Margaret Mitchell. MacMillan, 1936.
The Sequel to Margaret Mitchell’s
Gone with the Wind
Alexandra Ripley. Warner Books, 1991.
A Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winning historical epic, Gone with the Wind is brilliant literature as well as an astonishingly naturalistic and engrossing portrait of human nature.
Gone with the Wind is also one of the greatest anti-war and anti-slavery novels of the twentieth century.
A wonderful, and quite famous, 10-Oscar winning film was made of the book as well.
The romance between Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler is set in the 1860s during the United States Civil War and Reconstruction.
Born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1900 Margaret Mitchell grew up hearing Civil War stories from elderly ex-Confederate relatives and family friends. From their fond reminiscences, she thought, as a small child, that the South had won the war!
A former newspaper reporter, Mitchell researched the historical, social, and agricultural milieu of the Civil War and Reconstruction era and the events of the war itself meticulously, making the book a fascinating history lesson as well as an intriguing love story.
Spoilers ahead. Do yourself a favor and if you never have, read the book. See the film. You’ll be glad you did.
However, as a book written by a woman about a woman main character, many of its “reviews” are dismissive and misogynistic.
For instance, Tom Keogh’s awful sniff on the film is inexcusable; I found it insightful (about Keogh) that he called Clark Gable’s performance (of Rhett) “vital” and “masculine” (very true of Clark Gable’s performances in general) while Vivien Leigh’s (of Scarlett) he reduced to “magnificently narcissistic”.
No, it’s not; Leigh’s is a very sympathetic, and true-to-the-book, portrait of Scarlett.
The talented Leigh perfectly defined Scarlett’s supreme drive for survival during wartime, her immature selfishness and impulsiveness, her mature adult responsibility and tenderness toward her family and friends, her loves and hates, and even her embarrassed sensibilities – feelings and behaviors that all of us, as human beings, have felt or displayed without being considered, or called, “narcissistic”.
(Shame on Amazon for highlighting terrible reviewing and biased perspectives; something Amazon tends to do in too many of their so-called “Editorial Reviews” – read them, as all reviews, with a grain of salt).
Keogh’s commentary is a sample of the way Scarlett O’Hara has been characterized in the uninformed, uneducated, tending-toward-misogyny, as is our culture in general, popular press.
The purpose of this post is to provide another, more modern, more accurate psychologically, perspective of Scarlett and Rhett.
Scarlett O’Hara has been variously characterized by pseudo-psychologists and unsophisticated readers as spoiled, narcissistic, even mentally ill. The character was none of those things.
In one book of movie reviews I regret peeking into the unintelligent authors of the review actually called Scarlett a “bitch”. Oh, snap. Deep reviewing there (not)! Not to mention extremely misogynistic.
Scarlett was anything but. Scarlett, a doted-on oldest child, confident and beautiful if naïve, as teenagers tend to be, was very bright, assertive, and a good judge of character, although admittedly less empathetic toward others than most oldest-daughter children tend to be.
Scarlett’s female peers were justifiably jealous of her, effectively separating Scarlett from the personality-moderating influence of early peer interaction – something important to the development not only of adult independence but to adult social success (why teenagers like to hang out together away from their families and are so susceptible to peer influence).
Although it’s conceivable that she might have been called a bitch behind her back by the actually bitchy among her so-called friends, if they would have stooped that low despite their well-bred, country upper-class upbringing, Scarlett wasn’t a cruel, mean, stupid, vindictive, or ill-humored person – the type of person often termed a “bitch” today.
Scarlett was an oldest sibling. She was independent and free-thinking naturally. But the oldest sibling is also the protective, substitute-parent sibling, and Scarlett took care of her family when they needed her the most, even if her methods were desperate during very desperate times.
As a matter of fact, it was Scarlett’s second-oldest sister “Suellen” who was the selfish, spoiled, and lazy one of the three sisters in her family.
Scarlett’s problem was that she just happened to have the misfortune of falling in love with someone older who was attracted to her but was unattainable. A good plot point, and a not-unknown situation in real life.
