Sunday, February 6, 2011

Scarlett O'Hara: The Tragedy in Three Acts

   Scarlett O'Hara, the vain and volatile protagonist of Margaret Mitchell's romantic Civil War epic "Gone with the Wind" has become something of a legend. Brought to life vividly through Mitchell's acutely observant novel and given a face in an immortal performance by Vivien Leigh, Scarlett has become a heroine in the great traditions of the Wicked Witch of the West, Elizabeth Bennet, and Lady Macbeth, and her story has become a legend of stage, screen, and literature. To some, she's a vile character who could be classified as the modern bitch. To others, she's a feminist folk hero, a woman who eschewed the gender roles thrust upon her since birth and clawed her way to the top of an unclimbable ladder. Some even see her as a great tragic romantic heroine, like Shakespeare's Juliet. I would dare say she's a mix of both, and like most truly polarizing people, she is running her own agenda and leaves it up to us to make sense of it if we want to.
      Scarlett begins her life as the spoiled, haughty daughter of a wealthy plantation owner in rural Georgia. She's the oldest of three sisters and the prettiest of the three, with a fiery intelligence that isn't fitting her station. While her mother and her stern mammy have tried to train her to be meek, flirtatious, and innocent, Scarlett sees this as a pretense to catch me. She has no real desire to actually be feminine, but merely to give the appearance of being feminine, and her main goal in life is men. She desires praise, popularity, and above all things, to be in control, even as a sixteen-year-old girl, and she's extraordinarily single-minded. Despite how popular she is with men, she only has her heart set on one: Ashley Wilkes, a childhood friend who is imaginative, moody, vacant, and intelligent in a way she cannot fathom. Ashley enjoys books, music, and poetry, and Scarlett's highly uncreative, analytical mind cannot wrap around the idea that words can have two meanings. She doesn't understand him, and because he is a mystery to her, she adores him entirely.
      Ashley is engaged to marry Melanie, his cousin, who is just as quiet and vacant and interested in books as he is. Scarlett loathes Melanie for her prim, modest ways, and her jealousy over their marriage never completely goes away. After Ashley refuses her love, Scarlett marries Melanie's silly brother, Charles, who promptly dies in the war. As the Civil War rages through the South, Scarlett finds herself the unspoken head of Melanie's household, although she never asked for the position. In her early years, Scarlett does her best to shirk her ever-increasing burden of dependents and financial problems, issues that she never would have had to bother with before the war. Her mother groomed her to be ornamental and ladylike, and Scarlett finds herself entirely unprepared for a war-torn society that suffers from starvation, homelessness, and disillusionment.
      By the end of war, Ashley has refused her time and again, and now she is the mother to Charles' child. She is also the caretaker of Melanie, Melanie's baby, and a handful of slaves. There is no food, no water, and no prospect of money, and Scarlett, used to being spoiled, petted and made much of, bitterly resents the course, bitter hand that she has been dealt. However, she is imminently practical, and resents the wispy nostalgia of those around her who refuse to meet life where it is. In the face of invaders, starvation, and potential homelessness, as well as the loss all the love she held dear, Scarlett becomes what no woman in her society should be: hard, fearless, and independent.
      The second half of the novel is entirely devoted to Scarlett's ventures into being a "modern woman." She runs a business and is successful at it, much to the chagrin of her entire society. She rubs elbows with the Yankees, the Carpetbaggers, and whoever else she believes will help her succeed. She doesn't like them; she loathes them, but her brutal fear of starvation and her proud determination to stand her ground is far more intense than her dislike. Scarlett is a ruthless and coldhearted businesswoman who bullies her husband, servants, and children with reckless rage. She has three children by her various husbands, all of whom she ignores and thrusts onto other people. Between being uninterested in her children and succeeding where most men have not, Scarlett finds herself to be a virtual pariah in her society, and she realizes that there is a price to be paid for being yourself and saying what you think.
     A running theme of the novel is about how one's reputation can make or break your standing, regardless of whether or not that reputation is rooted in truth. Scarlett's reputation is grows from scandalous to deplorable, and while a sweet smile and a thinly-coated veil of gentility can fool some, it will never fool others. If one deviates too much from the norms, one runs the risk of isolating oneself from everything one knows. By the end of the novel, Scarlett has money, power, and, at long last, and security, but she has lost everything she didn't know she loved. She has bid herself against the rigid standards of societal expectations, and there is a price to pay; when she is lonely, no one comes to call except Melanie, whose loyalty to Scarlett has never wavered, despite Scarlett's blatant attempts to steal her husband. 
      What should Scarlett have done? Should she have married men she didn't love for their money, held fast to the pretty ideals of old Southern society and suffered and starved with her good reputation and gentility intact, as so many others did? Did she do the right thing by fighting, clawing, and gambling her way to the top, just as men do? One cannot say; "Gone with the Wind" is an epic story about a very incredible woman who made choices that no one could make, pulled the load of seven men, and still lost in the end. There is punishment enough for a woman who steps out of line, no matter how noble the cause.
      And yet despite the slight tragic streak in Scarlett's story, many cannot look past her generally conniving and selfish attitude. That is their prerogative, but I believe that if one is truly to read "Gone with the Wind," one must see past the veneer of hard, vain self-indulgence that is Scarlett O'Hara. She is a person who was born for one life and had another one thrust upon her, and in the face of that abrupt change she grabbed life by the horns and refused to let it drag her where it will. Even in our society today, many consider a woman who eschews motherhood and domestic life and plows coldly ahead in a world set against her to be "bitchy." 
     Perhaps Scarlett's story isn't truly a novel, but more of a a lengthy parable in three acts. The beginning is a hopeful, romantic girl, the middle is a bewildered female suddenly carrying a man's load, and the third is a grown woman who has done the work of three men and is isolated for it. However, despite all this, Scarlett is also an unfailing optimist. With her famous last line, she defines the true spirit of who she is. "I'll think of it all tomorrow, at Tara. I can stand it then. Tomorrow, I'll think of some way to get him back. After all, tomorrow is another day."
     It is indeed. 

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