Thursday, 13 October 2016

Heroine Fix: Scarlett O'Hara: Never Hungry Again

Scarlett O'Hara certainly captured the public attention since she first appeared on the pages of Margaret Mitchell's book Gone with the Wind in 1936.  Vivienne Leigh's portrayal of the character in the 1939 epic film stands as a classic.  The story continued to hold the public's interest, sparking Alexandra Ripley to pen a sequel, Scarlett, in 1991.  The sequel was made into a television miniseries in 1994.

Scarlett is a difficult heroine to get behind.  She's shallow, vain and manipulative.  She spends the entirety of Gone With the Wind longing for another woman's husband, steals her sister's fiance, uses both slave and convict labour to undercut her competitors and seems more driven by greed than any other character trait.

By all logical examination, Scarlett is an unlikable heroine.  She should have disappeared into history.  But there is something about her which continues to intrigue and draw fans to her camp.  Perhaps it is because Gone with the Wind ends just as she realizes her errors.  She's on the cusp of a major character change, leaving readers and viewers to wonder if she will be able to persuade Rhett to take her back and live a happier life.

Maybe it's because despite her unlikable exterior, there is something attractive about Scarlett.  Even in the beginning, she's vibrant, flirting with the boys and clearly enjoying every second of their attention.  There's an innocence to her, an innocence which extends to all the Southerners pre-war.  She shares their certainty that the world she knows will never change.

But of course, it does change.  When the war collapses everything Scarlett knows and has always counted on, unlike the others around her, she steps into the gap.  She protects her sister-in-law (despite her own jealousy), taking Melanie and her newborn baby on a perilous overland journey through occupied territory.  She works in the fields, dragging her pampered family along with her so that they can all eat.  She shoots a Yankee soldier intent on robbing and assaulting her and her kin.

This is Scarlett's first transformation: from spoiled and pampered princess to shrewd and stubborn schemer.  With the complete collapse of her society, she abandons all the rules.  If it is a dog eat dog world, then Scarlett is determined to be the final one sitting there with a knife and fork.  She demonstrates her intelligence and determination, facing society's scorn as she launches a lumber business, a store and struggles to restore her family's plantation.

Her decision to marry Rhett isn't inspired by sentiment or affection, but by practicality.  Whenever I've watched the film, I've seen hints of vulnerability develop through their marriage.  I think she cares for him, but can't let herself trust in him.  Not to mention feeling torn between wanting to be accepted as a Southern lady but not wanting to be left helpless again.

Personally, I always found the end of Gone With the Wind unsatisfying.  Aside from the inherent racism and other issues, it's not a complete romance.  It's why I prefer the sequel, Scarlett, where she completes her character arc and finally reunites with Rhett.

The sequel's Scarlett finally learns compassion and loyalty to more than herself.  She learns the difference between surviving and living.  But she's still strong, vibrant and intelligent. Now she's no longer afraid to show any of it.

In the end, it's the mixture of traits which I find inspiring about Scarlett.  She's actually an unusually well-developed character, particularly for the time period when she was created.  She's a modern CEO, almost fifty years before anyone would have considered it possible.  She's attacked in the same way that many modern women are attacked, called unfeminine and overly aggressive.  But she is successful in her business endeavors, outwitting her male competitors.

As a heroine, she has many flaws, perhaps too many to truly overcome.  But it is those flaws which lend depth to her strengths.  She's human, which is quite an achievement for a fictional character.

1 comment:

  1. Just wanted to let you know I'm finally reading this book...almost done! I agree about Scarlett...