Literary Techniques

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Gibbons presents Ruby's and Jack's stories through alternating chapters of first person narration which explain their lives from the perspective of different times and from varying points of view. Her novel explores why events happen instead of focusing on plot development, as the narrators shift from explanations of their childhood...

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Gibbons presents Ruby's and Jack's stories through alternating chapters of first person narration which explain their lives from the perspective of different times and from varying points of view. Her novel explores why events happen instead of focusing on plot development, as the narrators shift from explanations of their childhood and young adult years then their experiences as adults. Sometimes this seems like a continuous loop of thoughts that can be stopped and examined at any point. Most of Gibbons's books are reminiscent of oral histories, such as those collected by 1930s Works Progress Administration employees. This novel begins with the widower Jack describing Ruby's final days before her death from the perspective of four months later. Then the ailing Ruby joins the narrative, describing how she is preparing meals for Jack to eat after her demise.

Chapters shift from the dying Ruby remarking on her life with and without Jack and the mournful Jack missing Ruby and recalling his loneliness before he met her and the domestic and emotional fulfillment that she gave him. Ruby's half of the book consists mostly of her memories triggered by the gun shots she hears when Jack is outside, foreshadowing her anticipated but thwarted confrontation with John Woodrow. She seems to speak directly to readers because she questions if her reasoning regarding her life decisions seems logical. These chapters seem almost confessional, as if the characters were confiding in a journal or to a close friend. Readers, however, realize that such activities would not be consistent with the Stokes' way of life. On the surface, neither main character is introspective, especially regarding their daily interactions with others. Plus, they have few intimate friends whom they would trust with their feelings.

Jack dismisses educated town people who think too much, and he is embarrassed and unable to divulge his grief when Burr and June find him drunk, clad in pajamas, and watching cartoons in sheets perfumed with Ruby's powder. Although she comes from a middle-class family that might be able to afford counseling and recognize its merits, Ruby would not indulge in therapy because it would make Jack uncomfortable. She and Jack resist help from the church. The erratic mood conveyed by shifting between Jack's and Ruby's perspectives shows their scattered thoughts during the limbo period when Ruby reevaluates her life, justifying her decisions, while waiting to die, and Jack strives to accept her death, unsure of what he should do to comfort her or himself. External voices are revealed only in the final chapter, a mixture of first- and third-person narrative, which critics have complained distracts from the novel's continuity. Suddenly, Ruby and Jack are no longer confiding in readers. Other characters, specifically Burr and June, who have only been mentioned by Jack and Ruby in their narratives, now impose their opinions, symbolizing their intrusion and interference with Jack's self-designed grieving process.

Some critics label this sudden narrative change as confusing and incongruent with the rest of the book. In Belles Lettres: A Review of Books by Women, Deanna D'Errico comments, "Technique suddenly looms over the tale, and it is difficult to view the scene without fretting over the strings that are showing." Susan Heeger, a Los Angeles Times Book Review critic, complains, "Too often, lacking a conflict of its own, the story wanders off to peek in at the neighbors." She considers this chapter to be inconsistent because "Pages are spent on the meanness of peripheral folk, whose main raison d'etre is to show up Jack's and Ruby's saintliness and to raise the question of why bad things happen to good people."

Reviewers, however, praise Gibbons's overall technique, especially her effective use of southern idioms that convincingly give voice to her rural Georgia characters. Her language is rhythmic, artfully placed to create poetic prose. The accented dialogue seems authentic and not contrived or demeaningly stereotypical. She skillfully uses literary motifs such as trees representing shelter and the cycle of life. Through her use of details and figurative language, Gibbons immerses readers into a setting of realism. They can feel the heat of the humid tobacco fields and the despair of the migrant workers and the itch of ringworm. Sensory images suggest the coldness of death, both the winter demises of Ruby and Jack's mother—who could not be immediately buried because of a freak snowstorm, thus delaying closure for Jack and creating later difficulty for him to cope with Ruby's death—and the frozen bundles entombed in the deep freeze. The smelly diaper and unwashed bodies of the teenage girl and baby that invade Ruby's home represent the stain that Ruby feels has permeated her life and tarnished her future. Her fears of being stigmatized are something her husband's lover lacks the conscience to consider. Although Gibbons does not describe the wasting effects of Ruby's cancerous lungs on her body, she clearly shows the metaphorical dispersion of disease within Ruby's and Jack's home and community as they passively accept fate and resignedly wait for death of body and spirit instead of proactively combating their situation.

Ideas for Group Discussions

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A Virtuous Woman explores the relationship of two people who are polar opposites but who fulfill emotional needs for each other. A terminal illness tests and reinforces their devotion and commitment, demonstrating that love and marriage are bolstered by private bonds undefined by socioeconomic labels, age, and public expectations.

