Ruby Lee Gissing: Authorship and the New New Woman in Victor Nunez's Ruby in Paradise

Article excerpt

[Gissing] is one of the extremely rare novelists who makes his people think. They are thus differently poised from the majority of fictitious men and women.

Virginia Woolf, "George Gissing"

"We're all selling."

Ruby in Ruby in Paradise

Victor Nunez is one of American cinema's most literary auteurs, and part of his legacy is surely to the tradition of regionalism in both literature and film. His first two films were adaptations of lesser-known novels by famed authors: Gal Young Un (1979) adapted Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings's 1932 novel of the same title; he then adapted John D. MacDonald's 1962 A Flash of Green (1984).1 Both Rawlings and MacDonald are Florida authors, and Nunez, who lives in Tallahassee, is a Florida filmmaker whose filmography depicts the state with considerable devotion. He has been compared, as a regionalist, to Southern writers who "explore [...] the universale rooted in the South, in places and characters familiar to him as a native" (Preu 171); Stanley Kauffman writes that "what [Satyajit] Ray did for Bengal, Nunez could do for his homeland" (2). Nunez's third film, Ruby in Paradise (1993 ; both written and directed by Nunez), continues his work as a regionalist: it depicts with unsparing detail and subtlety the Gulf Coast, and in particular Panama City. The first of Nunez's films not adapted, strictly speaking, from a literary work, it represents Nunez's own foray into the realm of Southern regionalism, as both author and auteur.

The literariness-indeed, the importance-of Ruby in Paradise, however, goes beyond its contribution, compelling as it is, to Nunez's impressive body of work as a regionalist. While among Nunez's films Ruby in Paradise has garnered the most interpretive attention, and some of its literary elements have been explored in thoughtful criticism, its literary and cultural significance remain underappreciated.2 While some of the film's literary allusions have been observed by interpreters, no one has commented yet upon the significance of the heroine's name, Ruby Lee Gissing, as an allusion to the late-nineteenth-century British writer George Gissing. The name is no accident. Nunez read Gissing while he was working on drafts of Ruby in Paradise, after he began to think about the problem of a man "presuming to write from a young woman's POV." Reading Gissing "gave me the courage to proceed with the script and in the face of complete indifference at the time from the world, to make the film. What better then a final name for Ruby than Gissing?" (Nunez, Personal). This essay explores the implications of the perhaps surprising connections between Nunez's Gulf Coast and Gissing's late-industrial England, between Nunez's Ruby and the women of Gissing's fiction, and between Gissing's and Nunez's positions as struggling and highly acclaimed writers outside the mainstream. Authorship itself is a focus of Gissing's work, most famously in New Grub Street but also in The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft; my focus will be the insightful treatment of female authorship, a subject explicit in Nunez's film and implicit in Gissing's portrayals of women in the context of the late Victorian emergence of "New Women" seeking to establish independent lives beyond the script of middle-class domesticity in a variety of pursuits-as professional feminists, clerks, musicians, socialists, etc.3 Nunez is not only a regionalist, but an auteur deeply indebted to the work of a novelist whose perception of the dilemma of women's lives parallels Nunez's own.

The plot of Ruby in Paradise is not unlike one of Gissing's "New Woman" novels about women pursuing lives outside the conventions of romance and marriage.4 Ruby Lee Gissing has fled a poor, rural existence in Tennessee to seek her fortune and independence in Panama City, on the Gulf Coast. She soon finds work in a store, after she boldly insists to the proprietor, Mildred Chambers, "I work real cheap." Ruby befriends one of her co-workers, an African-American student, Rochelle, who is pursuing a business degree with the hope of earning more income. …