The Assassination of Scarlett O’hara
by Lauren Jackson
Flouncing hoopskirts and frilly pantalettes, stifling perfumes and plush furniture, demure flicks of the hand and dimpling cheeks all embody the infamous Scarlett O’Hara in Margaret Mitchell’s classic novel Gone with the Wind .Scarlett was born into a changing world, wherein the very ground she stood on was shifting beneath her feet. The Yankees were coming, their booted feet sounding death knells in Scarlett’s ears, and to fight for her life and happiness, she marched to the sound of her own drum beat. Throughout history, Scarlett has been a figure that is beloved as a character, yet beloved in spite. Scarlett is not held up as a figure to aspire to be; she is seen as a spoiled and shameless poisonous woman. She is frowned upon outside of the text, and given no mercy inside the text. Yet why has Scarlett been labeled a ‘bad woman’? Why even in today’s society do my peers whisper harshly: “You don’t want to be a Scarlett O’Hara!” as a word of warning. I sat with a married couple and asked them to describe Scarlett O’Hara to me. The wife immediately was glowing and exclaimed: “Scarlett is a strong woman. I’d like to be like her because she was bold and stood up for what she believed in!” And yet her husband looked startled and ashamed of his wife, stating firmly and with fervor: “I hate that woman! Scarlett is awful. How could anyone like her?” This dichotomy is what has often represented Scarlett, especially within the text, where Scarlett acts outside of her role as ‘woman’ and ‘unsexes’ herself. Scarlett was not a selfish and destructive woman as she has often been depicted, she was independent, successful, and in charge of her business and body. She was a burgeoning feminist of the time by acquiring and running her own businesses, making her own choices, and standing up for what she found to be the truth. Yet despite these assertions, we still find many who tout the opinions of the husband mentioned above – Scarlett is a nasty, wicked, venomous monster!
Shifting Loyalties – The Turning Tide of Gender Relations and Societal Niceties
Scarlett was born with a wild streak running through her veins, and throughout the novel everyone seems to refer to this as her ‘Irish streak’. Yet, Scarlett puts it more plainly, as she sees it as her father in her. In fact, from the very beginning of the novel, Scarlett places herself on an equal with men, and with her father in particular: “Scarlett had no awe of her father and felt him more her contemporary than her sisters..” (48). This in itself shows Scarlett’s ‘mannish’ qualities, or rather her lack of female frailties and her strong bond with her father. So much so that he even treats her as a son due to the loss of all his male children: “…he had drifted into a habit of treating her in a man-to-man manner which she found most pleasant. She was more like her father than her younger sisters…” (49-50). This again reiterates and demonstrates the state in which Scarlett is raised and the way in which she is held in respect to her female status. Although she is a young and boisterous girl, her father, seeing a kindred spirit in her often confides in her and treats her as his confidante, the way he would a son if any had survived. Further, it is Scarlett’s mother Ellen that has the voice in the household: “It had never occurred to him that only one voice was obeyed on the plantation – the soft voice of his wife Ellen” (49). Scarlett was taught very early on, that women were rulers in the home. Ellen even goes off to be a nursemaid while her own husband slumbers on, performing the role of male in the household (59). This steadfast view of womanhood mixed with her blustering qualities of her father created a daughter that was sure to grab the world by the horns.
Women at this time were created to have very distinctive qualities that were pleasing to men. Gerald O’Hara even expresses his opinion of what a woman should be: “‘She did, and a sweet quiet thing she is, with never a word to say for herself, like a woman should be’” (50). This demonstration of Southern male opinion is to help paint the portrait of what Scarlett is raised to model. Because she breaks this mold and creates her own painting, she is despised and called a traitor. Gerald O’Hara even proudly calls Ellen, his wife, his most prized possession (63), throwing gender politics greatly into the mix.
Scarlett finds that during the war, duties have changed. The feminine graces and doting charms which her mother had instilled in her were no longer of any value. Scarlett laments this sad truth with bitterness: “She did not stop to think that Ellen’s ordered world was gone and a brutal world had taken its place, a world wherein every standard, every value had changed. She only saw, or thought she saw, that her mother had been wrong, and she changed swiftly to meet this new world for which she was not prepared” (413). Indeed, for the world in which Scarlett was thrust, everything had been turned upside down. Not only were the social values her mother taught her useless, but as Scarlett despairs, she hadn’t learned what could be vital to her survival: “‘Nothing, no, nothing, she taught me is of any help to me! What good will kindness do me now? What value is gentleness? Better I’d learned to plow or chop cotton like a darky’” (413).