1. Discuss the significance of injuries and illness, especially those that result in death, to the book's tone and plot development. Compare how the physical suffering of men and women are depicted. Contrast the description and purpose of physical and mental pain.

2. How believable are the narratives? What seems authentic, and what seems contrived? What factors might motivate the characters to omit or embellish facts? Is Jack's self-analysis plausible? How is his statement that town people think too much incongruent with his antagonistic debates with Cecil and examination of his history with Ruby and feelings toward her?

3. Compare Roland's and John's abusive behavior toward Ruby. Are there patterns of John's crimes that Roland repeats or mimics?

4. Was Burr's gift of land to Jack patronizing or sincere? Why is land so important to the characters? What do trees represent in this book?

5. Both Ruby and Roland experienced privileged childhoods. Why do you think their actions as young adults differed? How are they similar?

6. Discuss how June fulfills Ruby's original plans, such as attending college. In what ways does June limit herself because of her relationship with Ruby, Jack, and her parents? Describe how she is Ruby's and Jack's surrogate child and how animals also fill the Stokes' childless void.

7. Explain the significance of movies to the plot development and literary style of this book.

8. Analyze the cold imagery in this book, specifically the snow that fell when Jack's mother died and Ruby's use of a deep freeze to nourish Jack after her death.

9. Examine Tiny Fran's, Sudie Bee's, Ruby's, and Mavis Washington's attitudes toward domestic chores. How does culture and race influence their point of view and work habits? Discuss the role of etiquette and manners to achieve characterization.

10. How realistically does Kaye Gibbons portray migrant laborers in the United States? Is her depiction stereotyped? What complaints might migrant workers have about conditions and their employers?

Social Concerns

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In her second novel, following her poignant debut work Ellen Foster (1987), Kaye Gibbons reinforces her adeptness at portraying the contrasting and often unexpected social awareness and ineptitude of humanity. Her depiction of the marriage of Ruby Pitt Woodrow and Blinking Jack Ernest Stokes reveals the unbreakable connections between people and exposes universal social issues that concern people from different socioeconomic backgrounds. Although some characters may be pretentious, Gibbons's fictional world is not the venue of southern belles. The daughter of land owners in rural Georgia, near fictional Shelbourne, Ruby first marries a migrant worker, then a tenant farmer. She initially chooses to marry beneath her social class because of a misguided notion of romantic love based on movies she has seen and cravings for travel and adventure. Mistreated and scorned, the widowed Ruby discovers love and happiness with salt-of-the-earth Jack and realizes that the ordinary, banal activities essential to sustain life also nurture her marriage.

Such insight is lost on narcissistic, demanding, sensual Tiny Fran Hoover, also a member of the middle-class gentry, who marries a tenant farmer because she is pregnant with a child fathered by an unnamed (perhaps unknown) man. Her father, Lonnie Hoover, wants the baby to be born legitimate and not bring shame to the family, hinting how important honor and other people's opinions are in that community. While Tiny Fran's husband, Burr (Gibbons does not clarify if he had been intimate with Tiny Fran prior to their marriage), manipulates these circumstances to become a land owner and rise in the social hierarchy, Jack refuses to exploit and benefit from Ruby's family's assets, even discouraging her from securing her inheritance so that he can become a landowner. Instead, he patiently hopes to be rewarded for his services with land from his landlord, Lonnie Hoover.

Ruby alerts readers that her father is an upstanding citizen because he is a county commissioner and a member of the Ruritans, a rural service and social club. Her mother has a housekeeper, Sudie Bee, and an attractive home with fine furnishings and belongings. The family uses cloth napkins at every meal. Although Ruby is not slated to become a debutante or a socialite, she expects to attend a Presbyterian college to study piano and marry a young man from her social class. She values self-respect and virtue. Ruby is accustomed to some luxuries, both material and in the form of freedom to use her time as she pleases. She attends movies, indulges in daydreams, and goes on annual shopping trips to the state capitol for school clothes and milkshakes. The Pitt home is always clean and neat. She describes her childish self as a doll that was delicately cared for and admits to having been spoiled by her parents and two brothers, whom she claims even cut her meat for her. Ruby clarifies that she does not blame her parents for her poor choice concerning her first marriage, which irreversibly diverted her from her original life course, but declares that if they had let her attain some autonomy to reinforce her feelings of self-respect and self-confidence that she might not have been victimized by John Woodrow.