Scarlett was a typical oldest child, receiving the most attention, good and bad, from her parents while growing up; and growing into, importantly for the fate of her family during a terrible war, a natural leader. I can relate. She loved her family and took care of them even in the face of her parents’ condescension and her siblings’ scorn, lack of appreciation, and scapegoating. I can relate. As for Scarlett’s ill-fated desire for the unattainable Ashley Wilkes, well, who hasn’t been there? I certainly can relate.
Don’t believe any of the slander of or psychobabble toward Scarlett that is out there. People who attempt to sum up Scarlett so harshly should know better because they often are psychiatrists and psychologists; unfortunately, these professionals are prone to diagnose mental illness where there is none even in real people.
Typical of the shallow pseudo-psychological assessments of Scarlett I have seen is one by two writers at the comedy website Cracked (I love the website) who apparently haven’t read the book Gone with the Wind or seen the movie, or if they have been exposed to the story, haven’t understood it; that Scarlett demonstrated traits of “antisocial and histrionic personality disorders”.
Below are their arguments for Scarlett’s being “mentally ill”, with my rebuttals.
1. Scarlett continued to love her childhood friend Ashley even after he married someone else, and for a long time after Rhett became her husband.
Well, human nature. Ashley was Scarlett’s first love, and first love, with all its dreamy romance, hopeful idealism, and innocent longing, is the longest lasting. Many people never forget their first love.
Scarlett was a teenager, unworldly and immature, at the time of Ashley’s marriage to his cousin Melanie. Scarlett married Charles (Melanie’s brother, not Ashley’s, Cracked), afterwards, in an attempt to prove her value and desirability to herself as much as to Ashley, then deeply regretted her impulsiveness as the realities of marriage to Charles became apparent to her. She realized very quickly that, situationally, that she had deepened her separation from Ashley, not lessened it. That’s sound introspection.
Scarlett’s feelings of love toward Ashley and her panic and depression at his sudden unexpected marriage were normal feelings. Her last-ditch attempt to communicate her unspoken love to Ashley before his marriage showed immense courage and strength of character beyond her years; this is an ongoing theme in the book.
As well, in Scarlett’s society, people rushed into marriage after they had been rejected to save face. That didn’t make them mentally ill, it made them conformists.
2. During the war, Scarlett “fell apart” for only a few seconds after Rhett left her and Melanie, with a baby, alone out in the countryside amidst warring soldiers from both sides after the burning of Atlanta, to join up almost at the final bugle. Well, Scarlett cried for a few minutes. Many people would have panicked and been captured.
After the truce, rather than let them languish, Scarlett pushed her family and herself to hard work to keep them all from dying of starvation, and to attempt to build some future security. Scarlett married someone she didn’t love in order to save the family farm and her family from worse than starvation when they didn’t have the money to prevent a usury tax sale. The man happened to be her sister’s boyfriend, but you can’t have everything.
The man she married to keep her family from homelessness and destruction, Frank, was killed due to the lawlessness of the time, the Reconstruction, not Scarlett’s necessary refusal to “act like a lady”. Her society frowned on her, a woman, working, but Scarlett didn’t kill her husband; he was killed defending her honor and the safety of their community (something his cohort later realized did more harm than good for their communities).
People who prefer to think negatively about women, especially strong, independent women like Scarlett, conveniently forget that Scarlett, squaring her shoulders, immediately pulled herself together after each rejection that hurt her and each loss that she endured and went on working and striving for the good of her family, and the near-helpless family of Melanie and Ashley, who depended on her, during a time of war, the deaths of their parents and most of their friends, the loss of their social support system, and total cultural upheaval and collapse.
There have always been determined female flirts like Scarlett just as there have always been handsome male ones. To call Scarlett “antisocial”, “histrionic”, or even, as I have read her called, “schizophrenic” or “sociopathic”, is purely misogynistic. These double-standard psychiatric indictments of Scarlett are actually aggressively, and oppressively, woman-hating in motivation.
