Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Scarlett O'Hara: Cold-Hearted Witch or Misunderstood?


My mother and I have a disagreement about Scarlett O'Hara. I am a glass-is-always-half-full kind of person; mi madre is more of a cynic. A standing argument concerning the true nature of Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind heroine perhaps best demonstrates this.

I'm going to really briefly review the key plot points of Gone With the Wind, but I apologize in advance for its lack of brevity--the book is over 1,000in length.

Scarlett O'Hara is the eldest of three daughters born to an Irish immigrant father (he became the master of a plantation as the result of a lucky poker game) and a high-society mother (who abandoned said high society to marry a man far beneath her station because she was separated from the boy she loved). Scarlett is the belle of every ball and is totally used to having every man in the county eating from the palm of her hand. At a barbeque given by a neighboring plantation owner, Scarlett learns that the engagement of the only man she considers to be "in love" with, Ashley Wilkes, is to be announced.

In typical Scarlett fashion, she decides that Ashley is only marrying his plain, quiet, mousy cousin Melanie because he is unaware of how Scarlett feels about him. While the other ladies are napping between the barbeque and the ball to follow, Scarlett confronts Ashley with her true feelings, and he gently but firmly shoots down her advances. It gets a bit heated--she smacks him in the face and throws a vase at the wall after he leaves. She is humiliated to learn that the entire scene was witnessed by Rhett Butler, an acquaintance of the Wilkes family with a horrible reputation, who rightfully declares that Scarlett is no lady.

Stinging from Ashley's rejection, Scarlett agrees that very afternoon to marry Charles Hamilton, Melanie's brother. Their marriage is rushed by the upcoming Civil War (as is Ashley's marriage to Melly), but they still manage to conceive a child the few days they spend together before Charles goes to war. Sadly, Charles contracts measles and dies while at boot camp. In rapid succession, Scarlett becomes a wife, a widow, then a mother.

Not surprisingly, the situation is a bit overwhelming for Scarlett, so when Melly invites her to come visit her childhood home (which, as Charles' widow, Scarlett owns half of) in Atlanta, Scarlett jumps at the chance. Although she has to wear mourning clothes and live with Melanie (Ashley's wife, a fact which tortures Scarlett to no end) and Melly's maiden aunt, Pittypat, Scarlett loves Atlanta ... at least until Rhett Butler, now a blockade runner moving cotton overseas and bringing back goods (at a huge personal profit, naturally) shows up at a town event.

Rhett slowly but surely changes Scarlett, encouraging her to stop suppressing her natural passion. For example, he buys her a gorgeous bonnet while on a blockade run and convinced her to wear it in lieu of the black mourning bonnets society's expectations decreed (Rhett knew darn well that Scarlett had never loved Charles Hamilton and enjoyed torturing her about the fact). Rhett clearly enjoys Scarlett's company, although she can't figure out why he doesn't even try to kiss her, and the two become close friends. Rhett's presence in the house is made borderline acceptable because Rhett bought Melanie's wedding ring back for her after she'd donated it to "The Cause"; since Melly's reputation in Atlanta is beyond reproach (she is one of those people that always puts others before herself and never sees the bad in anyone), her approval of Rhett makes him kind of okay.

Wow, this post is going to be ridiculous if I keep this up. Okay, in a nutshell, Atlanta is basically destroyed by the "Yankees". Scarlett and company (Melly, Melly's son conceived while Ashley was on leave, and several slaves) flee to Tara (parents dead, sisters very sick). Carpetbaggers want huge taxes so they can take over Tara. Scarlett goes to Atlanta to convince Rhett to loan her the money in exchange for being his mistress. He refuses. She marries her sister Suellen's fiance, Frank Kennedy, who owns a store. Borrows money from Rhett to buy timber mills. Frank is killed in an attack. Scarlett marries Rhett, who is very rich by now. She still professes to love Ashely in spite of this. They have a daughter, adored by both of them. She dies while riding her horse, and Scarlett blames Rhett. He is devestated and falls into a pit of drunkenness. Melly dies. Scarlett realizes how much she loves Rhett and always has. Rhett decides to leave Scarlett forever in spite of her revelation. She decides to think of it tomorrow because "Tomorrow is another day." Phew!

My mother's take is that Scarlett got what she deserved. She was an awful person, she did horrible things, and losing her soulmate and the love of her life was just karma.

I tend to cut Scarlett some slack. After all, she was a product of her environment--her father doted on her and spoiled her rotten, and her mother's teachings were focused on surface appearances (don't accept a gift other than flowers or candy from a beau, for example) because she couldn't stand to open her heart even to her children after losing her lover. I mean, the Southern traditions combined with never being told no? What choice did Scarlett have?

She was only sixteen when she thoughtlessly married Charles Hamilton because she couldn't have Ashley. She was a child! Her early actions in Atlanta (dancing and laughing when she was supposed to be in mourning) are extremely immature, as is her longtime infatuation with Ashley Wilkes, a thinker, reader, and dreamer with whom she had nothing in common.

When Scarlett returned to Tara, she was suddenly responsible for everything. She faced everything from figuring out how to feed the remains of her family to taking down a Yankee soldier. She was hard as nails because she had to be; even her calculated marriage to her sister's fiance was done with the intent of taking care of Tara and her family.

Finally (and perhaps most tragically), Scarlett did eventually learn what love was. She realized that Rhett had fallen in love with her the day she met him and that she felt the same way too but was blinded by her "feelings" for Ashley. It was too late, though--by that point, as Rhett famously said, "I don't give a damn." Between that and the loss of Melly (who she also realized--far too late--was truly her best friend and sister), Scarlett is forced to pay a terrible price. I truly believe that--too little and too late, granted--she learned her lesson.

So what do you think? Is Scarlett a cold, vindictive bitch, or does she have some redeeming values?