by Maureen Teresa McCarthy
“Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm…”
Those famous lines are imprinted on the minds of many of us, girls who met Scarlett first in the pages of the book we read on long afternoons in high school. Of course men weren’t the only ones she caught; she caught us all. For Scarlett was real, and fascinating, and such a bad girl. She was not at all a prim and proper lady. There was her name, first of all, red red scarlet, and her snapping green eyes and her curling dark hair. Lust and love and loveliness, and none of us knew the difference, but we thought Scarlett did. What was more fascinating still, she was not beautiful, as Margaret Mitchell so carefully pointed out, yet men didn’t seem to mind.
She drew us into her web and gave us that great gift, hope. Hope that we, the ordinary girls, could be charming and fascinating and go to the ball. That is what I knew of Scarlett then: the romance and the adventure and the gorgeous dresses that took yards and yards of soft fabric. Even the war and her desperate struggle to survive at Tara were thrilling, masked by that constant tug between Ashley Wilkes and Rhett Butler, her first love and her last.
Back then, as a young girl, I could read only the love story, or what seemed to me a love story. I couldn’t see, or understand, Scarlett’s fierce determination to make her own way in a man’s world, to have her own money.
What did money have to do with love? Over time, the book and even the movie drifted into the haze of popular literature, just another romance, not a story or character to take seriously. Besides, according to all my English teachers, there are only heroes in American literature, there are no real heroines. Women in American literature, at least what I was forced to read in school, were passive, sweet ladies who never thought about money. They often faded away or died young. Scarlett was not at all passive or sweet: she acted, she survived and made her own money. Years later, as a late bloomer, learning to think for myself, I happened across Pat Conroy’s “My Reading Life,” which devotes a full chapter to Gone With the Wind. Though Conroy professed to admire Scarlett, he describes her as “spiderous….seditious” and notes that over the course of the book we see her character darken. Well, yes, Pat, she grows up in a war zone. I did remember that much.
So I took to the couch as I often had in high school, again with Gone With The Wind. I didn’t leave my house for three days. Mitchell drew me into Scarlett’s world even more deeply than she had when I was a girl. Now I could recognize Scarlett’s fear, and her courage, and the force of her will. She fled Atlanta under siege, making her way home to Tara, the family place. She found her mother had died; her father, sisters, all her people were starving. The invading army had taken everything, trampled all the gardens and burned the cash crops. She swore that she would survive, no matter what she had to do. The Yankees won’t beat me, she vowed; when this is over I’ll never be hungry again. She determined that she would never look back at the life that was gone, or mourn for those who had died.
Survival in the midst of war and starvation is not pretty, or gentle, or ladylike. Over the course of the novel she grows from a 16 year-old party girl to a woman three times married, twice widowed, mother of three. She kills a man and lies to steal another. She learns to farm and run a business, finds she is very good at math, and at marrying. She learns that she can do anything to live, keep her land, and feed her family.
This is hardly a romance: there is no happily-ever-after, with everyone in couples. The novel is actually a coming-of-age story, which I couldn’t recognize at 16. Scarlett grows and changes; the 28 year-old woman is very different from the girl. In some ways she reflects the immigrant experience many of us came from and so many face today. The world she knew is gone, she is afraid, and she must learn to live in a foreign place. And she must learn to live on her own. Many of her family and friends cannot adapt to survive in this new, harsh world, but Scarlett goes her own way.
Rereading Gone With the Wind as an adult woman who knows more of real life, I see how Scarlett, once a sheltered child, learns the importance of self-reliance, which includes the importance of money. This is a lesson I learned late, as so many of us have. The average woman today in the US will earn, save, and retire with significantly less than the average man. Few of us actually talk about money. There is still something unfeminine about financial independence, unless it is inherited. Few of us have learned the lessons that came so hard to Scarlett, who literally starved as she earned and saved every bit she could. There were no new clothes or lavish dinners until the taxes were paid and the harvest was in. She learned to manage money, to save and expand and invest. By the novel’s end, when she is successful as a businesswoman, she is supporting five households: Tara, Aunt Pitty, her Charleston aunts, her Atlanta house, and Ashley’s home. She is feeding, housing, and clothing at least 15 people, all of whom depend on her and most of them unaware, as Ashley is, of that dependence. She never lost her fear of being poor and hungry, a fear we do talk about, though only in a nervous, joking way: the fact is, the fear of ending up as a bag lady is real and deep for many of us.
