I just met Scarlett O’Hara in the pages of Gone With the Wind. Now I’m wrestling with holding two opposing ideas in mind at the same time: I both love her and hate her. I know I’m not the first to experience that with this character, but it has caused me to reflect on a few things about characters and writing, hence this post.
I confess I am one of those people who never saw the movie Gone With the Wind, nor read the book. As a rule I don’t gravitate too much to stories about romantic relationships per se, which was the impression I had of the movie (that famous Clark Gable/Vivien Leigh pairing). As to the original story, although I am fond of historical novels, I’m not especially interested in the Civil War era, so the book itself also did not call to me.
Then, I recently read a comment somewhere about the quality of Margaret Mitchell’s writing and her portrayal of a complex character. From a craft viewpoint as a writer, I found that interesting, and for the first time ever I became curious about what Gone With the Wind actually contained. So I picked up a used copy and ploughed through the thing this week (by my calculation it is ~350k long: what a tome!)
And after saying “Wow!” too many times, now I come around to putting down some thoughts on this work.
The Phenomenon That is Gone With the Wind
GWTW has been commented on and analyzed endlessly since its publication in 1936. Of this mountain of commentary I have read exactly one thing, so my remarks here are not based on critical observations I’ve absorbed from others (aside from whatever buzz has floated around popular culture since the book’s publication). While I don’t guess my thoughts will be anything new and piercingly insightful on the topic (given the reams already written), they are new to me. And if you, like me, are relatively unfamiliar with the original written work, I hope my observations will be of interest as well.
So, as to the book. Without getting into spoilers, it follows the life of a Southern belle who has to deal with the vagaries of fortune as the Civil War destroys the world she grew up in. She has to find the personal resources to survive the upheaval; she does so, and more than survive, she thrives.
Now, about the character (slightly spoilerish, if you haven’t read the book/seen the movie)…
Scarlett is raised to be a lady. She is spoiled. Whatever she wants she gets, by willpower or wiles. She can wrap men around her little finger. Her world is about pretty clothes and dancing and social flirtations. She has no women friends: it’s all about the boys. Her mother is a role model of a lady, good, kind, helpful, the one who really runs things on the plantation, but she is an unreachable ideal. When war comes, by stages we see Scarlett drift away from what she was raised to be. She defies convention, ignores rules about widowhood and wearing mourning, when it is appropriate to dance (or not), who it is proper to associate with. As she finds herself, she becomes more independent and chooses to scorn what society thinks of her. When the South loses the war, pure survival brings another set of demands and O’Hara grows and changes even more.
While as a modern reader we can see this as an independent woman set in today’s mold of a woman relying on herself and not bound by convention, the other layer of text here is that Scarlett does this stuff as much (or more) because she is selfish and self-willed, rather than out of any feminist-style streak of independence. It’s all about her: what she wants, when she wants it. When wiles don’t work she will bully people or push things until it is just easier to give in and go along with her. She is domineering in a headstrong manner. What Scarlett wants, she will get. This is the spoiled child grown to self-absorbed adulthood. When she does good things for other people there is almost always an ulterior, self-serving motive at the root of it.
The one person she cannot work her way around is Rhett Butler. He says they are alike: both out for themselves. He hides how he feels about her (he is in love with her), because she uses the emotions of others as a weapon against them. I don’t know how the movie treats this but in the book her internal thoughts on the matter are plain: if only Rhett loved her then she could hold this over his head and get him to leap through hoops for her. So he is wise to conceal that part of his involvement with her, though it also leads to the failure of their relationship in the end.
She has an ongoing obsession with another man, Ashley Wilkes, who she finally realizes is only an infatuation, something she’d retained from her youth but which has no substance. Her realization of this comes too late to save her relationship with Rhett, who after 12 years of loving a self-absorbed woman “in love” with another man, has just been worn out by her lack of reciprocity. That denouement with Rhett culminates the book, as she realizes he is her rock and she does indeed love him–but it is too little, too late. Her question, What will she do if he leaves her?, leads to the most famous line in book and movie: “My dear, I don’t give a damn.”
Her moment of realization that Ashley is not what she thought him to be, and that in fact she doesn’t love him after all, is the single best encapsulation of “projection” I have ever read in a work of fiction. Here’s the revelation she experiences upon the death of Melly, her only female friend and Ashley’s wife:
“He never really existed at all, except in my imagination,” she thought wearily. “I loved something I made up, something that’s just as dead as Melly is. I made a pretty suit of clothes and fell in love with it. And when Ashley came riding along, so handsome, so different, I put that suit on him and made him wear it whether it fitted him or not. And I wouldn’t see what he really was–I kept on loving the pretty clothes and not him at all.”
Anyone who has ever dealt with projecting their ideals onto another will recognize the earth-shattering truth in this insight.
She Reads Shallow But Feels Complex
Yet the book does not deal with pat “insights” per se. Scarlett is notably a “shallow mind.” When her “unanalytical mind” tries to analyze a complex situation, she generally does so without success, and Mitchell describes her bafflement in so many words. Scarlett is a primal figure, a woman of passion and instinct, but no deep reflection about anything. Her mantra throughout the book, reiterated on the final page, is “I’ll think about that tomorrow.” In fact, tomorrow never comes. Scarlett lives in the moment; the only future she thinks about is one in which she is secure and wealthy, her chosen safeguards against the poverty and starvation she experienced during the war and has vowed never to experience again. While she attains her material goals, her internal world remains a marvel of self-absorbed psychology.
Love her independent spirit and “gumption”, which she has masses of. Hate her lack of principles and ironclad selfishness. From a writing viewpoint, Scarlett O’Hara is a masterful character construction, a woman who embodies conflicting and contradictory ways of being that evoke equal conflict in the reader. In contemporary writing the trend is more towards having protagonists who–although they have certain character flaws–are generally likeable or admirable people. Scarlett is not dark enough to be an outright anti-heroine, but for the first time in a long time, I feel like I’ve met someone on the page who is just as interesting, admirable, and infuriating as someone in real life.
For me as writer, that’s a role-model to remember.
My reading tip for the day? Go read Gone With the Wind. Added bonus: surprising insights into the Southern mentality that still hold true today. The book is often criticized for portraying an idealized South, but many of those idealizations are still alive and living in the minds of Southerners today.
Additional interesting note: Mitchell said she wrote the ending of this book first, and worked out the story backwards from there. Wow. I’m going to try that with a work-in-progress. I mean, it’s one thing to have a general idea how your story needs to end, and a different thing entirely to actually have that chapter written when you start. I think this will help me overcome some plotting issues I seem to keep dealing with. We’ll see how it goes.
Next on my reading list: The Wind Done Gone, the unauthorized literary parody and controversial retelling of white-privileged GWTW from the slaves’ perspective.
For more reviews and commentaries, see Reviews.