Kaye Gibbons | Ralph C. Wood

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Kaye Gibbons.
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Ralph C. Wood

SOURCE: "Gumption and Grace in the Novels of Kaye Gibbons," in The Christian Century, Vol. 109, No. 27, September 23-30, 1992, pp. 842-46.

In the following essay, Wood examines Gibbons's first three novels, contending that her writings are "spiritually bracing" because her "characters tell and listen to stories … to discern their tragic situation, [and to adjust their dreams to their disappointments."]

Devotional reading can be injurious to the devotional life, C. S. Lewis once observed. He confessed that he was more deeply moved to prayer and piety by Athanasius's treatise on the incarnation than by books designed to inspire and uplift. Few things tempt me more to doubt than sentimental assurances of faith. God is never so unreal as when people speak complacently about his reality. To invigorate my own spiritual life, I turn not to books of contemporary spirituality but to works of contemporary fiction, like those of a young North Carolina writer named Kaye Gibbons.

Although only 32, Gibbons has published three remarkable short novels with Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill: Ellen Foster (1987), A Virtuous Woman (1989) and A Cure for Dreams (1991). These books are animated by an unsentimental, often tragic realism. Though not overtly religious—in fact, they sometimes seem anti-Christian—Gibbons's fiction is spiritually bracing. She is a humanist who asks hard-headed questions and who, at her best, offers tough-minded answers.

Gibbons makes no fetish of feminine consciousness. Her women narrators perceive, in their own special way, the world men and women share. Though some of Gibbons's males are indeed brutes, their condition stems more from irremediable evil than from remediable patriarchy. Sin is acculturated in men, Gibbons suggests, through a heedlessness to what William Blake called life's "minute particulars." In A Cure for Dreams, a character named Betty Randolph offers this wry explanation for a sheriff deputy's failure to solve a murder that she herself has deciphered:

He didn't know to examine cotton stockings for briar picks, and he didn't know how to see and judge clean and dirty plates, slivers of cut pie, wild stitches, and wailing. This had more to do with the fact that he was a full-time male than it did with the fact that he was a merely part-time deputy and neither bright nor curious. Details escaped him.

An Excerpt from a Cure for Dreams

My mother was blunt with women who wanted to know her plans for the future. She always knew what they meant. You mean what am I going to do about finding another man? Well, I've been married enough.

She often reminded them that World War I had torn up the community to the extent that a search for an unmarried man her age with two arms, two hands, two legs, and half a brain intact would be thoroughly futile. But this wasn't so. This is merely what she remarked in public.

And then I formed the idea that my mother and I should go away and live elsewhere. But she wouldn't leave the community, even though I knew that if we moved somewhere bigger, one or the both of us would find a nice man and be married within a year. She told me this was impossible in regard to her. If I'm supposed to marry again, whoever wants me will have to come to Milk Farm Road and find me. This happening, by 1938, was the true impossibility.

Kaye Gibbons, in her A Cure for Dreams, Algonquin Books, 1991.

Gibbons is an old-fashioned liberal. All three of her works give voice to those who have been largely ignored or silenced by history, especially suffering women. Yet Gibbons does not condescend to her struggling characters. She does not make them victims who must rely on political nostrums to cure their plight. Her readers are not made to feel guilt and sorrow toward the rural poor who populate her fiction; we are brought, instead, to admire their pluck. Enjoying little while suffering and enduring much, they have acquired a secular version of the character and the hope that Paul describes in Romans 5. Gibbons's fiction reveals how ordinary people live, thanks both to gumption and grace, quite extraordinary lives.

In a famous passage in the Biographia Literaria, Coleridge speaks of Shakespeare and Milton as the ideal artistic types:

While the former darts himself forth, and passes into all the forms of human character and passion, the other attracts all forms to himself, into the unity of his own ideal. All things and modes of action shape themselves anew in the being of Milton; while Shakespeare becomes all things, yet forever remaining himself.

Gibbons is decidedly not a writer of the Miltonic sort. Unlike a James Joyce or a Virginia Woolf, she does not sift everything through the sieve of her own consciousness. She is Shakespearean and Protean in darting herself forth: passing into the minds and impersonating the characters and penetrating the motives of people quite unlike herself.

