Scarlett O’Hara is one of literature and film’s most memorable characters. Unscrupulous, scheming, self-centered, and in all ways, a selfish brat, she nevertheless manages to save her family from starvation after the Civil War ravages the deep south. In the process, she thrusts happiness away from her with both hands, because she persists on pining after the “man that got away,” Ashley Wilkes, instead of appreciating the man she eventually had, Rhett Butler.
Though in many ways an extremely logical woman who can see potential wherever it lies (in expanding a lumber business, in using criminals for labor instead of paying wages, etc), Scarlett has a raging blind spot when it comes to Ashley. It’s more about the fact that she lost him to a girl she cannot stand, Melanie, than it is about Ashley himself. Scarlett, before the war, was used to being the most sought-after Belle around. She even ate on the ground at the local barbeque, because “a girl hasn’t got but two sides to her at a table,” meaning if she isn’t at one, she can have a dozen beaus at her beck and call.
And it annoyed the living daylights out of her that Ashley wasn’t among them. Ashley, a diehard romantic, an idealist, and a deep melancholic, is about as far from Scarlett as a man can get. He is all doe-eyed poetry and sentiment, where she is all business and ambition. As Rhett says, Ashley is a coward, because he can’t bring himself to be faithful to his wife mentally (while he lusts after Scarlett), but won’t allow himself to cheat on her physically. The unhappy pair wind up wasting their mental energies on each other, while being involved with other people. Ashley really does love Melanie, but is cheating her out of his total, pure focus, because some part of him lusts after Scarlett, a woman he has idolized as a feminine ideal—a charming extroverted woman who can wrap men around her little finger. “You have all their hearts,” tells her. “You don’t need mine, though you’ve always had it.”
In a way, the story illustrates how neither person is seeing the reality of their ‘ideal.’ Ashley isn’t willing to face the terrible truth about Scarlett, that she is selfish and callous, willing to run away from everyone who needs her just to secure her own happiness on a whim. And Scarlett has never truly seen Ashley for his real self, either. She has idolized him in her mind as more virtuous than he is, with purer and less selfish motives than hers… when in reality, if she took off her blinders, she would consider him weak and insipid. His emotional decisions chafe against her pragmatism. He mopes and cries and sulks and longs and doesn’t live in the real world, as she comes to find out at the end, when he dissolves into ‘nothing’ without his wife. It’s not until she can have him, and he will become ‘real’ to her, that Scarlett realizes she doesn’t want him anymore, and by then… it’s too late. Rhett has decided to leave.
Rhett has meanwhile wanted Scarlett from the moment he saw her, in the Biblical sense. And he knows that unscrupulous as she is, she would never consider an affair with him that would ruin her reputation, so he marries her just to get the chance to bed her. He lavishes and adores her, gives her everything she wants, and delights in her, but feels continual frustration that she persists in ignoring him in favor if her dream of Ashley. She even attempts to bar him from her room for awhile so she can live in chaste solitary with Ashley, who cannot touch his wife for fear she might die with her next pregnancy. And when he carries her off to ravish her in the middle of the night, in a drunken rage, he feels such embarrassment the next morning that his shame causes Scarlett to turn cold. She wanted to welcome him in delight, since he had made her truly happy the next before… and instead, they wind up quarreling, and separated. And their prospective happy reunion is ruined when Scarlett treats him poorly, after finding out she’s pregnant. He dodges her slap and she miscarries the child after a terrible fall down the stairs. Another chance missed. She only wants him when he’s decided to leave, and he tells her “I don’t give a damn,” when she begs him to stay and asks what she will do with her life.
Gone with the Wind is many things. An epic. A controversial story. An Oscar-award winning film. A story about selfish people, who all cannot focus on the person next to them in order to love them, and who wind up alone. Ashley loses Melanie to childbirth, because they wanted each other in a romantic way. He loses Scarlett too, when she realizes he isn’t who she thought he was and that he never truly loved her, just his wife. Rhett loses Scarlett to daydreams, and she loses Rhett because he has grown tired of waiting for her to realize she loves him. His love has grown cold, just as hers has begun to spark. They are, in every way, the definition of an unhappy circle of people caught up in miseries of their own making.
I wrote this post in participation of The Unhappy Valentines Blog-A-Thon. Please click the link for more entries.