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Reconsidering Gone With the Wind

Looking back at the classic tale of Scarlett O'Hara and the American South.

MGM Studios

Her name, O’Hara, is deliberately Irish. Her Irishness is to be associated with impetuosity, wild courage, low class and the ability to lie charmingly. All these Scarlett has and does, though not once in the movie does she refer to her Irish heritage. She pretends to no ancestry other than Tara. Her father, played by Thomas Mitchell, is the stock Irishman of the piece, speaking as no Irishman has ever spoken and showering himself in as many Irishisms as the plot allows. He dies mad, on his horse. We learn from his tombstone that he was born in County Wicklow, made famous by J.M. Synge who incidentally wrote of the mad in Wicklow, and of other riders thrown from their horses.

O’Hara does provide one key to Scarlett, however. At the outset of the movie when Scarlett is frantic having learned that “her” Ashley Wilkes is about to announce his engagement to Melanie Hamilton, she disclaims interest in her homestead. Her father, dismayed, tells her that there is nothing as lasting as land, nothing as important to an Irishman. This, of course, is true as the themes of most Irish plays testify. He tells her this as the camera rises showing Scarlett and the lovely land before her, an effect that is repeated later when the land before Scarlett is covered with dead and dying Confederate soldiers.

When her father has died, Scarlett vows to protect the land. She cultivates crops with her bare hands and makes her reluctant sisters do likewise. They do not know what Scarlett knows, that the land means money. Earlier Scarlett returned to Tara to find her father crazed and her mother dead. Her Ashley, married to Melanie, is at war. Her beautiful clothing is gone, as are the gracious Southern parties. Good talk is gone. Even the skies are not golden anymore. But when she stumbles into the fields, she finds a potato growing. She gags on it, in the obvious discovery of her own roots. Standing in the middle of her land, she vows never to go hungry again. By this point Scarlett has done some changing. No longer content to capture the heart of every man in the county, she wants the county.

There is reason to suspect that she can get what she wants. Scarlett does not merely live by her imagination; she controls reality by her imagination. She literally does not see what she will not see—thus she first sees the soldier’s amputation when she is to participate as nurse; then she turns away so that she does not see it, and leaves her duty. Nor does she listen to what she will not know. Her boyfriends talk of impending war, but Scarlett will not hear of it, and threatens to go inside the house if they persist. She will not bear of Melanie’s friendship, which she wishes not to exist. She will not hear of Lee’s surrender.

But Scarlett is seen and heard by all. Wherever she goes she is the center of attention and activity because she is stunningly beautiful (more beautiful in Vivien Leigh than in Margaret Mitchell’s heroine), and because she wishes herself to be noticed, and by imagining her own centrality, creates it. When the sisters complain to mother, they complain about Scarlett. When Scarlett overhears the local girls whisper on the stairs of the Wilkes mansion, they are talking about Scarlett. All gossip is of Scarlett. When Scarlett walks through the streets, men mutter. When she rides through Shantytown, men claw at her. At a dance Rhett Butler “bids” for her, offering the highest amount for Scarlett O’Hara Hamilton, the elaborately outrageous merry widow.

Who, after all, could not help noticing the color scarlet, or Rhett (red?) Butler? Yet, although Rhett occasionally can overpower Scarlett, he can never outdazzle her. He knows this. He loves her not because they are so much alike, but because she is better and brighter at their common game. They both seek power, but compared to Scarlett, Rhett is an amateur. For all his avowed practicality, he is as wistful as they come. For all her avowed romanticism, Scarlett is absolutely clearheaded.

She is most clearheaded about her own romanticism. Agreeing to marry Melanie’s brother in order to retaliate for Ashley’s wedding, she is aware of her falsehood. She does not wish to hurt Ashley by this hasty decision, but to prove something to him; that she has a will of iron, one capable of superintending impulses. Ashley is correct when he contrasts Scarlett’s fortitude to his weakness. When Scarlett finally does give up on Ashley, she is painfully exasperated because he could not be made strong enough to be worthy of her.

Slowly we begin to become aware of the size and force of Scarlett’s mind. She is able to think Ashley into becoming someone who deserves her. She is able to think her way into having husbands, property, wealth, gaiety, her own strength. Yet she is neither contemplative nor plotting. She gets what she wants by the massive exertion of mind over matter. She manufactures her world piece by piece. There is a physical outer world disintegrating about her; she simply will not stand for it.