In Ellen Foster, Gibbons indwells the world of an abused 11-year-old who tells her own story in wonderfully direct, run-on sentences. The girl's syntax is collisional, not chiefly because she has failed to learn grammar but because her life has been a series of crashes: one dreadful thing abutting another. Ellen is a child seeking not so much to thrive as to survive. Her father was such a cruel monster that he drove his wife to suicide. Even worse, Ellen lay in bed with her mother as she died from an overdose. This girl is more than acquainted with grief and guilt: they are the bone and sinew of her being. Her task is to escape not only the brutality of her father but the equally oppressive gentility of her grandmother and aunt.

There is something ingrained in Ellen that will not be defeated by such circumstances. Her sense of honor is so outraged at what has been done to her and her mother that she determines to make her life an act of redemption. She wears her dead mother's clothes, even as she also "plays catalog" and fantasizes about the garments she sees there. She wraps presents for herself and then is "surprised" by them on Christmas morning. Food and clothes are Ellen's great obsession, partly because she has had so little of either, but also because she understands that we become what we eat and wear. Style and substance, manner and matter, are unavoidably linked.

This novel forces us to inquire about the nature of selfhood. Are our lives such acts of self-construction that we can imagine ourselves into and out of being? Do we go through a succession of personae as through sets of clothes and houses and meals, shedding selves (as John Updike contends) the way snakes shed skin? The blurbs on the dust jacket answer Yes. Gibbons herself seems at times to believe such a grim secular gospel, for she lets her naïve narrator speak as if she were, in fact, her own maker and redeemer.

Ellen declares, for example, that she must help herself because God will surely not. In one of her most arresting admissions, Ellen wonders whether "I am fine myself or if I have tricked myself into believing I am who I think I am. So many folks thinking and wanting you to be somebody else will confuse you if you are not very careful." Later and more alarmingly, Ellen declares, "Lord I could fall in love with my own self." She also reflects on the problem of self-deception: "You see if you tell yourself the same tale over and over again enough times then the tellings become separate stories and you will generally fool yourself into forgetting you only started with one solitary season out of your life." Most revealing of all is this admission:

I decided too that one of my mistakes had always been lack of planning. But not anymore. While they were away at the graveyard I decided that if I quit wasting time I could be as happy as anybody else in the future and right now with one year ending and a new one starting up I thought now was the time to get old Ellen squared away for a fresh start.

And that is what I did. That is why I think I am somebody now because I said by damn this is how it is going to be.

Such a William Ernest Henley vision of herself as captain of her own destiny and master of her own soul is Ellen's adolescent delusion. Gibbons hints that her protagonist is self-deceived when, in the very next phrase, the girl adds: "Before I knew it I had a new mama." The reader knows that Ellen has not willed her foster parents into existence, even if she does present herself to them as a waif whom they must not turn away. Ellen's doughty character is both aided and obstructed by circumstances that she does not control. Her life is only partially her own, and in the mysterious mix of seizing and receiving resides the novel's—indeed, life's—real interest. Gibbons is wrestling afresh with the ancient paradox of freedom and grace.

Not least of the gracious presences in Ellen's life is a black girl named Starletta. Ellen sneaks out of her father's house at night to spy on Starletta's family. She sees that, for all their clay-eating destitution and head-thumping discipline, they love each other. Though initially scandalized by the poverty and filth of the hovel where they live, Ellen is finally made ashamed for having thought herself better than Negroes. She discovers that the hard lot which she happened to inherit from her cruel father is the inevitable condition of rural blacks, and she repents of the pride that once made her refuse to drink from Starletta's glass:

[Starletta] is the same girl but I am old now I know it is not the germs you cannot see that slide off her lips and on to a glass then to your white lips that will hurt you or turn you colored. What you had better worry about though is people you know and trusted they would be like you because you were all made in the same batch. You need to look over your shoulder at the one who is in charge of holding you up and see if that is a knife he has in his hand. And it might not be a colored hand. But it is a knife.

The novel's real concern, however, is not race relations but the nature of Ellen's reconstruction: how is such a life restored, redeemed? Perhaps the main reason for not regarding Ellen as a self-made creature lies in her regard for the school psychologist. She dreads her weekly sessions with this arrogant shrink because he attempts to open a window onto her soul. He takes off his glasses and screws his face right up into hers and tells her to relax and to say what she feels. When he complains that Ellen is not sufficiently outgoing, she replies that she is not social because she doesn't want to be, but may change her stance once she straightens out her "business."