Scarlett was willing to change with the world, it is for this she was criticized. Scarlett looked around her and found herself lost: “She knew she had changed too, but not as they had changed, and it puzzled her. She sat and watched them and she felt herself an alien among them, as alien and lonely as if she had come from another world, speaking a language they did not understand and she not understanding theirs” (568-569). She had essentially stepped out of her role as ‘woman’ and into the role of ‘man’, not seeing these genders as fluid as Margaret Fuller did.
Scarlett the Business Woman
Scarlett successfully turned the plantation at Tara around, without the help of men. Scarlett successfully started a business in Atlanta, one in which not only did Frank ,her second husband fail, but Ashley the love of her life failed also. Yet where men failed, Scarlett excelled. But the town likened her running a business to the biggest scandal and that with this they knew not her limits: “Atlanta had been scandalized enough when Scarlett, a woman, began operating the sawmill but, as time went by, the town decided there was no limit to what she would do” (624)
The below startling excerpt shows a taste of what Margaret Mitchell herself may have felt about gender relations, and also allows Scarlett a clarity of mind in business matters as well as what it means to be a woman:
“A startling thought this, that a woman could handle business matters as well as or better than a man a revolutionary thought to Scarlett who had been reared in the tradition that men were omniscient and women none too bright. Of course, she had discovered that this was not altogether true but the pleasant fiction still stuck in her mind. Never before had she put this remarkable idea into words. She sat quite still, with the heavy book across her lap, her mouth a little open with surprise, thinking that during the lean months at Tara she had done a man’s work and done it well. She had been brought up to believe that a woman alone could accomplish nothing, yet she had managed the plantation without men to help her until Will came. Why, why, her mind stuttered, I believe women could manage everything in the world without men’s help–except having babies, and God knows, no woman in her right mind would have babies if she could help it” (580).
Not only was this a revolutionary thought for any woman to have concerning men’s and women’s places in the workplace, and the social sphere in general, but Scarlett is making a declaration against childbirthing which women simply did not do.
But Frank takes the notion of Scarlett no longer being ‘womanly’ to a whole new plateau: “He felt that everyone disapproved of Scarlett and was contemptuous of him for permitting her to ‘unsex herself’” (599). Even in Mitchell’s text the term “unsex herself” is in quotations, suggesting Mitchell herself was in some way bitter over the contemptible gendering of the time. What does it truly mean to ‘unsex’ oneself? Did Scarlett literally stop being a woman and become a man to perform the feats that she did? Was it so impossible for a woman to equal and excel a man in tasks? For Scarlett to ‘unsex’ herself was the only way anyone could describe or accept her incredible behavior. It simply made her not a woman. Frank laments his fate as Scarlett’s second husband because she has turned from her feminine wiles after marriage: “Now her reactions were all masculine. Despite her pink cheeks and dimples and pretty smiles, she talked and acted like a man. Her voice was brisk and decisive and she made up her mind instantly and with no girlish shilly-shallying. She knew what she wanted and she went after it by the shortest route, like a man, not by the hidden and circuitous routes peculiar to women” (598). He is unable to understand or come to terms with her behavior and continues in this vein, calling her unwomanly: “But Scarlett was guided by no one but herself and was conducting her affairs in a masculine way which had the whole town talking about her. ‘And,’ thought Frank miserably, ‘probably talking about me too, for letting her act so unwomanly’” (598). If Scarlett’s own adoring husband could not see past these ‘faults’, whatever would the public think of her?
Scarlett is directly lectured on the topic for exposing herself to public insult, and the insults of rude men by running her own businesses. The lecture is concluded by calling her yet again unwomanly. It is not the rude men’s fault that they insult her, but Scarlett’s fault for putting herself in the position of receiving such insults. “Think how your little children will feel when they grow older and realize that you were in trade! How mortified they will be to know that you exposed yourself to the insults of rude men and the dangers of careless gossip in attending to mills. Such unwomanly–” (888).