Social class and snobbery are further examined when a group of migrant workers arrives at the Pitts' home. Ruby comments that her father valued his farm land above most things but that if he had known what would happen to her, he would have burned the crops. Ruby and her mother are innocents when the migrant workers begin to pick tobacco in extra acreage Mr. Pitt has bought. His usual work crew is unable to harvest this land in addition to their tasks, and Mr. Pitt respects their right to reasonable working conditions and expectations. Labor concerns are presented mostly through the viewpoint of employers rather than workers, with the exception of Ruby's domestic service for the Hoovers. According to Ruby, the Pitts treat Sudie Bee and her husband Lester kindly and do not take advantage of their servile status unlike Frances and Tiny Fran Hoover's disdain for Ruby and delight in having a white maid. Her comment offers insight into the subtle racism of the community toward blacks and Hispanics. Although he finds migrant workers distasteful and unreliable, Mr. Pitt hires these nomadic employees as a necessary business transaction. Money often seems to be the source of class conflict, with those that lack funds believing people they consider wealthy should be punished for their riches.

Etiquette and manners are valued by some characters concerned with social propriety. Mrs. Pitt and Ruby ask Sudie Bee to prepare lunch for the migrant workers, and, either out of generosity or in an effort not to act elitist and hurt anyone's feelings, Ruby's trusting and naive mother suggests that Sudie Bee use the family's best dinnerware. The realistic Sudie Bee protests, but Mrs. Pitt insists. When the workers come onto the porch to eat, Mrs. Pitt invites them into the house to clean up because she is repulsed by their filthiness. She, like many women, believes that cleanliness is equated with goodness, and she proudly watches the workers wash away dirt and grime, an act which she considers a baptism of civility. Within minutes, however, the house is trashed and plates are broken, foreshadowing how Ruby will later be callously tossed aside. Mrs. Pitt, who is so refined that she waters her African violets with a syringe, is shell-shocked by how she has been treated. She goes to bed, refusing to come down again as long as the workers are eating. Sudie Bee fixes less fanciful fare for the remaining meals served outside, and Ruby philosophically comments about the absence of common courtesy, "We saw what people who don't care can do to people who do care about things."

How characters respect others' emotions and expressions of love reveals their own strengths and flaws. The institution of marriage is regarded differently by the characters. Ruby seeks security and someone who will take care of her. She wants romance, love, and fidelity. Her first husband, John Woodrow, views marriage as a means to gain property—land, items, and Ruby—as well as a way to advance socially. He does not consider marriage a sacred commitment and dishonors Ruby and the church and government which authorize such pairings. Burr also marries to attain social mobility, and his wife, Tiny Fran, participates in the charade to appease her father. Jack marries out of a sense of duty to provide for Ruby and fulfill his need for companionship. They honor the vows of "till death do us part." Ruby stays with John Woodrow until she is widowed, and Jack retains his love for Ruby throughout their marriage and even during his turn as a widower. In a conversation prior to her diagnosis, Ruby tells Jack, '"I'm going to love you to pieces, love you to death,'" hinting of her life-long commitment and premature demise.

Social problems presented in A Virtuous Woman include greed, poverty, juvenile delinquency, and deception. Characters mistreat each other in attempts to secure property or appropriate time for the victims to perform distasteful chores. Gibbons, an orphan who grew up poor, appropriates details from her past to create empathetic poor characters such as Jack whom readers admire because of his frugality and his recognition that people are more valuable than possessions. Jack's poverty is not problematic for his community. On the other hand, Gibbons also creates unscrupulous poor characters such as the young girl that John Woodrow seduces, who wears and steals Ruby's fine lingerie. Her theft suggests that the teenager will victimize other people in the community, perhaps, ironically, even John Woodrow. Roland, Tiny Fran's son, epitomizes extreme juvenile delinquency. He terrorizes the community, killing livestock and raping women. These crimes broach the issues of sexual violence and animal cruelty. While some characters are deceptive by telling white lies, such as Ruby concealing her feelings because she knows that Jack cannot handle them or saying she is a researcher traveling with the migrants because she is embarrassed by her social decline, others are blatant liars who purposefully deceive people, such as John misleading Ruby and convincing her to elope and leave her family and home for little in return.

Sexism dominates in Gibbons's fictional patriarchal society, and women are treated according to the social awareness of males. Although Jack and Burr are members of the lower class, they were raised to respect other people and view women as being worthy of kindness. Other lower-class men, like John Woodrow, only consider women as unequal servants to perform men's bidding and serve them sexually. John callously rips off the virginal Ruby's lacy clothes from her carefully powdered body on their wedding night. He criticizes and verbally attacks her by calling her a "bitch" when she does not cooperate with him according to his warped expectations. Even though women are needed for procreation, many male characters do not value them or their children, often abandoning and failing to support them financially, causing further social problems for the community. Although characters are not introspective, readers might be prompted to question whether women should be self-sacrificing, as the passage in Proverbs suggests, or seek self-actualization.