He was not pleased with my answer. Or at least that is what he said. But I think he liked it because it was not as friendly as it could be and that meant he had his job cut out for him.

If everybody was as friendly and sweet he would not have a job. You look at it that way upside down and the world will start to make good sense.

The novel's most telling moment comes when the counselor learns that Ellen has taken a new name: Foster, in honor of her foster family. Blind to Ellen's splendid innocence about words, the obtuse soul doctor wants to probe her deep psychic need to rename herself: "You see Ellen sometimes children such as yourself who have experienced such a high degree of trauma tend to have identity problems." Such jargon is directed at a girl who, in the face of dreadful evils, has forged a self so gracious that she wants to offer gratitude to the family that has welcomed her into its home. Ellen's final exchange with the pseudo-priest is at once immensely funny and acutely revealing—a satirical attack worthy of Flannery O'Connor or Walker Percy:

Lord I say to him. I hate to tell him he's wrong because you can tell it took him a long time to make up his ideas. And the worst part is I can see he believes them….

No Ellen. The problem is not in the name. The problem is WHY you feel you need another identity.

Not identity. Just a new name I want to write that big across the sky so he would understand and the picking into my head would stop.

You are the one who is mixed up about me I told him….

He will not be seeing me again. I might be confused sometimes in my head but it is not something you need to talk about. Before you can talk you have to line it all up in order and I had rather just let it swirl around until I am too tired to think.

You just let the motion in your head wear you out. Never think about it. You just make a bigger mess that way.

Ellen's confession could be viewed as a cowardly escape from painful but necessary self-knowledge. I read it, quite to the contrary, as a childlike discovery that introversion is a vortex, that it sucks us into an abyss, that we dwell in the dark caves of the inner self when we flee the daylight of the world and others and God. Ellen laments such gracelessness in her cousin Dora, whose complacency is rooted not in a selfishly interior life but rather in a vacuously exterior life. Christmas, Dora is assured, will bring all that she has asked for:

… I said to myself Dora let me tell you a thing or two. There is no Santa Claus. And you cannot always count on getting everything you want. You'll see. And when you wake up that day and Santa has not laid out everything you dreamed of or he might have missed your house completely then you have to be brave and if you come to me we can talk.

Rather like Mark Twain at the end of Huckleberry Finn, Gibbons doesn't know quite what to do with a character who, despite her youth, has developed such moral maturity. The novel's final paean to interracial amity, albeit noble in sentiment, is a sentimental answer to Ellen's real quandary—the problem, namely, of "what all could happen even when you least expect it." We are also left with the perplexing paradox that Ellen's new happiness may be less interesting than her old misery. The girl may have exchanged a life of terror for a life of tranquillity—and who would not?—that will never make for a narrative so riveting as Ellen Foster.

This paradox is fully acknowledged in A Virtuous Woman. It concerns two ordinary people who were failures in life until they found each other, embraced each other in sheer need, and married without regard for gossipy opinion. Ruby Woodrow was a run-away teenaged bride soon cast off by the beast she married. She was too proud to return home and too much like used property for other men to desire. Jack Stokes was a ne'er-do-well farmer noted mainly for a nervous tic so pronounced that it made him blink both eyes. He was a hard-working man who had never loved any woman except his mama, but who wanted not to spend his life alone. Like the interlocking halves of a perfect whole, Ruby and Jack are joined in a joyful marriage. But they do not live happily ever after.

The narrative is centered around two harsh realities: Ruby's death from cancer at age 45 and Jack's poignant inability to accept it. Rather than playing mawkishly upon the anguish of Ruby's dying or upon the pathos of Jack's descent into alcoholism, Gibbons announces both of these facts in the first chapter. She understands, with Aristotle, that the purpose of plot is not to make us ask what happens so much as to fathom why: to discern the moral and religious significance of events and lives. Gibbons's sympathetic power to inhabit personalities unlike her own enables us to hear and thus to understand the life stories of Ruby and Jack. In alternating first-person narratives, they cast backward to their respective childhoods, move forward to their unhappy experience as young adults, and then vividly recount their brief but happy years together.

