At the hospital which is where I spend quite a few hours doing nothing but watching so I picked up a very old copy of
‘Gone With the Wind’ by Mrs. Mitchell. I have never read the book before but did see the movie so it was a very interesting experience, reading this book. Why?
All the controversy about it being ‘racist’ has darkened its luster but then I realized how this story was told by the very talented author as if she were Scarlett, the heroine or rather ANTI-heroine.
For Scarlett is not admirable at all but rather, a predatory, vain, self-centered psychopath who in the end, has lost all the things she loved because she was incapable of real love. It is a frightful story, quite ugly, actually. This is why famously, the author has her lifelong lover, Rhett, tell her, ‘I don’t give a damn’ as his final words to her.
But today I want to talk about Melanie, the ‘sweet, small, loving’ wife of Ashley, the young man Scarlett lusts to control. All descriptions of Melanie are filtered quite deliberately by the cunning author to flow through Scarlett’s dark brain. Unfortunately, the movie about all this doesn’t contain all of Scarlett’s inner thoughts which Margaret Mitchell very cunningly elucidates with horrifying clarity.
Melanie’s inner thoughts are not shown at all. Only when she acts directly or says something directly, do we see or hear her, herself. So I am now going to explain how Melanie is ten times more devious and cunning than Scarlett O’Hara. Scarlett is already scheming to destroy Melanie before even meeting her. The author has Scarlett, who has her bonnet set to wed Ashley, the dashing intellectual neighbor when she learns he is already betrothed to a small, rather frail young lady who is related to him.
Scarlett blows up and throws a vase at Ashley when he tells her this news and this is when she has her first fight with the very cynical Rhett. Scarlett barely conceals her hatred of Melanie from the first confrontation but being cunning as well as cruel, Scarlett successfully puts on a facade of being friendly. What I would suggest is, from the very start of their very tangled relationship, Melanie has been totally aware of how Scarlett really feels but is forced, due to Scarlett marrying Melanie’s older brother, to keep the family intact especially since her brother was killed in the Civil War right at the very beginning, she has to put up this front of being innocent and unaware of Scarlett’s true nature.
But she isn’t. On rare occasions in the book, she tells the truth about things then retreats into pretending to be unaware of the complications surrounding her. Scarlett has her brother’s only son, and to keep the boy near her, Melanie has to keep Scarlett near her, too. 50% of the social tension in this book is due to Melanie moving heaven and earth to keep Scarlett from bolting, taking her beloved nephew who is the living image of her dear, departed brother, with her.
For Scarlett is a terrible mother and seethes with rage around her son. The boy goes to his auntie for shelter and she protects him and deflects Scarlett’s rages. The author is highly aware of this relationship. Far from loving Scarlett, this author wrote an anti-romantic novel. This is much more like Tolstoy’s War and Peace which I have read several times in my long life.
In some ways, Gone With The Wind is far more cynical and hard compared to Tolstoy. Michell admired Tolstoy but he was unable to see how good and evil can coexist in one person for Scarlett has to constantly be guided BY MELANIE into doing the right things, over and over and over again. Even when other women are enraged at Scarlett, Melanie soothes them all and continues her artful guidance of this out-of-control, forceful, determined and very destructive but talented tornado of a female.
And this is why Rhett, the cynic, marries her. He is also very destructive and cynical only of all the characters, he is the ONLY ONE who figures out what Melanie is really doing as she artfully guides Scarlett into doing the right thing over and over again. He even remarks that she is the only woman he respects and fears to the astonishment of Scarlett who thinks Melanie is a ninny and a fool and that she fools easily.
Except Rhett, echoing the mind of the author, can see this is a delusion. The breakup of Scarlett’s little schemes that crash and burn at the end of the book happens not after their little girl is killed by her pony but after Melanie, in her final attempt to control Scarlett and bring her back to sanity, collapses from the burden of doing this nonstop for so many years.
Melanie’s awful husband who had an affair with Scarlett behind her back, is utterly broken when Melanie dies for Rhett tells him about how reality was all those years and why Ashley’s wife never raised a fuss or made a scene. The huge sacrifices she made in honor of her dead father, brother and the dead daughter of Scarlett is suddenly revealed like a lightning bolt, destroying him emotionally.
Because this book was written also as if the main character, Scarlett, was writing it, is very interesting to me for she had a very nasty relationship with her slaves and when they were free, she still was nasty to them. The author hauls out the exact level of racist contempt Scarlett had for her slaves. She viewed them all as tools. Her father was nicer to his slaves then she and they all strove to please Scarlett only because her father would reward them for being nice to what was obviously a brat.
Misunderstanding this massive book is quite common. But if you read Tolstoy, his characters abuse their serfs who were pretty much slaves, too, during the same 19th century. His characters are mostly oblivious of the serfs and their needs. The ‘good’ characters have twinges of guilt about this slavery system they abused so negligently.
Around fifty years separate these two books, that and one World War. Right after the movie was made of Gone With the Wind, WWII broke out. We are still in the aftermath of the 19th century enslavement of populations by Europe and Japan and other world powers and the collapse of these interlocking empires caused many, many millions of deaths and still kills.
We are in it and make the best of it. I think Gone With The Wind should be taught in colleges by smart people but we have a severe shortage of smart people in the liberal arts. I never bothered to finish my degree program, for example.