In Krisztina Kovacs’ article “Authoress and Businesswoman: Success, Money and Gender in Gone with the Wind”, she points out this Southern dichotomy of womanhood: “Scarlett is judged in connection to the tenets of proper femininity and to the moral aspects attributed to Southern womanhood. The judgement and criticism of her business activities and her relationship with other characters are determined by the fact that she is a woman, thus she is defined as immoral, which label a similar male character would more easily elude” (Kovacs, 1-2). Not only was this important merely for gender roles’ sake, but for a much higher purpose: “…the Southern lady represented the legitimacy of a particular social system” (Kovacs, 2). This social system that ultimately collapsed at the end of the Civil War, and yet there were those who still held on to it with all their might, hoping against the wildest hope that their way of life may be restored. Thus when Scarlett heaves off the heavy cloak of old duties, she is shaking off a very way of life.
Rhett and Scarlett have an argument over her ability to take care of herself. Scarlett calmly explains that she is not a damsel in distress and can take care of herself. Rhett scolds her and compares her to a Yankee girl, exclaiming: “That’s the trouble with Yankee girls. They’d be most charming if they weren’t always telling you that they can take care of themselves, thank you” (300). Scarlett had long ago learned that she could not rely on men or her parents to take care of her at all times, for when the war struck she had only her own wits to rely upon: “And now in this hour of greatest need, there was no one” (350). She didn’t just take the chores upon herself, she ran successful businesses. She didn’t just accept her role, but braced herself with it:“Then she squared her shoulders and started up the stairs” (352). Giving herself new authority, and becoming a decision maker. Scarlett was a strong woman and could not tolerate weakness in others: “…she could not love anyone who was weak” (399). And when she assumed her new rulership at Tara, no one dared to question her: “But no one talked back to Scarlett these days. They were all afraid of her sharp tongue, all afraid of the new person who walked in her body” (411). Scarlett’s ancestors had taught her this strength, being warriors. She had it in her blood from the start: “They had not whined, they had fought. And when they died, they died sent but unquenched. All of those shadowy folks whose blood flowed in her veins seemed to move quietly in the moonlit room. And Scarlett was not surprised to see them, these kinsmen who had taken the worst that fate could send and hammered it into the best. Tara was her fate, her fight, and she must conquer it” (401).
Scarlett reacts without fear in situations of peril. When Scarlett finds a Yankee soldier has entered their home at Tara, she immediately grabs a pistol and fires upon the man, killing him (419). And later in the novel, realizes that she has received the title of veteran: “They were veterans. She was a veteran too, but she had no cronies with whom she could refight old battles” (929). For Scarlett had indeed participated in the war, in many different ways. Scarlett’s sharp reactions also help her put out a fire that Yankee soldiers start in her home (444).
Scarlett’s Character Assassinated
Scarlett has not been depicted as an essentially good and virtuous woman either inside or outside the text. She has been seen as inherently selfish, arrogant, prideful, demeaning, cruel, and bitchy. These qualities do not a great lady make, according to Southern rules dominating at this uncertain time in history. Scarlett was born like her father: “It was Gerald’s headstrong and impetuous nature in her that gave them concern…” (76), and although Scarlett tried very hard to squelch her own nature she didn’t see the fun in it: “Scarlett wanted very much to be like her mother. The only difficulty was that by being just and truthful and tender and unselfish, one missed most of the joys of life…” (77). Society had attempted all her life to box her into a role which was not suited to her by nature. Yet she was scorned and upbraided for challenging the strict system in place and bucking the old ways for the new. Scarlett complains of girls acting like they don’t have sense to catch husbands and claims it is “unnatural” for her to act in this manner (94-95).
With this conflicting nature in Scarlett to accept her natural personality as her father, or to aspire to be angelic like her mother, she was often at odds with herself mentally. Scarlett compared the Wilkes family to herself and found: “…there was no such conflict as frequently raged in Scarlett’s bosom where the blood of a soft-voiced overbred Coast aristocrat mingled with the shrewd, earthy blood of an Irish peasant” (102). This created a battle within Scarlett that lasted her whole life. She tried to find solace with the state of Georgia itself and even compares herself to the land that she loves: “Scarlett had always liked Atlanta for the very same reasons that made Savannah, Augusta and Macon condemn it. Like herself, the town was a mixture of the old and new in Georgia, in which the old often came off second best in its conflicts with the self-willed and vigorous new” (150). Scarlett often connected herself with the land of Tara, feeling that land was the only thing worth fighting, living and dying for.
