Margaret Mitchell begins the initial statement of one of the world’s best selling novels with, “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it…” If Scarlett, with her pure green eyes, black lashes, dark hair and ivory skin was not beautiful, then it is hard not to imagine that she must have been at the very least quite attractive and attracting. Scarlett’s looks reflect those of Mitchell herself. The novel begins with Scarlett, at her family’s plantation, Tara, on the front porch, gossiping with two twin beaux of hers, the tall red headed Tarletons.
Scarlett was bred to be a lady and to catch a husband. Wealthy Southern women during the mid 1800s were expected to be ladies and businesswomen. As soon as their coming of age, at about 15 or 16, they could be wed and running plantations of 100 persons or more including husband, children, slaves and personal staff.
Though, on the day of the start of a Georgian summer, the sixteen year old Scarlett is thinking less about the ins and outs of plantation life as she is about Ashley Wilkes, (the man, women of the novel seem to have a crush on though, as a reader, I simply find him annoying). Ashley is tall, with large grey dove like eyes and blond hair. He sports the rare affiliation among Southern aristocrats: a Harvard education. Ashley; with his books, poetry and dreams. The most likeable quality about Ashley is his admitted imperviousness toward reality. He sees the world around him, and neither likes nor dislikes the people in it. He simply prefers the beauty of his music and his books and after doing a once about gaze toward life, shrugs then returns to his most natural element; a world of dreams. Reality just isn’t his thing.
Scarlett and Ashley have nothing in common other than they are exact opposites. Scarlett can never understand Ashley’s wisdom nor his poetry. Though, he seems to understand her perfectly well. Which is why he decides not to marry her. Scarlett is not the type to have affairs, at least she never does throughout the entire 1023 page novel, but she does attract attention wherever she goes. And Ashley needs the quiet comfort of someone who he knows would be all about him, the constancy within a wife, who he can depend on as a woman to him, though he lacks manly capabilities, in a man’s world. This woman of his chosen suit is also his cousin, Melanie Hamilton.
Melanie with her large brown eyes, small bust and small hipped figure, resembles a Calvin Klein waif of a beauty. She never fully develops her figure and for women at the time this is no more of a dilemma for child bearing than for small hipped women today. It simply makes it harder to carry and birth a child when a woman's hips are too small. And not only harder, but more medically dangerous. Despite her physical setbacks, Melanie does understand Ashley in a way Scarlett never could. Melanie can share with Ashley and support him and his perspective of the world, in the manner of no other woman.
Though, she dreams of Ashley, Scarlett, could literally have any beaux in the county. In the next three counties for that matter. Scarlett’s overall attitude toward men is predatory, calculating and expansive. She sports a post corset, 17-inch waist, a developed bust and the curves to match. Wherever Scarlett went, so did the men.
Scarlett is not one to trouble herself with thoughts toward books. Libraries depress her. She enjoys people, the country and open air. It is hard not to fall in love with Scarlett by the end of the first page. For Scarlett is neither a man nor a woman. She is Scarlett. She is herself. It is likely the state of Scarlett’s universal appeal that makes Gone With the Wind one of the most widely read novels of all time.
From her French aristocrat mother, she inherits her penchant for math. For adding up numbers quietly and favorably. From her Irish father, Scarlett inherits her spirit, including her love for land.
When her mother, Ellen Robillard, prize daughter of an elite Savannah family, tall, of beauty and graceful, agreed to marry Gerald O’Hara, the plucky self made Irish man 28 years her senior and a head shorter, Gerald simply could not believe his luck.
“That was the year when Gerald O’Hara…came into her life-the year too, when youth and her black eyed cousin, Phillipe Robillard, went out of it. For when Phillipe, with his snapping eyes and his wild ways, left Savannah forever, he took with him all the glow that was in Ellen’s heart and left for the bandy legged Irish man who married her, only a gentle shell. But that was enough for Gerald, overwhelmed at his unbelievable luck in actually marrying her. And if anything was gone from her, he never missed it.”
Their love affair is one of marked humor and infinite sadness. Ellen found it to be a man’s world and she listened to Gerald drone on about politics, raised her daughters with care, fed and clothed an entire plantation, smelled of lemon verbena sachet; and was the perfect martyr in every way. She never really loved her husband, yet it never mattered that she didn’t. Her dying words were for “Phileep! Phileep!” But God, did Gerald love her.
For when the Civil War came and Ellen, always caring for others, was unable to pull through Gerald quite simply lost his mind. “He would never be any different and now Scarlett realized the truth and accepted it without emotion-that until he died Gerald would always be waiting for Ellen, always listening for her. He was in some dim borderline country where time was standing still and Ellen was always in the next room. The main spring of his existence was taken away when she died and with it had gone his bounding assurance, his impudence and his rest-less vitality. Ellen was the audience before which the blustering drama of Gerald O’Hara had been played. Now the curtain had been rung down forever, the footlights dimmed and the audience suddenly vanished, while the stunned old actor remained on his empty stage, waiting for his cues.” (The mental image of Gerald O’Hara, the bandy legged Irishman, on his dark empty stage listening for a cue that will never come will forever break my heart.)
And the moral of this heartrending love story? Do not ever actually need anybody. For to need is to run the risk of one becoming a daft wandering fool. Scarlett inherits from her mother a certain quality- she utilizes chimeras, muses for her love, while caring less about those who are actually around her.
Scarlett, is the opposite of the sad little match girl, and is made for survival in every manner. She is born into a loving family and has a small waist, large hips, full breasts, never catches ill easily, recovers from births quickly and has never once actually needed anyone in her whole life. When she needs a husband Scarlett marries one. She never once actually needs the husband, himself.