Ruby's cancer raises the social issue of health care accessibility and quality, concerns that Gibbons would be astutely aware of because she is manic depressive. Ruby's self-care for her terminal disease contrasts with the hospice movement which became popular in the late twentieth century when health care for critically-ill people was assigned to someone unrelated who tended the patient in his or her home. Although neighboring farmers are growing tobacco, no one questions their accountability for contributing to substances known to cause lung cancer. Nor are cigarette companies discussed in the book either as the buyer of raw tobacco or dispenser of toxic agents. The tobacco industry is not blamed or held responsible for consumers' health woes. Support groups for addictions and unhealthy habits, such as Jack's alcoholism, are not addressed although that problem is probably prevalent among the population.

Characters are enablers abetting co-dependence in their partners and children (Frances Hoover's relationship with Tiny Fran is one example; although Jack criticizes Ruby for smoking when he first meets her, he does little to stop her from continuing that habit). In addition to disease, characters suffer wounds during crimes or in fights at public places, such as when John Woodrow is knifed at a bar. Ruby's purchase of a weapon to protect herself from John Woodrow touches on gun control issues. John's mortal stab wound symbolizes how many characters are careless with their lives and those of others, disregarding themselves and everyone as valueless and without individual qualities that might affect society positively. It also represents how evil penetrates society and smothers or atrophies lives. The lack of most characters' social conscience symbolizes their inability to be fully conscious of other people's concerns and civil rights and to value their humanity.

Literary Precedents

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Gibbons's writing is based on the southern gothic foundation. Horror and mystery are intermixed with themes of kinship and loyalty. Gibbons skillfully utilizes language, situations, details, archetypes, and imagery which identify her work as the literary descendant of earlier works exploring the bizarre and universal nature of regional people and places. The southern gothic genre is frequently set in rustic, isolated areas and incorporates humor to alleviate the intensity of grotesque occurrences and imagery. Good and evil are intrinsic in everyone and everything, and people's attitudes toward fate and destiny often seem defeatist. Characters sometimes represent extremes of size, have exaggerated features, or exhibit physical deformities, or they ignore expected gender and racial roles, acting independently from society, such as Mavis Washington's careless housekeeping. Women tend to be resourceful and invulnerable, withstanding assaults to their spirits, character, and body. Moments of gentleness are interspersed with cruelties, such as Ruth's trusting mule being hung. Gibbons's fiction includes both stereotypical and eccentric characters to achieve readers' recognition of place and circumstances. Gibbons perpetuates a tradition established by early twentieth century southern writers to scrutinize social patterns, customs, and expectations firmly rooted in the Deep South to determine the truth concealed by long-held myths perpetuated to justify social injustices and retain lost power.

Reviewers often compare A Virtuous Woman to William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying (1930), in which the Bundren family travels across Mississippi to bury their matriarch Addie. Jack's reliance on Ruby's post-death presence in the form of frozen food might also be compared to the morbid situation depicted in Faulkner's short story "A Rose for Emily." Gibbons's fiction is also described as having characteristics similar to Lillian Hellman's plays. Other southern writers who established a gothic legacy for Gibbons's novel include Walker Percy and Peter Taylor, whose A Summons to Memphis (1986) is reminiscent of Jack's and Ruby's vigil awaiting her inevitable death. Erskine Caldwell's Tobacco Road (1932) portrayed the hardscrabble, rural Georgia world where Ruby and Jack, like Caldwell's protagonists the Lesters (perhaps inspiring Sudie Bee's husband's name), struggled to survive and make sense of their place within the community. The plight of migrant workers was depicted in John Updike's classic novel, Of Mice and Men (1937). The interaction of southern women with both men and women and their nurturing of and paradoxical subordination and disobedience to patriarchal systems was astutely examined in books by Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, Gail Godwin, Shirley Ann Grau, and Flannery O'Connor prior to publication of Gibbons's novels.


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The only known adaptation of A Virtuous Woman is an abridged version on audio tape which was narrated by Terry Beaver and released in December 1997, soon after the novel was selected for inclusion in Oprah's Book Club. The book was reprinted in paperback with an emblem on the cover designating that it had been chosen by Oprah Winfrey for discussion on television. Securing places on the New York Times best-seller list, Gibbons's books became popular among mainstream viewers and she became a literary celebrity. Although no movies have been produced of this novel so far, Gibbon's first book, Ellen Foster, was adapted to film as a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie which featured Julie Harris and Jena Malone and was aired on CBS on December 14, 1997.

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