Mammy, Scarlett’s maid and housekeeper, as well as lifelong friend, advises Scarlett that it ‘doan look good’ that she does not faint around snakes or mice (94). This seems an allusion to Scarlett’s baser nature in relation to Eve by her lack of fear around snakes which are often representative of the devil. If Scarlett does not flinch at a snake, what else may she not bat a perfectly curled eyelash at?
Scarlett has been raised to fear the ‘bad women’ and calls Belle, a prostitute, “the town bad woman” (523), and swears up and down she does not know her. For knowing her would associate her with her sexual and moral looseness. Yet Scarlett had already lowered herself to what she considered Belle’s position by offering herself to Rhett as his mistress if he would only loan her money. Of her feelings in relation to Belle she says: “She wanted to feel superior and virtuous about Belle but she could not. If her plans went well, she might be on the same footing with Belle and supported by the same man” (523).
Scarlett As a Vampire – Punished
Women up to this point in time had long been considered as vampires. Bram Dijkstra puts it plainly in Evil Sisters when he says: “…set out to prove that nature had given all women a basic instinct that made them into predators, destroyers, witches – evil sisters” (1). It was this paradigm, this frame of thinking that he dubbed women as ‘latent vampires’ at this time. Society(men) could not seem to separate the line of thinking of women sucking up all of their life force and becoming vile and venomous creatures.
Scarlett can easily be interpreted as a vampiric creature that prowls about devouring what men she might. She easily coquettes and seduces nearly every male figure present in the novel; even leading astray her own sister’s betrothed. She latched on to Frank Kennedy – her second husband – with alacrity, and proceeded to take over his businesses and shame him by buying and maintaining her own. She squandered money, but managed to turn profits, so as not to entirely drain her victim. But she did destroy Frank ultimately by her ‘gallivanting’ behavior, causing him to seek vengeance on those who had insulted her. Dying as a member of the Ku Klux Klan, and doing so over the sake of the woman he loved seemed a very romantic notion. Yet Scarlett did not even pause to mourn. She quickly calculated her next victim – Rhett Butler.
Scarlett offered herself up sexually in return for money from Rhett. Though he refused the bargain, it depicts the depths to which this woman had fallen. This is a sharp criticism of her, though she is free to use her body as she pleases.
The uprooting of Ashley Wilkes was another vampiric move for Scarlett. She demanded Ashley become a manager in her business, though he begged her not to do so with him, not to force him into that life. His reasons for not wanting to go he explained to Scarlett in depth: “‘Onl my masculine pride, my self-respect and, if you choose to so call it, my immortal soul” (678). These would be the qualities that Ashley felt he would lose if he went to Atalanta and left the country behind. But Scarlett was not unaware of the depth of his pain in going: “Some of the triumph in her heart was dulled by a nagging fear. The look in his eyes when he spoke had been the same as when he said he would be lost forever if he came to Atlanta” (681). And Ashley does become lost, thus due to Scarlett was he deprived of life to its fullest. He lost his essential self. Yet the choice was his own, and was not forced upon him.
George Lippard asks this question of the nature of womanhood: “And shall we heap same on woman, because man, neglecting her holiest nature, may devote all the energies which God has given him, to rouse her gross and earthy powers into action?” (Lippard, 85). This strain of thought differed wildly from Rousseau who heaped men’s vile behavior upon woman’s prompting, yet Lippard blames men’s prompting on the woman as being the instigator of this ‘gross’ and ‘earthy’ behavior. Rhett in turn brings out the worst in Scarlett, although her nature is already to be more Irish-brogue like her father, he exacerbates this issue. This is illustrated plainly in the text in his means of swaying her ideas of propriety: “She did not realize that, with his encouragement, she had disregarded many of the sternest injunctions of her mother concerning the proprieties, forgotten the difficult lessons in being a lady” (244). Rhett changed Scarlett. He taught her to cast aside propriety and stop being a lady, to give in to fripperies and pettiness. The scene in which Rhett begins to shape Scarlett’s thinking was in giving her a new bonnet against all propriety, for Scarlett had a weak spot for fashion.
