Thursday, February 10, 2011

Melanie Wilkes (Gone with the Wind)

   Melanie Wilkes, Scarlett's sister-in-law, serves to act as a bit of a doppleganger to Scarlett, as well as her polar opposite. While Scarlett reacts to hardship by becoming harsh and cold, Melanie's good nature never wavers; however, she is far from a victim. She is merely living the life she was taught to lead, regardless of the circumstances, and one could say that despite her imminent hardship, her life is lived far more happily than Scarlett's.
      Melanie is raised to be proper, pretty, ornamental, and artistic, and as a teenager, she is well-versed in literature, art, and music, hobbies that Scarlett finds detestable. She is the product of many generations of inbreeding, and, as one of Scarlett's more crass neighbors observes, "She's had the fire bred clean out of her." Highly modest and sincerely sweet, Melanie makes up for her lack of physical beauty by winning the hearts of the entire county. She is generous, unfailingly courteous, and reveres her husband as the intelligent, well-bred man that he is.
      Unlike Scarlett, Melanie welcomes domesticity. In fact, Scarlett's own child, Wade, is more or less raised by his aunt rather than his mother. Aunt Melly always had a game to play or a kind word to say, and his mother had neither. Melanie even risks her own life twice in order to have children of her own, and her son, Beau, is her pride and joy.
     An interesting note about Melanie is how much she seems to enjoy physical intimacy with Ashley. Of course, this isn't mentioned, for a polite Southern woman would never mention sex, much less admit to enjoying it, but the author, Margaret Mitchell, notes the timid flush of excitement on Melanie's face at bedtime. Scarlett, on the other hand, goes out of her way to avoid physical intimacy. Given the personalities of the two, one would think these roles would be reversed.
     During the war, Melanie is the living embodiment of patriotism. She nurses at the hospitals until she is nearly exhausted, she gives her last scraps of food to passing travelers, and she takes special care to write to the mothers of those who die in the hospital. While any level of patriotism Scarlett feels is tinged with selfish apathy, Melanie's true-blue heart believes in the Cause fervently, and she worries daily about the beloved husband who left her behind.
      Nonetheless, after the war is over, Melanie doesn't sink into depression or nostalgia. She adapts to her new lot in life rather quickly, and with good grace. While Scarlett's sisters protest having to work likes slaves, Melanie does the work of two men without complaint. This unyielding determination, so unexpected from her sweet-spirited sister-in-law, wins Melanie a begrudging respect from Scarlett.
     Despite Melanie's unfailing devotion, Scarlett continually attempts to steal her husband. Ashley's honorable notions do not allow him to physically be unfaithful to his wife, but Mitchell suggests that he and Scarlett are having an emotional affair, longing for each other while lying in bed with their spouses. It is never made clear whether Melanie genuinely doesn't believe the allegations of infidelity, or if she just knows Ashley too well to believe them, or if she believes and simply doesn't care. She is unfailingly loyal to her sister-in-law and her husband, regardless of what the neighborhood says about them.
    The great difference between Scarlett and Melanie is how hard times affect them. When the chips are down, Scarlett morphs into a wild animal, clawing her way to the top regardless of how many fools she must suffer along the way. Melanie accepts change with a steady, unyielding good grace. Her situation may change, but she will not; no matter what happens, she believes in kindness, courtesy, loyalty, and honesty, and virtues such as those do not go away when times are hard. If Scarlett is a wild horse, Melanie is a steel magnolia in the grand Southern tradition: delicate and pretty, and yet tougher and stronger than anyone knows.

1 comment:

  1. Oh my goodness what a wonderful reflection. These are the type of discussions I love to engage in regarding GWTW! What a wonderful reflection of Melanie!