In the glory of their love lies its undoing. Here is the heart of Gibbons's tragic vision: Jack and Ruby were so wondrously married that he cannot live without her once she is gone. Had there been a division between them, some dissatisfaction great or small, Jack could have let Ruby go. It was the miraculous perfection of their love that made life impossible apart from it. As the Greek tragedians knew, good is destroyed less by evil than by its own virtues. The mortal greatness of human life generates an immortal goodness that can find no final earthly home. Death, for the tragedian, is the great enemy.

Gibbons has little regard for Christians who deny this fierce fact. At her mother's funeral Ellen Foster is enraged at the minister for refusing to tell the truth about suicide: "The Bible comes flat out and says killing yourself is flinging God's gift back into his face and He will not forgive you for it ever! The preacher leaves that out and goes straight to the green valleys and the streets of silver and gold." When Aunt Nadine assures her own daughter that their husband and father is strumming on a harp with the angels in heaven, Ellen thinks: "Chicken-shit…. She might as well have said sugar Dora your daddy isn't dead. Why he's just up at the North Pole working away on scooters and train sets like a good elf should. Why he's Santa's favorite helper!"

Though the title of A Virtuous Woman is taken from the celebrated description of the ideal wife in Proverbs 31, there is nothing biblical about the novel's resolution. As Ruby is dying, she and Jack are hounded by a local evangelist named Cecil Spangler who tells them that they can assure their reunion in heaven if they will only come to the Ephesus Baptist Church and make a public profession of faith. Religion thus becomes a narcotic, a delusory exercise in self-interest. Jack rightly ridicules such a faith:

Listen and let me tell what else I think about it. Listen to how God up there is supposed to make everything and everybody and everything's due to turn out according to his will and all. And we get the wars and the people starving and people hurting people and animals … and I'm supposed to go down there to Ephesus on Sunday morning and say, "Thank you, Jesus, thank you for the sunshine and the food on my table and all the birds singing and the likes of Adolf Hitler…." No thank you! I'll have no part of it! Beats the hell out of me why somebody'd want to sit up somewhere and think up harm, start it to going, then say, "Oh, let me make it up to you. Here's this rainbow so you can remember how I can kill everything and everybody, but I swear I won't do it again." … I think about that and want to tell it to Cecil Spangler and every other gung-ho Christian that's been out here trying to save me, and then I'd say, "Think about that, O ye of all that faith!"

This is at once a fair and funny assault on traditional theodicy. One wishes that the novel's answer to the problem of evil were as profound as Jack's attack is amusing. Ruby's creed, perhaps like Gibbons's own, is this: "We'd just rather stay amazed at how it all happens, I mean this world bumping right along with no plan at all." Such a bemused sense of life's mystery proves terribly inadequate in the end when, unable to cope with Ruby's death, Jack sinks into embittered blasphemy and hallucinative drinking. His final promise of self-reform is quite unconvincing. Far better, in my view, for Gibbons to have ended the novel with tragic candor about the horrible way a godless world bumps "right along with no plan at all."

A Cure for Dreams is perhaps the most accomplished of Gibbons's three novels. Although its form is not entirely satisfying—one narrative voice reports what another said to still another remembering yet a fourth—this novel possesses the tough-minded realism of the first two without the sentimentalism that mars their endings. A Cure for Dreams is the story of four generations of women who have heard each other's stories and thus learned each other's lessons. The truth they all understand is that life deals us a different hand than we had hoped, and that we must learn to live with diminished expectations and compromised dreams. Though hardly good news, this is livable wisdom and honest truth, to be cherished in an age of mass delusion.

Lottie O'Cadhain grew up Irish Catholic in Kentucky amid such economic poverty and parental harshness that, when she had a chance to escape to North Carolina with a Quaker farmer, she leapt at it. She fled into marriage, hoping to find love and rest but getting neither from her work-obsessed husband, Charles Davies. Lottie wanted to live for the risk of adventure but found herself saddled to a man who lived for the certainty of work. She thus had to flee once again, this time into love for her baby, Betty: together they were able to withstand the husband-father whose "gristmill served as his church" and who "loved work and gain more than his family."

Like many a slighted wife, Lottie determined "to leave her husband without leaving him." Yet A Cure for Dreams is not a conventional account of a woman wronged by a man and thus to be pitied. Lottie Davies has the spunk and spark that characterizes all of Gibbons's protagonists: "So I decided to stay with Charles and see what would happen to me, and until I understood that I had a hand in making whatever happened happen, I was a very sad young girl." Lottie became happy, in her own modified way, by learning how to control her husband and to raise her daughter.