Scarlett was always interested in having the latest fashion and cutest item. She begged news of Rhett when he was able to get out of the city and run supplies into the town for fashion news from Europe. Rousseau believes fashion to be an evil entity: “A fondness for fashions is thus a proof of bad taste, as the person and features do not change with the mode; what is becoming or unbecoming at one time, must therefore be always so” (115).
Yet not all ideas of morality had failed Scarlett in life. She still considered herself dignified and above the ‘common’ class. She held true to some teachings, such as the definition of a ‘bad woman’. These ideas in Scarlett clearly depicts that she did not think of herself as bad. Scarlett says of a prostitute: “She could never, never let him know that she even realized that bad women existed, much less that he visited them. A lady could never do that” (247). For Scarlett to be fully a lady, she had to rest in silence and not exclaim that men she knew visited prostitutes. To do so would have been ‘unseemly’! She must feign ignorance or risk exposure of sexuality that would make her ‘gross’ and ‘earthy’. Women were not thusly to enjoy sex or to be considered sexual beings. Their primary purpose was to subject to a husband’s desires, and not actuate any of their own.
There seems to be additional shock in her taking truck with the Yankees: “Scarlett was not only trafficking with the Yankees but was giving every appearance of really liking it!” (624). For a woman to like or to enjoy a relationship or experience was beyond unseemly!
Rhett unceremoniously asks Scarlett to be his mistress when she is expecting him to ask for her hand in marriage. Rhett says quite bluntly: “‘Dear,’ he said quietly, ‘I am complimenting your intelligence by asking you to be my mistress without having first seduced you’” (329). The arrogance with which this is spoken strikes bitterly into Scarlett’s heart. That he should be so indecent with her made her wonder if she were in fact a bad woman.
Pregnancy was shamed in the South, as no women could openly discuss a pregnancy, a pregnant state, or the birth of a child. It was hushed up and blushed upon so frequently throughout the novel that one would think it was a shameful secret to bear a child. No one must refer to the ‘condition’ and a woman should not even be seen publicly while pregnant. Her conduct in the novel is criticized: “…and it was positively indecent the way she kept on going about the streets when everyone knew she was pregnant. No respectable white woman and few negroes ever went outside their homes from the moment they first suspected they were with child, and Mrs. Merriweather declared indignantly that from the way Scarlett was acting she was likely to have the baby on the public streets” (624). And even further, Rhett attempts to prove to Scarlett his ungentlemanly manner by pointing out her condition and rudely continuing in the strain: “And I know I’m not a gentleman, in view of the fact that pregnant women do not embarrass me as they should” (637), and furthermore that: “It’s a normal state and women should be proud of it, instead of hiding behind closed doors as if they’d committed a crime” (638). While the female population of today would strongly agree with Rhett’s sentiments, women were shamed for this state, as it was a very conscious and obvious reminder of their sexual bodies, and married women were to be considered pure.
Ultimately Scarlett is punished for her ‘evil misdeeds’ as women so often – nearly always- are in works of fiction. The tone of Rousseau had already set the stage for this folly: “The perverseness and ill-nature of the women only serve to aggravate their own misfortunes” (Rousseau, 114). Thus in reality is it Scarlett’s very nature that serves to magnify the evils that come upon her. Simply because she is a woman she must deserve these punishments.
Her third husband, Rhett Butler, comes out the victor, nearly unscathed by casting the ‘foul woman’ aside. He is heroic and a tragic figure that has lived in feminine hearts for decades. His iconic moment in history: “My dear, I don’t give a damn” (957) has been sensationalized and reproduced in so many formats that it is necessarily a trend that has transcended time itself. Yet, why has Rhett been idealized and Scarlett pushed down as conducting herself immorally? Rhett was a known owner and frequenter of Belle Watling’s house of ill-repute. He in essence informed Scarlett he was in love with Belle as well, a prostitute, and a madam. Yet we hold his unscrupulous behavior as the most romantic! We are only to scorn the image of the wronged man and not the wronged woman.
