Tuesday, July 15, 2008

What Makes us strong.

My grandmother was a tremendous fan of Gone With the Wind. I think she knew every line by heart and if she didn't, she had a copy of the script that was reissued for the film's anniversary. She had collector's plates, card decks, mugs, figurines and a huge assortment of GWTW knick-knacks.

I was bored this afternoon so I popped in Gone With The Wind. As I watched it, I began to think about Scarlet O’Hara Hamilton Kennedy Butler. I read the book a long time ago and had noticed at the time that the book’s portrayal of this flawed heroine was even less flattering than the film’s depiction. Through it all I began to wonder how Margaret Mitchell managed to turn this character into someone who was admired. Let’s face it. Scarlet is the villain of Gone With The Wind. It's she who does just as much damage to the lives of those around her as she can ever be credited with doing good. So why do we like her? Juxtaposed as she is to Melanie Hamilton she should seem like the devil incarnate.

Looking at her, Scarlet is the kind of woman you hope doesn’t move into your neighborhood. She is greedy, grasping and self centered. She flirts and chases after men regardless of whether they are spoken for or not. She has a temper. When thwarted she schemes and plots to turn the situation to her own advantage. She marries men just to get their money and security for herself and that which she values.

As I watched and remembered the novel, I came to the conclusion that what Mitchell actually did was create a collection of portraits of what a strong woman looks like. Sometimes those images conflict and contradict, but still the majority of the women in this story were powerful human beings.

Scarlet, she’s the easiest to see. Her never say no attitude and her unwillingness to accept anything that wasn’t what she wanted. Her narcissism and her immaturity formed strength reminiscent of a toddler who is determined to get her way. And intermixed with this, Mitchell gives us very carefully planned glimpses of something redeemable in Scarlet. Her love for her parents, keeping her promise to look after Melanie, the kindness and concern she shows to the field hands she meets in Atlanta. Notice I say nothing of her motherly affections. In the novel she has three children, one by each husband, and her concern for the first two is less than remarkable.

Melanie is just as strong as Scarlet but in a different way. Scarlet has all the bravado we associate with strength, while Melanie has all the true to the core integrity that is necessary for a woman to be strong. She is kind and turns a blind eye to the wrongs of those she loves, as Rhett says, because she can’t conceive of dishonor in those she loves. But she also stands strong to those who would threaten her family and her way of life. When Scarlet kills the deserter, Melanie tells her she's glad she killed him. Far from being a “mealy-mouthed ninny” she is strong, soft-spoken and unshakable in her convictions.

Mrs. O’Hara is the backbone of her family. It is her strength, moral conviction and force that infuse Scarlet. Her charitable actions moral certainty put her on par with Mrs. March from Little Women.

Mammy is a woman whose strength is astonishing. I’ve heard the argument made that she is not to be admired because she stayed with the O’Haras out of fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of change that was sweeping her world. Maybe that is so. Or maybe she stayed because she had birthed, raised and cared for this family. Her portrayal in the book and the movie is idealized from the perspective of White America. We want to believe she loved her family and she loved the children she had raised. She probably did. And since we are looking at the character as presented by Mitchell and not the reality of a woman in her situation, we have to see her devotion through the lens that Mitchell gives us.

Prissy. Yep, even Prissy. Not nearly so developed in the novel, the character took on new aspects in the movie. What we are supposed to see as lazy child-like behavior on her part we can also see as a form of passive resistance. Prissy does what she has to do to satisfy those who control her, but her lack of action, her slowness —particularly as they are shown in the film—seems more like a form of defiance. “I don’t want to…” “I can’t…” “I’s scared to…” these statements of self above the orders of those around her place her actions in a new light. Not simple minded but choices she’s making for herself.

Belle, the prostitute with the heart of gold. She is as much, if not more of a survivor than Scarlet. Her inclusion in the novel brings forth another interesting juxtapositioning for Scarlet. Here is Belle. As hard headed and determined as she. But in the end, who is the more honest and admirable soul? The one who openly sells her body to meet her ends, or the one who does it clandestinely under the guise of marriage?

I’ve never much liked Scarlet. I kept wondering what took Rhett so long to drop her on her backside. When he uttered those memorable 8 words, I felt a sense of completion. Not so much the completion of the growth of the main character, usually the starting and stopping points of a novel, but of the character of Rhett Butler. How the man who told Scarlet he was waiting for her to grow up and get the “wooden headed” Ashley out of her head, himself finally grew up to see beyond the appeal of immediate self gratification and living a life of hedonism just because he could. His growth is just as much chronicled as is the attempt to let Scarlet, just 16 at the start of the war, grow up as well.

My editor recently expressed a thought about the epilogues we so often want to put on books. The ending that wraps the whole story up in a nice pretty ribbon and we know everything that happened to the characters. I’ve been guilty of that. And as writers we use epilogues for various reasons. Sometimes we want to get our character to the place we want them to be. I had a character that I don’t think I could not have done the HEA epilogue for. He’d lost his family prior to the beginning of the story. He was a father to his very soul and I couldn’t leave him without giving that back to him. Sometimes we have a minor but important issue we need to resolve for two characters. Or sometimes we just need to set up for the next book in the series.

Epilogues are useful things. But in the case of Gone With The Wind I am exceedingly grateful that Mitchell withstood the urge to wrap this story in a nice shiny bow. I have no doubt that many of us would have been disappointed. Unlike a multitude of women who sighed, knowing Scarlet would find a way to woo Rhett back, I walked away hoping he kept running.


Amarinda Jones said...

Gone with the Wind is my all time favourite movie. I too know it almost word for word. I have seen it a bazillion times and I love Scarlett. She is an excellent heroine. I totally undertsand her. Though I could never see what she saw in Ashley but we all have our strange momnents. Good blog!

Touchstone said...

I notice you pointedly ignore the sequel. Bravo!

It's beautiful out here. You never really understand how blue the ocean is until you're on it...and I think I've had too much to drink.

Cheers, buddy.

JacquƩline Roth said...

Yeah! You went! I hope you're having a blast. Just don't fall overboard. I'm so jealous. Hug!

Anny Cook said...

Read it a long time ago when I was much younger and sincerely believed there was always an HEA. And truthfully, I kinda liked that Rhett walked away. Wonder what that says about me?

Good blog.

Sandra Cox said...

Excellent blog, Jae.
I liked Scarlett, maybe because she was flawed. But she was a fighter and I admire that. She just happened to be very wrong headed:)I always maintained the hope she and Rhett would get back together.