Scarlett is not the fatal woman of the European romantics, not Carmen or incarnations of Cleopatra and Helen of Troy. Men would die for her, and do, not because they are spellbound by the softness of Scarlett’s skin, but by her will. Her will provides the only erotic element in the movie. Possessing Scarlett’s body is not difficult; possessing her spirit is the light that draws the lovers.

Meanwhile Rhett Butler swaggers in and out of her life, feigning to bear reality. The most important thing about Rhett is that he is played by Clark Gable. Anyone with less handsome a grin would have been seen through at once, but this Rhett manages to keep the truth from us for a long time: that he is a fool and near imbecile. Where there is a grandstand stunt to be pulled, there is Rhett bidding $150 in gold for his lady love. Where there is a banality to be expressed there too is Rhett, his massive pop culture conscience having caught up with him as he suddenly wishes to catch up with his Confederate comrades. “I don’t like fighting for a lost cause until it’s really lost,” explains Rhett. And when Scarlett’s other gallant gentlemen have all departed, who is still hanging around but Rhett who, mocking the others for their futile persistence, has outbid them all?

Rhett directs his own scenes. He pretends to play to Scarlett’s passion for melodrama when he is about to join the war. Kiss a departing soldier, he tells her; not Rhett, but a movie hero going into battle. Scarlett kisses neither Rhett nor the melodrama. The scene is Rhett’s. He is ever making comments such as “at this point” or “now” when he is alone with Scarlett, as if he is blocking out his own ardor. Rhett is incapable of not looking intensely amused or intensely troubled. He must always prove to someone outside himself that he is feeling something.

But Scarlett is equally intensely uninterested. She is not attracted to Rhett; Rhett is an essential ingredient of her maturity, as in fact are all the men in Scarlett’s life: the Hamilton boy whom she marries first who is innocence; Frank Kennedy whom she marries next, who is business and finance; and finally Rhett who is experience and vitality. Scarlett’s monogram changes accordingly: from surprise (S.O.H.) to stability (S.O.K.) to savvy (S.O.B.). She marries none of her husbands out of love, only practical need. Her love, she says, she reserves for Ashley, who is to her as she is to Rhett. At one point she vainly uses Rhett’s own language of seduction on Ashley, absurdly begging him to flee with her to Mexico.

Ashley is the constant in her life, her fixed star. Scarlett is always married twice simultaneously: to innocence and Ashley; to money and Ashley; to power and Ashley. Ashley is constant because he is a version of history and tradition, specifically nostalgia. As he too often acknowledges, he represents the old, dead world. There is nothing to indicate that Scarlett could be content in such a world—Rhett rightly tells her so—yet she clings to the idea of Ashley nevertheless, because she needs nostalgia. That too is essential. Like Margaret Mitchell herself she knows nothing of the past but that it is “gone.” In her conventional mind that fact alone makes it valuable.

On all levels Gone with the Wind is the most conventional of pictures. The O’Haras’ black Mammy is everybody’s black mammy, a little of Faulkner’s Dilsey, a little more of Hattie McDaniel’s “Beulah” (the radio character whom McDaniel later became) full of folk wisdom, stamina, common sense and character pseudoanalysis. Butterfly McQueen as Prissy the cowardly scatterbrain is similarly stereotyped, a female Mantan Moreland. Melanie Hamilton Wilkes is dutiful, resourceful, saccharine and kind, and shows no sign of ever being otherwise. Scarlett’s silly sisters are as silly as we would wish them to be; Rhett is as dashing; Ashley as melancholy; the ladies of the town as gossipy; the young men as reckless, and so forth. There is something suspicious in this. Why should these people be so extraordinarily true to form?

They are not merely true to form but are gross exaggerations of the forms they represent. Clark Gable does not simply flash his sardonic grin; he is his grin, and nothing more. Similarly Ashley is his sighing, Melanie her virtue. There is a telling point in that scene at the start ofthe movie when O’Hara displays his Tara before Scarlett, The camera rises and backs up to frame the scene with the side of a huge tree. This is accompanied by the theme music making an enormous crescendo. If you had walked in on that scene, you would think it was the end of the picture. Like the characters, the tableau is allegorical, an exaggeration, a “humor” of itself.