Rhett himself did not play by the rules of society and seemed to mock them with an inner bitterness that raged on and off through his entire life, and certainly his social existence. The tinged mockery and self-deprecation was almost always Rhett’s undoing in social circles and resulted in his company being banned and shunned. Scarlett at times found him repulsive in his rejection of societal norms, though she herself only espoused them insofar as it would align with her ambitions. That is to say, she gave herself airs, deigned to play the coquette, would stroke men’s egos, and danced the latest frolics. Yet, still she criticized Rhett’s lack of gentlemanly qualities: “A gentleman always appeared to believe a lady even when he knew she was lying. That was Southern chivalry. A gentleman always obeyed the rules and said the correct things and made life easier for a lady. But this man seemed not to care for rules and evidently enjoyed talking of things no one ever talked about” (187). This passage seems to be remarkable in that it couples Rhett and Scarlett so perfectly, although Scarlett’s unwitting statements about him align perfectly with her own feelings and shortcomings, she fails to see it at this time.
Throughout the novel there appears to be a direct comparison between Melanie Wilkes and Scarlett O’Hara. One is questioned and scorned, while the other is always held above esteem and beloved. Melanie is a passionate yet quiet woman, who resolves to dedicate herself to her husband and his needs. She accommodates everyone in all things, and is a representation of mercy itself. She is weak and does not overcome childbirth with grace, as Scarlett was ‘unmanly’ in giving birth. Melanie was picturesque as the perfect little woman who acceded to her husband’s whims and wishes and was an ideal mother and housewife. She was in charge of many affairs and productions and kept the society generally cohesive, even saving Scarlett from her many ‘misdeeds’ time and again and gaining he admittance into quality society.
Women capitulated to the men’s interest: “…but she did not expect life to be easy, and, if it was not happy, that was woman’s lot. It was a man’s world, and she accepted it as such” (74-75). It was not for women at this time to pursue happiness or to have passions, jobs, or autonomy in any sense of the word. The text in further detail explains the role of men and women in the South:
“The man owned the property, and the woman managed it. The man took the credit for the management, and the woman praised his cleverness. The man roared like a bull when a splinter was in his finger, and the woman muffled the moans of childbirth, lest she disturb him. Men were rough of speech and often drunk. Women ignored the lapse of speech and put the drunkards to bed without bitter words. Men were rude and outspoken, women were always kind, gracious and forgiving” (75).
This passage clearly illustrates the dichotomy between men and women at this time. The strictness and the rigidity which made up society is disconcerting. Especially in a tumultuous time when loyalties are fast changing hands and prospects are opening up and men and women’s roles begin to be questioned. So many held fast to these grand ideals, which put Scarlett into a feminist role, albeit unwittingly, and allowed her to pursue her greatest happinesses. To have these ideas instilled in her from birth would help shape the woman she was into the woman she was to become. Melanie, being the saintly female through the novel, embodied all of these qualities. She firmly believed in: “…this happy feminine conspiracy which made Southern society so pleasant. Women knew that a land where men were contented, uncontradicted and safe in possession of unpunctured vanity was likely to be a very pleasant place for women to live” (163). This aligns very nicely with Rousseau’s philosophies on women, for men would also bestow anything upon the ladies except: “…credit for having intelligence” (163). For what woman could have intellect without male help? Thus Scarlett defied this shape of society’s thought by proving she was extremely intelligent and could perform math figures in her head, for ‘math came easily to her’.
The first child Scarlett bore made her quite unseemly in that she did not suffer the childbirth: “But she carried the child through its time with minimum discomfort, bore him with little distress and recovered so quickly that Mammy told her privately it was downright common – ladies should suffer more” (143). This was held starkly against Melanie Wilkes’ agonizing childbirth which nearly cost her very life, and ultimately does claim her life during her second pregnancy.
There was no interest in motherhood for Scarlett, nor was there any interest in any of her marriages beyond what they could do for her – passion was not involved. Scarlett did not particularly care for babies in themselves: “‘Maybe I’ll learn about babies some time,’ she thought irritably, as the carriage jolted and swayed out of the morass surrounding the station, ‘but I’m never going to like fooling with them’” (152). Rousseau deems this depravity: “That obedience and fidelity which she owes to her husband, that care and tenderness which is due to her children, are such natural and affecting consequences of her situation, that unless she is abandoned to habitual depravity, she cannot revolt from those internal principles which influence her conduct; nor mistake her duty, while she retains that propensity which nature has implanted in her bosom” (118). This is to say that Scarlett is an unnatural woman and that it is her duty to her sex to be the ideal wife and mother. For women there is no choice in the matter as it is nature which guides one, and not rational choices.