Blaming Scarlett for her problems also lightly skips over the fact that the book is a dramatic novel. Melanie Wilkes was right: Scarlett did the best that she could for her family, friends, and country, despite her practical and emotional misgivings; literally, Scarlett’s high-spiritedness (if not her morality, maturity, or even her aesthetic taste) saved lives.
More often than not Scarlett sacrificed her own goals, her own desires, and even her own safety for the people she loved.
3. Scarlett treated Rhett Butler badly, pushed him away after he gave her everything she wanted, and took his love for granted until it was too late.
Rhett, a self-described scoundrel, was far more abusive to Scarlett than even Margaret Mitchell gave him credit for.
Rhett told Scarlett and people close to her that he loved her, yet he criticized, diminished, and degraded her to her face at every frustration that he felt at her independence and every refusal of hers to be controlled by him.
Even in the nineteenth century one wouldn’t set about winning the love of a woman by abusing her verbally at every opportunity, condescending to her, sneering at her, cheating on her or raping her. Yet Rhett did all of these things to Scarlett. Would any sane person term such behavior “love”, despite Rhett’s occasional tenderness and good humor?
As wonderful as Mitchell was at depicting human emotion and motivation, far from feeling delighted and singing the morning after a domestic rape, as Scarlett was depicted, any normal human being would have felt anger at the very least, and possibly great fear.
Mitchell excused, or mitigated, Rhett’s rape of Scarlett by portraying it as Scarlett’s sexual awakening. Mitchell did make sure that Rhett had the common grace to feel ashamed of himself afterwards; abusers sometimes do, if they fear loss because of their abuse; often they don’t, because rape is part-and-parcel of an abuser’s objectification of his victim.
Unfortunately for Scarlett, Rhett felt so self-centeredly ashamed of himself that he felt the need to remove himself from their home for an extended period of time, taking their only child together with him. Rhett left Scarlett alone in their house, bereaved of the two people she loved the most, when she most needed apology and comfort, due to Rhett’s self-centered feelings of guilt. Rhett’s abandonment of Scarlett at such a time was further objectification and rejection of her. As a matter of fact, Rhett had always rather made a habit of abandoning Scarlett (and this wasn’t the last, or the worst, instance of it).
Meanwhile, Scarlett was always honest with Rhett about her feelings, recognizing a kindred soul intellectually if not emotionally. She never equivocated with Rhett (barring minor, understandable exceptions); Scarlett was more honest with Rhett than she was with anyone else in her life including her parents, her sisters, her other husbands, her closest defender Melanie, or her first love, Ashley. If it took a “long time” for Scarlett to “realize” that she loved Rhett, well, I’d say that was Rhett’s fault.
Eventually, when Rhett finally came to the conclusion that he couldn’t abuse or control Scarlett into loving him openly, he took the typically abusive action of downgrading and verbally degrading her to her face (“…my dear, I don’t give a damn”), and then flatly abandoning her for good, blaming her for the failure of their relationship in his mind and guilting her, manipulating her, in this way, into blaming herself.
Rhett married someone who was true to herself and yet who loved him unconditionally. Scarlett loved Rhett as he was, without demands, criticism, or attempts to change him. Rhett could have appreciated that, Scarlett’s truly honest, artless, unaffected attachment to him, and had the insight to feel damned lucky that he had her. Instead, he felt entitled to feel superior to her, to judge her, and to go on criticizing her no matter what, while “waiting” for her to change.
Rhett’s tenderness towards Scarlett, his attempts to please her, his support of her dreams, and his respect for her did win her love and loyalty.
But Rhett’s possessiveness, his attempts to change her, and his abuse pushed Scarlett further away from him than her years-long love for her friend and neighbor Ashley was ever capable of doing. Rhett’s superior and condescending attitude toward Scarlett destroyed his marriage to her – not Scarlett’s overly-romantic hopes or ideals.