Because they are so exaggerated, the movie’s conventions become unconventional. They are bigger and more consistent than we ever would expect them to be. Among and through them walks Scarlett, who is bigger yet: she who is conventional in essence, and the more so for being tagged by the others as rebellious. Meanwhile none of the other figures is in the slightest way transformed by Scarlett’s presence. Instead what she does is to bring out, heighten and clarify their characteristics, as no one in the movie is ever quite as much himself as he is with Scarlett.

She goes her own way to the end. Riches and a comfortable marriage to Rhett mean no more to her than her former poverty. She is no more or less Scarlett when she wants or when she has. At the end she has pursued Ashley once too often, and Melanie learns the truth. Yet when Melanie dies, and Ashley might be Scarlett’s at last, despite his protests, Scarlett gives up under the pretext that she now believes that Ashley really did love Melanie after all. It clearly is a pretext. Scarlett never did want to marry Ashley; she sought what he could offer, which was not only the past, but the cognizance of death. His name is Ashley, a man like the dead.

When Scarlett Butler throws herself at Ashley for the last time, which is the moment when it becomes clear even to Rhett that Scarlett does not care for him, Scarlett is most brilliantly herself. At Rhett’s goading she wears a dazzling scarlet gown to a tea at the Wilkes. To Rhett such a dress is the standard emblem of adultery, but to Scarlett this is her confirmation gown, the cloth and color of her astounding pride in being the only nonhypocrite of the story. Rhett’s cool and swagger disguise his vapidity, particularly from himself. Ashley’s “traditions” did the same for him. But Scarlett is never disguised nor self-deceived. She knows what she wants, though what she wants is “tomorrow” and elusive.

With her self-assertion she reaches what are commonly called “mythic proportions.” Yet she is not a god in the mythic sense; she makes no judgments about her creations, and is thoroughly unconcerned with her world. Rather her immense size and power derive from her concentrations inward. Scarlett never leaves Scarlett for a moment. She is solely preoccupied with herself—not with her individual ups or downs, her looks or feelings, but with her whole contained existence.

I believe there is only one brief scene in those three hours and 45 minutes in which Scarlett does not appear (the “quittin’ time” scene in the fields). If Gone with the Wind were intended as an epic, that imbalance would be impossible. We would need to know what was going on in the legislatures, in the battlefields, in the hospitals, and so forth, apart from Scarlett. In terms of dramatic effectiveness such excursions would explain Scarlett more thoroughly. But Scarlett has no need for excursions or for exposition. She is the epic.

Because she is all action, Scarlett takes us back to a civilization gone with the wind: antebellum, ante-Darwin, ante-Freud. We take to her not because we feel that one can and should live only the surfaces, but because we realize that it is in fact impossible. Watching Scarlett and only Scarlett hour upon hour is like watching magic: a set of interlocking rings that miraculously dissolve, a glass of water turned to confetti, a dove in a man’s hand. In the instance of Scarlett, the trick is character.

At the start of the country, as at the start of Gone with the Wind, hopes were high, resources were infinite, and the end of good times was not in sight. When our various wars of mind and body arrived, as with Gone with the Wind, promise gave way to reality. In response we invented illusion, the means by which we teamed to live with promise brought low by reality: minstrel shows, circuses, and movies most of all. Scarlett is an illusion brought to us by an illusion. When she consoles herself that tomorrow is another day, she means promise, but we only hear illusion. Of course, tomorrow is another day; that is exactly what it is.

What Scarlett could just as well have said is, “tomorrow, be another day.” She could have stood at the door of her house and shouted an order. It is certain to have been carried out. Tomorrow would have complied and been at Scarlett’s door bright and early, just as surely as if Scarlett had cupped her hands to her mouth and ordered a ham and cheese, easy on the mayo. For Scarlett is the muse of ham and cheese, the all-American fatal woman with the soul of a perky car-hop.

“I never liked Scarlett,” Vivien Leigh said once. “I knew it was a marvelous part, but I never cared for her.” That is probably why she played the part so well—precisely because Scarlett did not care for herself either. In many ways she is too much to care for; an amalgam of popular wishes poured into a cliché—a Southern belle, a Hollywood star—who is not likeable because she is too grand for such considerations. We took our car-hop, dressed her in a hoop skirt, and set up a trust fund. We gave her everything we had: the daughter of Rosie O’Grady, hard-hearted Hannah, the girl that I marry, the girl of my dreams.