This section contains 1,732 words
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SOURCE: A review of A Virtuous Woman, in The Women's Review of Books, Vol. VI, Nos. 10-11, July 1989, p. 21.
Chandler is an Indian-born American educator, essayist, and critic. In the following review, she examines the themes of loyalty, self-sacrifice, compassion, and love in A Virtuous Woman.
"Until death do us part" is a line couples tend to utter with increasing dubiousness, if not irony. Why people couple, why they stay coupled and what happens to them when death uncouples them, are disturbing questions in a culture committed to contradictory ideals of self-actualization and lasting relationship. In a time of chronic mass confusion about the business of love and marriage, Kaye Gibbons' short novel [A Virtuous Woman] about a dying woman and her husband's unhappy survival provides an unsentimental tribute to and reminder of the old virtues of loyalty, tolerance, compassion and forgiveness that are the real stuff of workable, if limited, partnerships.
The two narrators, Ruby and Jack Stokes, live in rural Georgia, where life is still very much about owning and working land, where marriage and family are largely matters of practical survival, and where people put up with one another with varying degrees of tolerance but little collective introspection. When Ruby's lung cancer is diagnosed and recognized as terminal, her husband's first response is denial: "Shoot woman!… Anybody mean as the old squaw'll outlive everybody." Her own course of action is to freeze meat and vegetables in plastic bags for his dinners in the winter when she will be gone. She cries, gets angry, and then comforts Jack in his bewilderment over her tears and anger.
These are people unused to reflecting on matters of life and death, and unused to the radical kinds of intimacy their situation enforces. Brought to terms with themselves and one another, they take on the issue of mortality with a simplicity of language and childlike emotional honesty touching and even gripping to readers who have learned to couch matters of the heart in highly psychologized language. Ruby is not unaware of her own needs as she faces her illness, but takes for granted the inevitable misunderstandings that make giving and receiving comfort an awkward business and the emotional disruptions of illness a source of mutual embarrassment. She remembers wistfully how she dealt with her husband's insensitivity to her shock:
I kept to myself the rest of the day, kept all my thoughts to myself. And I hate to say it, but sometimes I just wanted to yank him and say, "Didn't you know cheering me up would do more harm than good? What possessed you to do the wrong thing when I needed the right thing the most? I don't ask for much from you. Can't you see that anything less than not exactly right hurts worse than I already hurt? You've got to cure me or either love me so strongly that I feel some of this pain pass from me. Those are the only things you have any business doing right now."
Remembering this outburst, she harbors him no resentment, but instead realizes how futile it is to ask for certain unattainable kinds of comprehension. Ruby's resignation to her husband's emotional limitations is one of many adaptations that leave the reader slightly uncomfortable even though their practical value as survival strategies is evident.
Ruby and Jack are not an ideal couple. They don't understand one another very well. Their communications are rudimentary and their sensibilities different and largely unexamined. What makes them partners, and what carries them through the trial of mortal illness, is not a love based on ideals of self-fulfillment and mutual enhancement, but simple recognition of the ways in which they need one another. Battered by their respective histories of loss, deprivation, and mistreatment, they find and rescue one another from disillusionment and loneliness. Ruby and Jack's alliance provides a poignant example of what many "good" marriages turn out to be: sturdy but unfulfilling compromises reached through a tacit negotiation over the terms of each other's needs. It survives the painful alienations and bafflements of illness and loss, but is itself a state of chronic, if tolerable, alienation.
This novel is a re-examination of old-fashioned virtues, even, we may say, wifely virtues—a notion that would strike most readers as quaint if not repellent. Husband and wife acknowledge unabashedly the needs that drove them together and the marriage contract as one of mutual service. As Jack recalls, "All she said was she wanted somebody to take care of her, and if I promised to, she'd marry me. I said then, I say now, 'That's the best thing in the world for me, for the both of us, best thing for anybody to do for somebody'."
Even while this version of romance seems rather thin gruel, the explicitly unromantic quality of their love story illuminates something about love hard to keep sight of in a post-romantic culture: that one of the things love can be is sturdy and serviceable, that it grows in proportion to basic needs acknowledged and met, and that it may be about survival more than about satisfaction.
