Ruthless Plot Summary | Course Hero

Ruthless | Study Guide

William De Mille

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Ruthless | Plot Summary & Analysis

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The Liquor Cabinet

"Ruthless" begins in the woods in October, inside Judson Webb's rustic vacation cabin. Judson moves from the bathroom to the "primitive living room," where he opens a locked cabinet built into the wall. The cabinet holds Judson's "guns, ammunition, fishing rods and liquor," and not even his wife, Mabel, may touch them. Judson becomes furious if his possessions are touched. He smiles unattractively at the liquor in the cabinet. He has placed an already opened bottle of bourbon in the front. Soon he and his wife will be leaving to go back to the city for the winter.

Mabel, speaking from the other room, says everything is packed and asks where Alec, the groundskeeper, is. Judson replies that Alec is pulling their boats out of the water. When Mabel enters, she is distressed to see Judson with the open liquor cabinet, thinking he is already drinking early in the morning. He replies he's putting something into the cabinet rather than taking something out. He drops into the bourbon two tablets, which dissolve promptly. Mabel recognizes the tone of his voice, "the tone he used when he was planning to 'put something over' in business." He explains that his liquor has been stolen before, and he expects the thief to try again. Mabel asks if what he's added will make the thief sick, and Judson suggests it will be fatal.

The Ethics of Poisoning

Mabel begs him not to leave the poisoned bourbon, saying "it's horrible—it's murder." Judson gleefully counters that it isn't murder to shoot a thief who breaks into his house, and poison in a locked cabinet cannot hurt anyone innocent. Mabel argues that death is far more severe than the legal punishment for burglary, but Judson declares that he makes his own law where his property is concerned. She says a little stolen liquor is only a small thing and not worth killing over. Judson says theft is theft and stealing $5 is as bad as stealing $100. In desperation Mabel asks what will happen if something happens to them, and no one else knows the bourbon is poisoned. Judson responds that he's willing to take that chance; he's made his fortune taking chances. He tells her that if he dies she will inherit the cabin, and she can do what she likes.

Mabel gives up arguing but resolves to tell Alec's wife about the poisoned liquor because "someone had to know." She leaves for the farmhouse down the road, saying Judson can pick her up there later.

The Twist

Judson remembers some boots he wants to put into the cabinet and goes to retrieve them from the "heavy, rustic table" on the porch. From the porch he can see Alec coming up the road. Judson's loud stomping frightens a chipmunk, who drops an acorn on which Judson slips and knocks himself unconscious against the table. When he comes to, Alec is holding him up and pressing a whiskey glass to his lips. "Here, take this," he says in a kind voice. Groggily, Judson drinks.


Irony and Twist Endings

A plot twist is an unexpected event that radically changes the direction of a story, and when it occurs near the end of the story, it is referred to as a twist ending. Often, twist endings recontextualize what has come before. Twist endings tend to be particularly effective in shorter stories such as "Ruthless," where the reader has little time to develop an emotional investment in the characters and situation.

The twist ending in "Ruthless" relies heavily on situational irony. In attempting to poison someone else, Judson accidentally poisons himself. Furthermore, every action Judson has taken to make sure his trap goes off well has only ensured he will be the victim of it. Because he has no intention of telling Alec about the poison, Alec believes what he is giving Judson will help him recover. Because Judson has placed the poisoned bottle prominently, and it is the only opened bottle, that is undoubtedly the one Alec grabs. Because Judson has browbeaten Mabel about his right to poison the thief, she leaves and is not there to warn Alec about the poison. It is also a bit of situational irony that Mabel leaves with the intention of warning someone about the poison so that it does not hurt anyone; as a result, she is not there to warn Alec about the poison before it kills her husband.

"Ruthless" also showcases some moments of dramatic irony. When Alec is giving Judson the poisoned drink, he is kind and solicitous, wanting only to help. Alec's genuine actions are dramatically ironic because the reader knows about the poison, but Alec does not. Depending on whether the reader has guessed the outcome, Judson's insistence that only those who deserve it will get hurt could also be considered dramatic irony. Judson has the thief in mind, but in the end he is the deserving party who is hurt.

Judson's Character

As indicated by the story's title, "Ruthless" focuses on Judson Webb's willingness, even eagerness, to hurt those who interfere with his property. One of the story's first concrete images is the locked cabinet that acts as a symbol of his possessiveness and control. Furthermore, Mabel's thoughts show that his vindictive temperament has been a large part of his success in business. She recognizes the tone he uses when he wants to "put something over" someone, or cheat them. Even though he concedes to Mabel that his plan may hurt innocents, he's willing to take that chance.

Judson is not only willing to hurt others, he is also willing to damage his own property if it means retribution on someone who has wronged him. Unless Judson's liquor bottle was completely full before the thief stole from it, by poisoning it he is ruining more of his bourbon than the thief took. He indicates that he would be as upset about the loss of $5 as he would of $100. The reader may conclude that what bothers him is not the loss of any particular property, but the fact that something he considered his was interfered with. This is further reinforced by the way he clutches the key to the cabinet, which not even his wife may touch.

Judson also seems to genuinely enjoy the idea of hurting or even killing someone. When he talks to Mabel about it, his dialogue has an almost gleeful tone, and the text describes him watching the poison dissolve with fascination. In his own head Judson is a righteous party avenging himself against someone who is, as he calls them, a "rat." Readers may conclude that Judson is very happy to have the opportunity to hurt others.

Cosmic Justice

Judson's moral flaws direct the plot of the story, and in the end they are the cause of his undoing. The underlying message that a ruthless man's desire for vengeance will eventually ruin his own life is what allows this story to function as a parable. Judson's comeuppance satisfies readers' desire for a just universe and one in which the Golden Rule prevails.

While Judson's own actions set up his downfall, the catalyst for his accident is a bit of random chance. Judson frightens a chipmunk carrying an acorn, which leads to his fall and concussion. The universe appears to be conspiring to punish Judson for his moral failings. The impression that wickedness being punished is the natural state of the world is emphasized by the story's setting. In the city, which the story refers to as "civilization," Judson's ruthlessness makes him a success. In the rural setting, a primitive cabin, Judson's ruthlessness leads directly to his death. The active agents of this death are gentle natives of the area: the chipmunk and Alec the groundskeeper, whose speech patterns mark him as rural. Had Judson been less loud and aggressive, he would not have scared the animal and fallen. Had he been less vindictive about the theft of his liquor, Alec would have gotten him a harmless drink and helped him recover.

"Ruthless" does not address its moral explicitly in the text, but the story has a clear message. Judson's unpleasant smile at the thought of poisoning the thief, along with Mabel's horror at the proposition, tells readers that Judson is in the wrong. Judson has several chances to turn back from his plan, but he is determined, motivated by his basic moral flaw. In the end he is punished for it, neatly wrapping up the parable's message.

Ruthless Plot Diagram

ClimaxFalling ActionRising ActionIntroductionResolution2134675


1 Mabel and Judson prepare to return from vacation.

Rising Action

2 Judson poisons the liquor in the cabinet.

3 He explains that he will kill the thief who stole from him.

4 Mabel begs him not to and argues why he shouldn't.


5 Judson overrules her, and she leaves to warn Alec's wife.

Falling Action

6 Judson falls and suffers a concussion.


7 Alec gives Judson the poisoned liquor to revive him.

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