So, this weekend I was lucky enough to snag tickets to see Gone With the Wind on the big screen with a friend and we completely enjoyed ourselves. But, it amused me to scroll through one of my feeds later and find someone perplexed as to what the actual plot was about – it’s about a woman chasing something that doesn’t exist, and finding she doesn’t want it after all, after she has wasted her chances. It’s kind of a parallel to the Old South being romantically idealized and “gone with the wind.” (As Rhett winds up “gone with the wind.”)

Which got me to thinking about dreams. How we usually have them, but they may not be what we really want – we may get there and realize, like Scarlett does, that she was chasing a fantasy and not the truth. The Ashley she loved wasn’t the Ashley that existed – it took her falling in love with Rhett and Melanie’s death to realize (too late for her marriage) that she loved the idea of Ashley, but not Ashley himself.

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Ashley has been one of those characters I have waffled over for decades. On the one hand, he shows incredible strength of character and moral fortitude – as Rhett says, Ashley can’t be faithful to his wife mentally, but he can’t be unfaithful to her physically. Scarlett throws herself at him, time and again, and except for a few imprudent kisses, he managed not to fall into her bed. But, he can also be spineless – allowing the women in his life to bully him into doing things he doesn’t feel are right (going to Atlanta to work for Scarlett knowing she carries a torch for him after his wife objects to him “abandoning” Scarlett; then caving to her refusal to hire freed slaves instead of convicts; his continual teeter-totter of “I love you but I don’t” as regards Scarlett, etc). I remember on a hayride once, a nice boy told me he admired Ashley and I’m afraid I stared at him open-mouthed and demanded, “WHY???” Being older than sixteen has given me more sympathy for him (a romantic-idealist thrust into war and suffering from post-traumatic stress) but… he is the shrinking violet against the blunt, humor-filled, no-nonsense tactics of Rhett, a lovable scoundrel.

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Rhett, who shows up after the burial of Scarlett’s second husband to propose, in a grandiose gesture of comedic, irreverent heights (“I can’t keep waiting to catch you between husbands”), who is so tender with his daughter, who would meet Scarlett halfway if she would only cease her stubbornness and admit to her true feelings. But who has had enough by the end, and walks away. Rhett isn’t perfect. He’s immoral. He makes no secret of it. And yet, we like him, or at least I do. If a moral version of Rhett (the same boldness, protectiveness, sense of humor, and of course, beautiful eyes) wanted to sweep into my life tomorrow, I wouldn’t put up an argument. But one of the things I like most about him is how he treats Melanie.

Sometimes, I think people get all the way through the book or movie before realizing Melanie is its heroine, or at least, its ideal. She is far from being a wimp. She intended to hack an intruder to death if necessary to protect herself and her loved ones. She allows Ashley’s reputation to be demoralized to save his life. She stands up for Scarlett again and again, choosing to believe the best in her, when all evidence pointed the other way. You could call her a dishrag for being used so much, or you can admire her strength of character. Because nothing about it was fake. She meant it. That’s why Rhett liked her so much. Out of everyone he knew, against the shrewd tactics of Scarlett, he knew she alone meant her kindness. She meant what she said to Belle, the local prostitute. She meant what she said to Scarlett, when she welcomed her into her home after a potential scandal with Ashley. She meant what she said to Rhett, every time she opened her mouth.

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I have spent years trying to figure out how to be a good person. Looking for people to emulate. And you do not get much more genuinely “good” than Melanie. It reminds me of the old saying, “You can talk the talk, but not walk the walk,” and “It’s not your words that people learn from, it’s your actions.” Melanie’s words always lined up with her actions, and that is why Scarlett looked up to her even while hating her in the book (she knew Melanie was “good”), and what Ashley most loved about her, and what made Rhett so kind to her, where he was irreverent to and skeptical of other people. It’s not how you treat a friend at lunch that people remember; it’s how you treat your waiter. Melanie in every way, embodied a divine love to Scarlett – believing the best in her, defending her, loving her in spite of herself. She loved Scarlett with a love purer than Rhett’s or Ashley’s. When she fell away from them by dying, the rest of  them fell apart. Their illusions shattered. And they saw, by comparison, the shallowness of their own former feelings.

Many things make this movie and story a classic. But Melanie is, in some ways, its soul.