In alternating interior monologues, Jack and Ruby remember and reflect upon their past in the weeks of Ruby's dying. The power of Gibbons' art lies largely in the remarkable tension she sustains between the simple language and categories available to these characters and the depth and magnitude of the feelings and questions they manage to evoke.
In a manner reminiscent of some of Faulkner's rustic narrators, profound and complex thoughts are rendered in language and categories that seem incommensurate until the reader, growing accustomed to the idiom, recognizes in the earthy directness of these characters a quality of matter-of-fact acceptance that deepens the poignancy or horror of what is being told. They take the twists of fate with a curious innocence that reserves the impact of the irony entirely to the reader.
Thus Jack reflects in grateful bemusement on the circumstances that put Ruby on this path, but stops short of the thornier philosophical questions one might raise about them:
I think about it and think how it's odd how it all lined up for me, all that grief and misery lining up into something so good. There her husband was about dead, then dead, and there I was, ready, willing, more than willing to hop in his spot and have her for my own.
Characters like these, in a milieu where the luxuries of middle-class expectations and standards of behavior are either unfamiliar or unsustainable, and the language of feelings limited by customs of taciturnity and contempt for complaint, expose baldly and starkly what more sophisticated and articulate characters might more ambiguously convey about the troubling paradoxes on which many marriages are based. In the tension between the language and the experience evoked lies all the power of the unspoken—the great pressure of the unconscious behind ordinary action.
Ruby's illness, lung cancer caused by smoking, serves as a counterpoint to the love theme, giving the novel not just pathos, but an element of real tragedy. Her smoking, viewed in light of motive and consequence, assumes the dimensions of a tragic flaw. Her first husband, a brutal, abusive and exploitative man she ran off with in her restless youth, taught her to smoke. The addiction to cigarettes is his legacy of harm to her. When he dies a violent death, she knows she is well rid of him, but the smoking habit remains as a vestige of the larger addiction their relationship expressed. She chooses defiantly not to give it up, answering Jack's urging with, "I imagine I'll stop smoking about the time you stop drinking."
Ruby's stubbornness on this point suggests some disturbing insights into why women make self-destructive choices. Irrational wants compete with rational needs; the satisfactions of the unhealthy stimulant are a powerful antidote to the disappointments of life virtuously and healthily lived. The equation between health and virtue here is complex. Illness, addiction and death itself seem inextricably intertwined with disappointed romantic ideals and the tragic persistence of the needs that make those ideals so attractive.
Ruby's last gesture toward Jack, lying on her deathbed, is to ask mutely for a cigarette. Having thought at first that she was blowing him a kiss, he is particularly hurt to realize what it is she wants in her dying hour. Craving seems to be winning out over love. Ruby is locked away from him, unreachable in her deteriorating body. In some sense she has always been unreachable, separated from him by inarticulate wants that have no place in the economy of this partnership.
Kaye Gibbons' technique of interior monologue is utterly fitting to the subject. Terminal illness, the epitome of enforced solitude, appears to be simply an extension of a normal and chronic condition, from which each individual can reach out to another only in ways allowed by conventions of privacy, tact and familial roles to establish a relation that only rarely achieves the fine harmony of empathy. The strength of the love portrayed in this novel is precisely in its acceptance of limitation and compromise. Neither expects fully to understand the other. Each learns to live with the other in a quality of mutual respect that comes of recognizing the marriage contract for what it is.
The epigraph from Proverbs 31:10-25 points the way clearly to the central message of the novel: that duty assumed willingly and carried out faithfully is both a thing of beauty and a matter of sometimes questionable self-sacrifice. The good wife does her husband "good and not evil all the days of her life" and hence her "price" is "far above rubies." These ancient admonitions to the faithful performance of wifely tasks as a measure of a woman's virtue deepen both the irony and the poignancy of this story about private life in a secular age much less certain of its gender roles and moral categories. The question they, and the novel, raise about the role of self-sacrifice in women's lives has arisen in many forms among women struggling toward different and more constructive standards of self-assessment. The terms in which that question is recast here reveal the poignancy of that struggle: when the marriage contract broadens to include a woman's concerns for herself, couples face a series of ambiguous trade-offs as they seek a balance point between committed love and independence in a world where both of them are so often promised and not delivered.
This section contains 1,732 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)