In an interesting twist that defies contemporary notions, Rhett himself is labeled a vampire indirectly by other men: “I execrate these vampires who are sucking the lifeblood of the men who follow Robert Lee – these men who are making the very name of blockader a stench in the nostrils of all patriotic men” (235). Rhett was eating up the profits and not distributing the wealth. Thus when Scarlett marries him, telling him it is partially for his money, it seems to be a union of vampires.
Mitchell’s Feminism and the Filmic Representation
Margaret Mitchell did not have an easy time of the fame that came crashing down upon her upon the publication and eventual filmic representation of Gone with the Wind In Kovacs article this is brought into sharp relief: “In order to maintain the supremacy of high literature, in which almost all canonized writers were male, female literary achievement should be defined as inferior and trifle. If a book sold well — as it was often the case with women’s novels — it was stamped as flippant, romantic, feminine. When other themes and rhetorics than love and domesticity, emerged in women writers’ novels, the authors could easily provoke to be seen as unfeminine” (Kovacs, 3). Mitchell was no exception to this poor idea of intelligence in the world at the time. She was accused of stealing her husband’s royalties as people made accusations that her husband helped her write it, for: “They said they had felt that no woman could have written such a book …” (Kovacs, 4). Further, it made Mitchell cry when she read this in the newspaper, feeling that she could not accept such a treatment of her work.
Criticism surrounding Southern writing of this time period were that authors like Mitchell would reify Southern myth of womanhood, yet Mitchell distinctly breaks that, showing what it does to those who cling to it, and what it will bring people to if they yield. In Paula Anca Farca’s article “And, You, Miss, Are No Lady: Feminist and Postfeminist Scarlett O’Hara Rethinks the Southern Lady” she sharply credits Mitchell with feminist and postfeminist approbation: “Mitchell teaches her readers that women’s happiness depends on their freedom, strength, public success, marriage, and motherhood” (Farca, 74). Farca further points out: “Mythic and essential, women have no room to create an identity of their own, one that defines themselves beyond patriarchal stereotypes such as the dutiful wife, the saintly mother, the innocent virgin, the beautiful temptress, or the evil witch. Betty Freidan also points out the inequality between genders, and contends that the American wife becomes a patriarchal construction and a frivolous image” (Farca, 74). Scarlett was a full embodiment of these notions at the beginning of the novel, yet by the end she has discredited her upbringing and formed her own personhood.
Mitchell seems to sense the importance and urgency of writing this novel with these fresh feminist themes in mind. Farca finds that: “Mitchell describes Scarlett as an independent and strong woman throughout the novel and, in doing so, she anticipates the feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s. More than that, the author also prefigures the postfeminist movement of the last decades by presenting Scarlett as an attractive and successful woman who engages in a potentially fruitful relationship with her third husband” (Farca, 82).
Women in this era have been posthumously dubbed as ‘passionless’ by Nancy Cott, who goes into great detail about the accepted mode of behavior for women in Scarlett’s time period. To have sexual passion or pleasure was deemed morally reprehensible, and Cott discusses this notion in her introduction: “…to associate the idea that women lacked sexual passion with social repression and dysfunction. Now that attitude has been challenged by the possibility that nineteenth-century sexual ideology held some definite advantages for women, and by the claim that ideology reflected or influenced behavior far less than had been thought” (Cott, 219). Scarlett bucks this theory by assuming passion, in more areas than just sexual and romantic, but boldly lives her life embracing passions and eschewing the labels of the time.
Most of the population of the world that is familiar with Scarlett O’Hara, gets their image and impression of her from the film rather than the epic novel. Thus it is valid to pose the question, is the film more or less sympathetic than the written version? Although most of society gets their impression from the film, the novel lends more time to developing Scarlett’s character and rationalizing her choices. We are lent a much clearer insight into Scarlett’s mind and the functions of her heart. Yet the film depicts a pert, pretty, and dimpled young maiden in flouncing hoopskirts and wearing perfect glossy curls. This representation has also made Scarlett sympathetic to some, and more hateful to others who see only the outward appearance of beauty, and lose the inner grace Scarlett possesses that is illustrated overtly in the novel. We learn to laugh and cry with Scarlett, yet never do we fully embody her, Mitchell at times keeps us at a distance with Scarlett’s selfish choices and behavior. Yet what other young girl, cut off from the world, her friends, her family, and her home would make better choices? Scarlett was a spoiled child who never knew a harsh word, thrust into a harrowing time. What young adult has not made selfish choices? And Scarlett was making them merely to survive! One cannot find fault with the coming of age story that Scarlett tells us, one must merely recognize a woman coming into her own.
