I have a confession to make. I have never read Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. I tried reading it, but found the first few pages impenetrable and long, so I dropped it. Miss W is a great reader, however, if a book doesn’t hook her straight away she will stop reading without any remorse. Miss W’s loved ones joke that she should have the Guinness record for most books started and never finished. Occasionally I will go back to a book that I previously dropped and start again.
I generally read books and then watch the film, as everyone knows the book is usually better, but last night I reversed my rule and I watched Gone with the Wind.
Over the years I have heard many references to Scarlett O’Hara as one of the great heroines of modern literature, but I never bothered to find out why. Maybe if I had read the book or watched the film sooner I might have learnt a thing or two from Miss O’Hara!
Contains spoilers from here…
This 1939 film is set in Georgia in 1861, and opens on Tara, the O’Hara family plantation. Scarlett, played by Vivien Leigh, is an impetuous, spoiled and self-centred sixteen year old. Outwardly she is a sweet Southern belle, but she is unique in that she is strong and intelligent, and although she acts empty-headed and girlishly, she knows she is only doing it to suit her own purposes.
Scarlett is in love with her neighbour Ashley Wilkes. However, Ashley is engaged to his delicate cousin Melanie Hamilton. Ashley refuses Scarlett’s daring advances at a barbecue party, while Rhett Butler, an older lothario played by Clark Gable, watches the scene. He later complements Scarlett on not behaving like a lady.
Ashley walks away from Scarlett and instead marries Melanie. Scarlett marries Charles Hamilton, Melanie’s brother in an attempt to spite Ashley. The American Civil War breaks out and all the men are drafted. Hamilton soon dies and leaves Scarlett a young widow.
Scarlett soon recovers from her loss and moves to Atlanta to stay with Melanie Wilkes in an attempt to be near Ashley when he comes home from the front. There, she ends up spending time with Rhett Butler. When the Yankee army takes Atlanta, Rhett helps Scarlett and Melanie escape. Scarlett drives the cart with Melanie and her baby in the back all the way to Tara. She finds the plantation has been ransacked, her mother is dead and her father has lost her mind. Scarlett rebuilds Tara alone and swears that she will never go hungry again. Here is the inspirational scene from the film.
This scene made me think of this famous WWII poster encouraging women to work and support the war effort.
I love Scarlett’s determination and fierceness. She roles up her sleeves and sets to picking cotton and carrying pales of water, and even shoots a Yankee intruder in order to save her family’s property. Scarlett simultaneously uses her feminine charms and her cold blooded determination to succeed. She doesn’t sit around waiting for the men in her life to make it easy for her as was the custom at the time. She realises that no one can rescue you but yourself, and she takes responsibility for what is hers.
On a trip into Atlanta to get money to pay Yankee taxes on Tara, she bumps into Frank Kennedy, her sister Suellen’s fiancé, who is now running a shop and a saw mill. Scarlett sees an opportunity to prosper and promptly marries him and convinces him to write her a cheque to cover the taxes.
The war finishes, and Scarlett becomes a shrewd business woman, associating with Yankees, using convict labour and doing whatever she must to make money. She ignores all social conventions by running the business herself, and riding alone. I love that about Scarlett. She doesn’t give a damn about what people around her think of her. She does what she wants without sticking to what is expected of her. I think if more of us thought less about what society expects and more about what we actually want to do, we’d be a happier bunch.
Eventually, Scarlett’s husband dies and Rhett Butler comes back into the picture. He convinces her to marry him. She does, as she thinks it is “fun” and together they make even more money. They have a daughter, Bonnie, who is spoiled in every possible way. They lose Bonnie in a riding accident and also lose another baby. This is when Rhett and Scarlett’s relationship deteriorates. Although Rhett reaches out to her Scarlett is emotionally distant and still in love with Ashley.
Melanie falls ill, and when Scarlett goes to see her on her deathbed she realises that although she thought she loved Ashley, she really loves Rhett. Scarlett realises she has been chasing a chimera all this time.
The end of the film is impossibly tragic as Rhett leaves her. Scarlett decides to return to Tara and tries to recover her relationship with Rhett.
Despite the old fashioned and racist values displayed in this film, there are several themes that really struck me. Firstly the transformation we all go through from spoilt children to taking responsibility for our actions and for our lives. When things go wrong for us it is very easy to want to blame others and shirk our responsibilities. Miss W is an expert at shirking responsibility at times!
Female strength – Scarlett O’Hara is feminine yet strong. She uses all her strength and intelligence to better her situation, and is cunning and manipulative with the men around her. Although manipulating men is probably not a strength to be admired, I do like the way that she goes against the gender expectations and inequality of the time and fights for herself. Scarlett overcomes adversity through sheer willpower. She becomes tough and coarse, but maybe sometimes that is required to succeed?
The importance of land is also a theme running through this story. At the beginning of the film, Gerald, Scarlett’s father says,
“Do you mean to tell me, Katie Scarlett O’Hara, that Tara, that land, doesn’t mean anything to you? Why, land is the only thing in the world worth workin’ for, worth fightin’ for, worth dyin’ for, because it’s the only thing that lasts.”
Although ‘the land’ is a romantic concept for many of us that live in cities nowadays, I can totally relate to this. At this point I am at risk of launching into a nationalistic spiel about why I am in favour of Catalan independence, but I will just say that I have the same feeling towards my land as the sentiment that Gerald describes here.
The final thing that struck me is how Scarlett is so enamoured of Ashley Wilkes, and she misses the opportunity at happiness with Rhett Butler, probably her true love. Maybe a great love is just an idea. Maybe your ideal guy is not really the ideal man for you? The idea of someone can snatch you up and consume your soul, but maybe this is not real.
Scarlett O’Hara might not be considered as the best role model, she is selfish, manipulative and childish, but at the same time I love her rebellious streak, her passion and determination and the way she doesn’t conform to the society around her. After watching the film I may reconsider and go back and read the book!