Her first husband is Charles Hamilton, Melanie’s brother, who she marries out of spite, since Ashley is marrying Melanie. Charles does love Scarlett, though, she does not seem to care that he does. He proposes to her while at a Twelve Oaks barbecue on the eve of the Civil War, and when he does, he gives her the most pure and noble look from his brown soft eyes, that Scarlett ever has or ever will receive from a man. Though, Scarlett does not realize this. She merely equates his ethereal gaze to that of a dying calf, and a swift calculation plays in her head. Then that is it. She thinks nothing more about it.
Scarlett’s first husband gives her Wade, named after a general as was popular in those days. She cannot believe she is a mother and has no particular natural motherly instincts, though she provides for Wade as is necessary. She is also no more than 17 years old and still thinks very much like a teenager. Charles dies shortly into the war, and Scarlett becomes a bewildered widow. She moves to Atlanta, to join her Aunt Pitty and Melanie, for a change of scene. She stays in Atlanta until the war comes to her.
Melanie is pregnant, and gives birth while Atlanta is besieged and burnt down by Yankees. The birth is hell, Scarlett is drenched in sweat, Prissy, their house slave is of no help, and the only doctors in town are caring for the hundreds of dying men. The birth nearly kills Melanie but doesn’t. Scarlett, with the help of one of her beau, Rhett Butler, gets Melanie, Prissy, Wade, the new baby and herself out of Atlanta and to Tara all in one piece somehow.
Once at Tara, Scarlett becomes the protector, the overseer, of her lost father, her two ill sisters, the recovering Melanie, and the children; with the help of the house slaves, including Mammy and others. (It’s odd to me, that the beloved Mammy never seems to want a husband or children of her own. I also find it comical, that when the time comes for picking cotton, everyone argues about who has to do it, because even the house slaves are horrified at the idea of doing field hand work). Yet, Scarlett troops along. She does the books and finds food somehow. It’s actually amazing any of them lived at all considering the food shortages and from what is described, they could not have been living on more than 500 calories a day each during the darkest parts of the war. But all of them survive, in one way or another. And the house also lives in constant fear of Yankees returning to steal what they have not taken already. Wade is certain that Yankees are coming for him, and Scarlett does not have the time or inclination to calm his child like fears.
She tries to prostitute herself to Rhett to pay the taxes on Tara, but when that doesn’t work, she marries Frank Kennedy, a beau of her sister, Suellen. Rhett claimed his assets were frozen, but it was probably more that he simply loved her too much. Scarlett, moves to Atlanta and takes lumber mills from her husband’s control to expand their profits immensely. Frank is stunned that his pretty little wife, can do math so much more quickly and accurately than he can. He is even more stunned by her incentive to do business. Scarlett is prone to rages when she does not have her way and there is no one in Atlanta to cross her path on that count. She does business with Yankees, drives a carriage by herself, until Rhett gives up watching her and drives her about town himself. In short: she acts like a man nearly to the point of outcast. The pretty little bell of the ball, is now doing what it takes to make it through, regardless of gender based propriety. And the whole town talks about it.
Frank Kennedy is killed defending her honor after she is molested during one of her carriage rides by herself. Rhett protects the rest of the men, by claiming they were all drunk at the local whore house at the time of the shooting. For at the time, all white shootings were investigated by Yankee officials.
Melanie remains Scarlett’s best friend throughout. For really Melanie knows that Ashley is useless and she must be married to Scarlett in order to survive and provide for Beau, her child. Scarlett gives Ashley a job at the mills, but he blunders it and the Wilkes household is always skimping by. But Melanie does pay Scarlett back. She does not have the physical strength but she does have the connections. For Scarlett just does not think politically or abstractly. She is a calculation machine. Melanie tends to think in terms of people, sex and ability. She weighs the merits of humanity with the same efficiency as Scarlett plays cash machine. Melanie is as political as Scarlett is financial. The two make a fine pair.
And when Scarlett is caught in the arms of Ashley Wilkes (nothing actually happened…but it was enough to scandalize the town), it is Melanie who defends her and prevents Scarlett from being more of an outsider to the Southern Confederate community, than she already is. For if Scarlett is entirely disgraced then the mills might lose too much money and how would Melanie then provide for her family?
Scarlett wears the crown of King Rat and she is too busy to feel its weight. When her third husband, Rhett, walks out the door on her with the famous line, “My dear, I don’t give a damn,” it is a lie. For Rhett very much still did give a damn. It was truly Scarlett, for all her beaux, babies and money, not once in her life did Scarlett O’Hara ever truly give a good god damn. (Perhaps for the love of her mother, but that was it.) She would not be Scarlett if she did. And in her heart of hearts it is hard for one to believe Melanie ever gave a damn either. They were both little women, who were born into a certain world, upon the eve-tide of a way of life. Both needed to survive and that they did.
Melanie’s legacy is carried on in Beau, and for Scarlett, her true legacy, lies in Wade, her child by the man, Charles, who she so coldly related to a dying calf. Her other surviving child is Ella, by Frank Kennedy. But somehow, it is of doubt Scarlett will ever realize what she has in Wade, just as she will never realize what she had in that soft, pure gentle brown eyed look that boy gave her that day at the Twelve Oaks barbecue. And the worst-best part of it all is that it will never really matter that Scarlett will never know. For Scarlett did more than know. She survived.
By Sarah Bahl
All quotes are taken from the novel, Gone With the Wind.