GONE WITH THE WIND: SCARLETT’S FEMINISM

“After all, tomorrow is another day.” This ultimate line in the novel sums up Scarlett O’Hara’s determined hard-headedness, a strong, independent woman in an age which constantly tried subjugating women.

Margaret Mitchell’s Pulitzer Prize winning masterpiece, ‘Gone With The Wind’ (1936), is a story set in Georgia in the American Civil War and the Reconstruction era, narrated from the perspective of the South. It weaves in the story of the protagonist Scarlett O’Hara to the historical backdrop, creating a character impossible to like and almost equally impossible to dislike wholly. It is a tale of the daughter of a plantation owner who uses every means at her disposal to overcome all hurdles in a nation ravaged by the Civil war, to survive in a land scarred beyond recognition. Scarlett is a portrayal of a strong feminist  character even before the Feminist movement established its stronghold during the 1960s.

‘Margaret  Mitchell had allegedly detested “the appearance, manners, and obedience” that was conventionally expected of women’, says Molly Haskell, American feminist film critic and author. The figure of Scarlett is an absolute contrast to the traditional stereotyped Southern woman. “The green eyes in the carefully sweet face were turbulent, willful, lusty with life, distinctly at variance with her decorous demeanor.” She was a self-centered woman who “could never long endure any conversation of which she was not the chief subject,” and no subject, not even the Civil War, could deter Scarlett’s resolute self-absorption.

Marriage was of hardly any significance to her, apart from the commercial gains it entailed. She married her first husband, Charles Hamilton, out of jealousy, as Ashley Wilkes, with whom she had constantly been in love, married Melanie. Next, she married her sister’s fiancé, Frank Kennedy, to become financially stable. And finally Rhett Butler, because she could not live the drab life of a widow. Even her children meant nothing but annoyance to her. “She had very little interest in Wade,” her first child, “and sometimes it was difficult to remember that he actually was hers.” Scarlett finds her pregnancy with her second child, Ella, irritating, wanting only to “get this baby over and done with.” She is irritated and angered when she learns of each of her pregnancies, declaring to herself, “Death and taxes and childbirth! There’s never any convenient time for any of them!” Her insensitive manipulative attitude makes her incapable of being a good mother or a wife or a sister, nor even a true friend. Juxtaposed with the ‘ideal’ feminine figure of Melanie Hamilton, the trusting, forgiving, kind and caring character, she becomes a foil to the ruthless Scarlett. Thus Scarlett stands out from the general perception of a ‘lady’, not fitting into the traditional imposition of the norms that made a ‘woman’. Although it makes her ruthless, it stands for her sense of independence too. She did not want to fit into the role of a conventional mother, wife or sister. Scarlett shows that a woman can offer much more to society than just a domestic help or a source of offspring!

At the outset, the shallowness of her character is what stares in the eye very starkly. However, in a war torn world, Scarlett succeeds in making her own way. After Tara had been razed to the ground, she returned to bring it back to life. Rather than finding security in Mammy’s bosom on learning about her mother’s death, she accepts all responsibility and finds strength and purpose in the red earth of Tara, determined to resurrect the plantation to its former glory, assuming the role of a matriarch. She worked till her hands were callused and feet bruised. Later she successfully ran  the lumbar business for Kennedy although it was a “man’s job”. According to the law, ‘married women were effectively precluded from entering the workforce without the support and consent of their husbands’. She worked during her pregnancy even though women then were supposed to cloister themselves in their houses doing only domestic chores. She also danced with Rhett when she was supposed to be in mourning for her dead husband. She flouted traditions in a society in which they were valued. She was one outgoing woman in a society which was not familiar with any other, except Belle Watling, the red haired prostitute in Atlanta. Like Belle, she had also become a social outcast on account of her unabashed independence, but not as ‘fallen’ as her. However, she remains both a dangerous possibility for Scarlett as well as a reassurance that things had not yet gone too awry.

Courage is another feature that defines Scarlett. She, along with an inexperienced Prissy, deliver Melanie’s baby, drives them to Tara when left midway by Rhett, she even kills a soldier when he comes to loot and possibly rape her, shooting him in the face. However Melanie had also been a constant support to her. Her calm presence of mind enabled to bring down situations under control; after Scarlett was molested by the Afro-Americans, and also helped Scarlett get rid of the body of the dead soldier when she was too dazed to think straight. Even after knowing Scarlett’s betrayal of her, she welcomed her with open arms. Such affection comes from great courage, and that was Melanie. She depicts feminism with a sort of calmness unlike the hotheaded Scarlett. But Scarlett, represents achieving beyond societal rules and that makes her more alluring.

Scarlett learned to thrive in a society which was doubly against her, for being a Southerner as well as for being a woman. The laws of the mid-nineteenth century reflected a sexist, paternalistic ideology. The paramount destiny and mission of a woman was to fulfill the noble and benign offices of a wife and a mother. Scarlett, despite having defied all such laws, gets out of character in one instance when she enjoys herself in a marital rape scene. The Georgia State Statute did not recognize marital rape, and in keeping with that Scarlett accepted the act as a husband’s right.  As JM Spanbauer says, “None of this exchange, however, explains why Mitchell would allow Scarlett to experience pleasure in being raped: ‘He had humbled her, hurt her, used her brutally through a wild, mad night and she had gloried in it’. It is both telling and troubling that this forced sexual encounter represents the only time in the entire novel Mitchell permits Scarlett to derive any pleasure from sex.”

Although a very strong character, Scarlett pays the price for her radical independence; loneliness. As a Bildungsroman, this text charts Scarlett’s life till she comes to a better understanding of herself. With Melanie’s death she realized the profound influence she had on her life, and how good a human being she actually was. She realized that she never really loved Ashley, she had been chasing a child’s dream all along. And finally, when she went back to Rhett to profess her love for him, he rejects her saying, “My dear, I don’t give a damn!” and leaves her all alone. But even that does not deter her determined spirit as she vows to get him back. Scarlett’s strong feminist outlook makes her admirable and enduring to this day.

Ria Pariksha.

Roll No 260.

English Hons. III Year.

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