby was lonely and bored and took advantage of his looks to snare her like prey. Unaware of his criminal past, Ruby is enchanted with John's attentive behavior. When analyzing her attraction to John, Ruby recalls that because she had never known anyone bad, she was not aware that people like John existed. She compares their courtship and proposal to repeating lines in a movie and admits that she thought she and her father would be like Elizabeth Taylor and Spencer Tracy in Father of the Bride. Because of her family's coddling, her choice to marry John was her first significant decision, and, in hindsight, she realized that she should have waited. After brutally forcing himself on Ruby on their wedding night, John became unpleasant, manipulative, and parasitic, scheming how to seize Ruby's inheritance. He is a coward and narcissist and behaves similarly to Roland. John resents Ruby's past life of privilege and initiates subtle cruelties in the form of name calling that reveal his feelings of inferiority and class envy. John calls Ruby "little Miss Vanderbilt," referring to magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt's family. He casts himself as a victim of "daddy's girl" and expects praise because he "tried to make a hard-working, honest-to-God, common, everyday woman out of her." John reveals his character by removing Ruby from the comfortable world that she knows and abandoning her in a potentially hostile environment. Jack compares his nemesis John to a buzzard, representing his unsavory, vile, and scavenging nature.
Supporting characters clarify aspects of Jack's and Ruby's relationship and lives. The Hoovers are prosperous land owners for whom the couple work. Ruby helps in the home, and Jack works in the fields. Lonnie Hoover ignores his family except to resolve problems his way, such as convincing Burr to marry Tiny Fran so that the neighbors will not gossip too much about the Hoovers. Ruby's first encounter with Frances Hoover and her daughter Tiny Fran is combative. Tiny Fran slaps her mother and orders Ruby around without any concern for her well being. Tiny Fran blames Ruby for everything that enrages her or interferes with her plans. Her mother, Frances, savors having a white maid and also mistreats Ruby verbally. Their behavior results from their anger at Lonnie's inattention. A bitter woman, Tiny Fran is critical of everyone but Roland, the child she was carrying when she married Burr. A sociopath, Roland behaves wildly, attacking everyone, including his sister June. He, like John Woodrow, lacks a conscience. Roland destroys store merchandise with scissors, and falls asleep in his bed in bloodied clothing after raping a woman. He hangs Ruby's mule, Sugar Pete, which reinforces Burr's friendship with Ruby and Jack. He reimburses them for the mule, foreshadowing his later gift of land to Jack.
June, Burr's daughter, acts as Ruby's and Jack's surrogate daughter. Wishing Ruby was her mother instead of Tiny Fran, June transfers her emotions to Ruby, giving her a Mother's Day card. Ruby makes clothes for June, teaches her to cook, and supports her plans to study architecture at college. June buys the pink dress that Ruby is buried in and accompanies Burr to rescue Jack from his plunge into depression. Burr is Jack's best male friend, sharing drinks together and commiserating over injustices caused by the Hoovers. He good-naturedly comments that Ruby and Jack fed each other's bad habits and provides funds for them to get married. Burr berates himself for being noisy and pushing Jack too far by invading his sanctuary. Realizing the value of land and understanding how fate had provided him acreage and June, he generously gives Jack property that he can nurture in Ruby's absence.
Servants and laborers reveal the main characters' prejudices. Sudie Bee seems to be part of the Pitt family, but she distinguishes herself from them with her wisdom about people's behavior (she astutely notes that Jack is a father substitute) and ability to take care of herself. She is a virtuous woman in her own way. Ruby often wishes that she could ask Sudie Bee to teach her to cook. Jack hires a black maid, Mavis Washington, in an effort to maintain his house after Ruby's death, but her comical, inefficient, and unsatisfactory performances, such as bleaching his clothes and breaking his toilet, only emphasize Ruby's virtues. The anonymous migrant workers also stress how virtuous Ruby is in comparison to their lackluster efforts and lazy lifestyles. The chapter featuring Cecil Spangler is crucial to exploring Ruby's and Jack's religiosity, as well as casting Cecil as a fool or jester to achieve some comic relief in an otherwise sober novel.