The Final Battle Cry
The ultimate punishment comes to Scarlett rather swiftly. She first loses her love for Ashley, the one man she had held in all esteem until then. She loses her heart to Rhett who in turn rejects her. She loses her one and dearest friend in all the world – Melanie Wilkes. And she loses both of her parents – the pieces which make her whole. She does not come out of her ‘loose’ behavior unscathed, yet no other individual’s misdeeds is punished. Kate Chopin’s The Awakening seems to run parallel with Gone with the Wind in many aspects, including the relationship and sickbed between Scarlett-Melanie and Edna-Ratignolle. Although Scarlett is not punished with suicide, she is made miserable, and everything but the land is removed from under her feet. This need to punish the erring female harks back to the vampiric notions and Rousseau’s philosophical bent discussed, for women were seen as disgusting and unclean things there only to serve male needs.
As my peers have said, we shouldn’t aspire to be Scarlett, yet I pose the question – why not? The male opinion of Scarlett even today appears to be born of fear; fear of her success, fear of her supplanting their position, fear of a newly ordered and gendered world. For even in today’s society, equality is nonexistent in the smallest spheres. I believe this is why most women admire Scarlett, yet most men shy away from her. The general consensus floating around Scarlett’s monstrous selfishness, dubbing her slutty yet fun. This is not a portrait of someone moral or upstanding, yet this is not the whole truth of her character as we have clearly seen.Scarlett’s wilful ambition created and ran a business, redeemed and regenerated a plantation, who chose her own sexual partners, and who blossomed under the weight of Reconstruction in the South. These were not simple tasks, yet her mind was bent upon goals that succeeded despite all odds set against her. This is not the product of pure selfishness, but pure single-minded ambition, and an inherent knowledge that something was not quite right with society. The harsh boot steps of the Civil War destroyed some hopes, but rebuilt others. Her passions which may have gone unnoticed in an unchanged South, fanned into flame with the war raging outside her window. We see ultimately that the strong woman cannot be left to remain strong and cannot go unpunished for any crimes committed. This is a typical trope in literature and one in which female rights are defined. Do we look past Scarlett’s accomplishments to see only her selfish nature? Perhaps Margaret Mitchell had smarter and secret ambitions to question Southern ideals and to bring into sharp relief the difference between a free passion-filled woman, and a bound and chained domestic slave scraping before her master, husband. The failed assimilation of Scarlett into Southern society rankled with the old set, and her Southern upbringing was sour in the mouths of the Yankees. There was no place for Scarlett in the new society that formed post-Civil War, and thus we see a young woman coming into her own under even more difficult strains. Others caved in, and still others laced boots up tight and refused to even spit upon a Northerner. Scarlett defied all boundaries and failed to fit in anywhere. Although her assassination was a null point, not thus becoming quite an Edna Pontellier, her character faced assassination in all methods throughout the novel, and to some extent, outside the text.
Despite the garish light Scarlett is placed in, one can see past the misjudgments, the human errors, and the blemishes that mar all humankind to the daring and bold woman who strove to change her life to make her days happy on the earth. Though she did not embrace the notion of motherhood or being a wife, she embraced the role of freedom and independence, and longed to make choices for herself and her future. I think we can indeed strive to be like Scarlett and be happy in the result.
Cott, Nancy F. Passionlessness: An Interpretation of Victorian Sexual Ideology. N.p.: The University of Chicago Press, 1978. Print.
Dijkstra, Bram. Evil Sisters: The Threat of Female Sexuality and the Cult of Manhood. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.
Farca, Paula A. “And, You, Miss, Are No Lady: Feminist and Postfeminist Scarlett O’Hara Rethinks the Southern Lady.” Southern Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of the South 14.1 (2007). Print.
Kovacs, Krisztina L. “Authoress and Businesswoman: Success, Money and Gender in Gone with the Wind.” E-journal of American Studies in Hungary 7.2 (2011). Print.
Lippard, George. The Bride. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.
Mitchell, Margaret. Gone with the Wind. New York: Scribner, 1936. Print.
Gone with the Wind – the film
Rousseau, Jean-Jacque. Sophia. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.