She raised Betty to believe that the Depression need not be depressing, that women ought to enjoy pleasures other than home and hearth (if only in betting on card games), and that life becomes lively in imagining and enacting it. Betty articulates this bright truth:

Although particular people in the community talked about my mother as being silly and viewed her high spirit in the same vein as telling jokes at a funeral, she was merely refusing to wallow in the spirit of the times. And this particular bunch who looked at my mother sidewise in her high colors were the same ones who lived to load up in an automobile and spend Saturdays at the pictures. My mother, however, was a walking, talking, free moving picture, and people looked and listened to see what she would wear and what she would say the same way they sat in the Centre Theatre and stared at the screen, waiting for the story to start.

Gibbons is no feminist Horatio Alger hymning the triumphs of women over assorted ills and evils. On the contrary, she again proves herself a tragedian in revealing that Lottie's wisdom derives largely from her suffering. Having been deprived of marital love—not knowing what she would do with a man who does more than show up for meals—Lottie could tell whether other wives are genuinely happy or sad. She could detect whether they were merely passing as loved or whether they were truly loved. And she could fathom why a woman named Sade Duplin finally killed her husband in an act of rage more against his personal neglect than against his sexual infidelity.

Lottie also knew how to deal with her husband's callousness. He was so absorbed in his work, even more than his money, that he became oblivious to all other concerns. When a young man was killed at his cotton gin, Charles showed no care or remorse. Lottie registered her rage by refusing to join her husband in eating the meal she had prepared for them. In an act of deep symbolic protest, she called in neighboring dogs to eat the food on her plate. Lottie would not partake of life's fundamental sustenance when an innocent youth had been killed at her own husband's business. Nor did she experience any grief at Charles's decision to drown himself after the Depression had robbed his work of its monetary worth:

He killed himself solely for himself, and it was, in his case, a more particularly selfish act than usual. He didn't die for fear of failure in our eyes. He was not at all of this mind. If he'd been able to work, work, work without cease as always, I'm sure he would've lived on and died in a field or at his mill, thinking he had lived a perfectly sane life.

Betty learned to live a truly sane life by discerning how her mother had trimmed her romantic aspirations to fit the harsh realities of everyday existence. Betty's moment of truth came after she made one vain venture into the so-called great world: she moved to Richmond and sought to create an adventurous new life for herself. Failing wretchedly at this, she returned to her eastern North Carolina home and married a dull but faithful soldier named Herman Randolph. The novel ends with the birth of their daughter, Marjorie, who, 45 years later, has remembered and reported the stories of her mother Betty and grandmother Lottie and great-grandmother Bridget.

These women are not bitter about settling for less than they had hoped for, yet neither are they unaware of the happiness they have missed. All live by the strong medicine everyone has finally to swallow: the cure for dreams. This sobering truth is not at all dispiriting. Such unblinkered honesty about the tears of things, such courageous refusal of self-pity, such winsome irony about the paradoxes of life—these qualities make Kaye Gibbons a writer who is not only literarily accomplished but also spiritually instructive.

When she was still a fledgling writer, sickness forced Flannery O'Connor to return home and to spend the last years of her life in Milledgeville, Georgia. There she discovered how, for both good and ill, rural people enter each other's lives so fully—through shared experiences and familial ties—that an artist dwelling in their midst cannot invent reality merely to suit her own sensibility. We learn this truth afresh in the work of Kaye Gibbons. Her country folk live without pretense, if only because their intimate relations make it hard to deceive each other. As Betty Davies observes: "It was very difficult for a young person to lie about his character on Milk Farm Road."

Gibbons's work shows what is wrong with the old canard that the cultured discuss ideas while rustics tell stories. Though meant to disparage the countrified, this saying unintentionally exalts them: narratives strike deeper than concepts because they reveal how character and motive prompt action; how, in fact, they prompt lives. Gibbons's characters tell and listen to stories, not in order to construct themselves out of airy nothing, but to discern their tragic situation, to adjust their dreams to their disappointments. Deep truth is narrative and practical, not abstract and theoretical. Gibbons understands that the world raises questions for which there is no worldly answer.

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