I do not mean to excuse Scarlett’s willingness to ignore her manager’s harsh treatment of convict labor, to squeeze out every penny she could no matter how hard she was on others. That is not an example any of us should wish to follow. Certainly she could have been comfortable with far less than the Atlanta mansion and the many dinner parties and the closet of expensive clothes. As Rhett reminds her, all that money did not bring real happiness—a truth she begins to realize, though faintly. And Scarlett was not a good mother. She kept her children safe and fed and clothed, but she was not warm or loving.
Neither do I wish to excuse or condone Scarlett’s/Mitchell’s attitude towards the Old South and the deep suffering of enslaved people. Mitchell chose to present a biased view of slavery, one that readers today should not accept. Yet she does affirm Scarlett’s tie with Mammy; it is stronger than any other in her life.
Mammy and Scarlett are deeply connected, each are of two worlds. Both women can live in the raw new world of Atlanta, but both also need the aged red earth and Georgia pines. Scarlett comes to realize how much she depends on Mammy, her link to the past and to the green and growing world. Her connection to Mammy is real and deep, deeper even than her love for Ellen or Ashley.
As I found that Scarlett had much to teach me about money and real love, I realized too that she had much to say about our basic need for this blue planet, our true home. Always, she went home to Tara. After every heartbreak, every setback, the dark pines and rolling fields and old orchard nurtured her and renewed her spirit in ways that the raw, struggling city never could. Most of us are urban dwellers now, but we still depend on the earth beneath us, pure waters, tall trees, fields of grain.
Scarlett realizes, finally, that she has been deluding herself, about her love for land and her love for Ashley. She feels the truth of her heritage, that the land she lives on is as real as a mother, and more real than Ashley Wilkes. She begins to see her childhood dream of happily ever after as just that, a fairy tale. She accepts that her longing for Ashley is not real, she has refused to see him as the man he is, a man she could not love. She begins to understand deep and lasting connection, her ties with Mammy, Melanie, and Tara, that she has always ignored. She is still growing, still changing, even though she is a grown woman. She is not caught, even if the web is one she made herself. She can leave, and she does.
How many of us have stayed in a bad relationship or bad marriage for too long, unable or unwilling to see it for what it is? Or stayed with a job, or worse, a career, that brought little satisfaction or reward? How many of us have been afraid of change? Scarlett is only 28 when she finally realizes that Ashley is not her prince charming. She has transferred that dream to Rhett, but finally she stands without him, with Mammy and the rich earth as her stalwarts. She is no longer the girl on the porch with a boy on either side of her. She is a woman on her own, in charge of her own life.
Now, as a late bloomer, just finding my voice as a writer, I can see Scarlett far more clearly than I could as a girl. Change and growth were hard to imagine then: I couldn’t imagine myself like Scarlett, nearing 30. And the need to understand money, or the fact that I might be on my own someday never even occurred to me, even though I had aunts who struggled with widowhood or divorce. Like Scarlett at 16, I wanted to go to the ball with Prince Charming, and I wasn’t thinking much beyond that. Dreams were all too real, the natural world was only background. Now I can understand how hard life was for Scarlett, how hard she fought, and how she learned to accept constant change. Like the pines at Tara, who whispered that they could always move back over the fields, Scarlett was never afraid to move. I am still learning that lesson. Maureen Teresa McCarthy is a central New York poet who has lived and worked in California, Mexico, and Europe. She has published poems in Comstock Review, PenWoman, Writing in a Woman’s Voice, and other journals. Recently retired from teaching, she is at work on a novel of the Civil War era.