Married to Rhett, Scarlett’s ardor for Ashley naturally cooled. She never cheated on Rhett, though she had long loved a man whom she’d known for many years before Rhett badgered her into marrying him.
If Rhett had had the courage to overcome his fearful detachment, his secretiveness, his jealousy, and his judgmentalism, feelings incompatible with being an adult human being in love, Scarlett’s love for him, encouraged and undeterred, could have blossomed much earlier into overcoming her attachment to Ashley, and their marriage might have withstood the tests of growth and maturity, time and circumstance.
Instead, Rhett utterly destroyed Scarlett as a human being, and then left her with a shattered heart, tormenting guilt, and painful memories that would haunt her for the rest of her life.
She hadn’t earned that, no matter what she’d done to deserve it.
Critics of Gone with the Wind have suggested that pre-war Southern plantation life wasn’t as placid and happy as Mitchell depicted, and as many Southerners now imagine that it was; especially, that life for plantation and town slaves in the South Mitchell falsely idealized, romanticized, and ennobled.
That criticism misses the point that the book, a novel, after all, was written from the point of view of its Southern characters, not from contemporaneous or current sociological truth.
In Gone With The Wind the slaves were talked about, thought about, and treated by the plantation owners in a historically-accurate way; it is stressed in the book that the empathetic, intellectual character Ashley Wilkes intended to free his estate’s slaves when he inherited it. It is clear that Gone with the Wind is anti-slavery, as well as anti-war.
Informational website How Stuff Works reported that Gone With The Wind was “rejected by 38 publishers” before finally being accepted for publication. Perhaps that was a slam. It angered me; I and most fans of the book know better.
The unfinished manuscript of Gone With The Wind was given, reluctantly, by ex-reporter Margaret Mitchell to MacMillan Publishing representative H. S. Latham, who was on a tour of the South in 1935 searching for new authors. Gone With The Wind, previously unseen by anyone except for Mitchell and her husband, was accepted for publication within days of Latham’s acquiring the manuscript from Mitchell. This is a well-known part of the book’s history.
(Where does How Stuff Works get off making things up so egregiously? The website should be called Makes Stuff Up.)
I have to admit something. After perhaps twenty readings of Gone with the Wind, I sometimes stop reading, now, at the end of the second-to-last chapter so that I can imagine that Rhett and Scarlett work it out. Then I don’t have to cry so wrenchingly, I don’t have to feel such agony, at the end of the book.
This doesn’t work very well because I know what’s coming, but sometimes I refuse to read the last chapter, anyway.
By the way, Mitchell wrote the last chapter first. So she planned to have Rhett leave Scarlett. That takes guts.
I enjoyed, in a different way, the warm sequel to Gone With The Wind published after Mitchell’s death, Alexandria Ripley’s Scarlett. None of the characters in it were Mitchell’s, but it was full of love and fun to read.
I remember the book even more fondly because of those glorious first-edition Cookies-n-Mint Hershey’s Bars that I ate while I read it. They were divine.
About Margaret Mitchell:
Margaret Mitchell’s Obituary in The New York Times
August 17, 1949
Margaret Mitchell House
Where GWTW was written. Very pretty.
Margaret Mitchell at Wikipedia
Books on GWTW and Margaret Mitchell at my Amazon Store.
Reviews of GWTW:
All-TIME 100 Novels – Gone With the Wind
“Critics Lev Grossman and Richard Lacayo pick the 100 best English-language novels published since 1923—the beginning of TIME.”
Lev Grossman, Time, October 16, 2005
Movies: 10 All-Time Greatest
Entertainment Weekly, EW Staff, June 27, 2013
Note: As amusingly, warmly soap opera-ish as the first Mitchell-estate-authorized sequel to GWTW, “Scarlett”, written by a woman from the South, is, please definitely do skip the second estate-authorized sequel, “Rhett Butler’s People”; written by a man from the South, it is far too misogynistic to be read, or to be taken seriously in any way as acceptable reading material.
© 2013 Cathi Carol. All rights reserved. Please do not republish without permission.
Last Updated: June 29, 2013
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