My father once told me it is better to want what you don’t have than have what you don’t want. However true that statement may be, it is also dark-haired Katie Scarlett’s greatest weakness. She endlessly wants what she cannot have and then in obtaining it, discovers she did not want it after all. It is what makes her one of the most frustrating, self-centered and morally askew heroines in the history of literature. Which is why you either love her (as I do) or hate her (as most of my friends do). Scarlett O’Hara represents something that exists in all of us, only we are too proud to admit it: our vices, our base nature, our instinctive desires and most of all, our fully human and self-destructive tendencies.
The story revolves around a spirited, selfish young heroine who wants with all her heart a man she cannot have – the poetic dreamer, Ashley Wilks. Her determination to win him over even after his marriage to the quiet, mild-mannered Melanie plays out against the horrors of the Civil War. Standing in the wings observing from afar is the unrepentant rake, Rhett Butler — Scarlett’s soul mate, and second self, a man who understands “her sort” and admires her for it. When eventually she discovers that her obsession with Ashley has blinded her to his faults, it is too late for her to make a life with Rhett, who leaves her with those famous last words: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”
Considered the most classic piece of American literature in our nation’s history, what is it about the themes of Gone with the Wind that resonate with such a huge audience? Certainly, at the time it was written, people could identify with the humiliation and destruction of the South, as it was not too many years after the Great Depression that they had forgotten what it was like to face extreme poverty and hopelessness. The notion of a resourceful young woman forced to undertake the tremendous weight of family and fiscal responsibility and do whatever she can to keep them protected and fed, as well as to pay exorbitant taxes on Tara, compels the audience into admiration for her courage. Most of us, when faced with such extreme struggles, would hope to emulate her determination (but not her actions).
Then there is the romantic nature of the central couple — the notion that adoration for an uncaring, disinterested Scarlett transforms the unruly, immoral Rhett into a responsible, respectable husband and father. His tenderness with his daughter Bonnie and his sweetness to Melanie reminds the reader he is a man of deep moral convictions – he merely chooses not to follow them. Rhett, much like Scarlett, is the anti-hero of the story, the charming but honest rake to her more manipulative temptress. They are a perfect match, but he is blatant in his faults while she attempts to conceal them. Rhett is not afraid to admit who and what he is and if Scarlett had been worthy of guiding him, would have made a transition into goodness. In some respects, Rhett is nearer to salvation than Scarlett, because he knows he is a sinner. So does Scarlett, but she attempts to justify her actions with excuses.
Perhaps it is the brutal honesty of her character that shocks us, because she is unflinchingly sincere in her faults and shameless in her actions. Scarlett is not your typical heroine. Her actions are not admirable, ranging from multiple marriages (none of them for love) to constant attempts to seduce Ashley away from his wife. Deeper in her nature is an understandable fear of extreme poverty – having experienced it once, she becomes determined never to be penniless again and this fanaticism almost costs her life (and does claim the life of her second husband, Frank). Her actions and business tactics insult and shame Ashley and alienate her from most of their Southern friends.
One thing I like about the book is that Scarlett is not without a conscience. The movie never shows her regret over her numerous morally askew actions but in the novel we experience her sincere anguish and guilt as she wonders what her devoutly Catholic mother would think of her. Deep down, Scarlett wishes she could be good like Melanie but can never quite manage it – and because of this, and her inability to fully appreciate Rhett, she winds up alone. It is a terrible price to pay but the story could not have ended any other way, because self-destructive behavior eventually imposes a forced solitude. The reader is left to decide if Scarlett has truly lost everything, or if she can win Rhett back and have a second chance at happiness. Whichever ending you choose, the lessons contained therein are not soon forgotten.
The admirable qualities of “Katie Scarlett” as her eccentric Irish father lovingly calls her are her perseverance, courage, and determination. The term “only the strong survive” aptly describes this feisty woman who, unlike many other humiliated Southerners, refuses to lose her self-respect. Her creativity and intelligence is admirable even if one cannot condone her actions. One of her greater virtues is the ability to see her own faults, contrasted with her improving opinion of Melanie. Over the course of the story, Scarlett comes to see her in a new light. At first Melanie is a nuisance, the woman “in the way” of Scarlett obtaining what she truly wants, then a burden, an “almost-friend” and source of constant moral support, and finally, a source of inspiration.
Melanie and Scarlett are extreme opposites – one a woman of endless forgiveness who cannot bear to think ill of anyone, especially those she loves, and the spoiled, self-centered, ruthless girl who obtains all she desires only to lose it through her own foolishness. Was the contrast intentional? It seems likely that it was. Only when I was older could I fully appreciate the differences of their characters and the underlining message that while Scarlett may be the focus of the story, Melanie is its moral conscience, its heart, and most importantly, its soul.