Thursday, November 17, 2011
First sentences: Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell
So begins Gone With The Wind, that dizzying whirlwind of romance, false history, social Darwinism, compelling character drama and stomach-turning racism that has, since its publication, captivated readers far, far nicer than the book would have them be.
Gone With The Wind is, to say the least, a problematic book. It's an intense combination of the personal and the political, with the political buried under many layers of assumptions that foreground the personal. Scarlett O'Hara is a liberating figure for many (white) women: her refusal to accept the limits of femininity combined with her Machiavellian willingness to play its advantages, her author's steady conviction that a woman doesn't have to be a nice person to make an impressive or interesting hero, are deeply unusual in a patriarchal society, especially for a book published in the 1930s. Head of a family, building success and security in difficult times, Scarlett is, for many, a feminist icon (although it must be said that she does nothing to advance the interests of any woman beyond herself, so is hardly a member of the sisterhood).
Scarlett is, though, a slave-owner, heroine of a profoundly racist book that classes black people as 'creatures of small intelligence ... like monkeys or small children'. She is also, though the book doesn't use the word, a libertarian: taxes are presented as the oppressive action of a malicious and forcefully-imposed government, money is an absolute necessity, and, at least according to the charismatic Rhett Butler, 'only the smart deserve to survive'. The argument made on Balloon Juice that the Confederacy's slavery policy was fundamentally about stealing the labour of others, and that this theft didn't end with slavery but merely mutated into new forms that are still being endorsed by right-wingers today seems applicable here: Gone With The Wind, whatever is it is, is a book of the far right, and its racial politics are about as reasonable as those of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
And yet. White women in their thousands, or perhaps their millions, and sometimes women of color as well, find themselves drawn in. The luxurious dresses and grandiose passions are part of it, but at the centre of it is Scarlett herself, aggressive yet feminine, love-hungry yet callous, all id, speaking - if the voices of the silenced slaves don't rise in your consciousness - for suppressed femaleness, the unacceptable honesty of female humanity.
Running through Gone With The Wind is a persistent theme: that men cannot be relied upon to see women's inner selves. Women are socialised from birth to present a giddy, guileless front, and the book is fraught with ambivalence about the ideal woman that Scarlett can only ever mimic, never be. Mitchell described the virtuous Melanie as her heroine while simultaneously pouring writerly passion into willful Scarlett, idealising the emotional protection that a Southern mother-figure provides while wrestling with the impossibility of taking on such a role that faces a Southern daughter. (Melanie is a mother before she ever has children; Scarlett remains a daughter no matter how many children she has; the book seems to embody the double standards we tend to have as regards the relative rights to be selfish of ourselves and our parents.) But on the outside, at least, women are required to present a socially acceptable front, and men, surrounded by actresses all their lives, almost always take the front for truth.
Scarlett's predatory ambivalence, compelled to charm men but unable to respect the men she can charm, finds an emotional centre in her relationships with Ashley and Rhett, the only two men she cannot successfully manipulate: it is her relationships with these two that will drive the plot. The fact that men 'seldom' see her accurately, introduced in the first sentence, is crucial to this emotional narrative: Gone With The Wind is very much about the exceptions to the rules.
'Men', of course, is a generic noun: it categorises and it excludes, and what it excludes is telling. Scarlett is, as we will shortly see, the product of a very limited world, unacquainted with any men beyond the Southern gentlemen she captivates - except, of course, male slaves, who are implicitly shut out from the class of 'men'. What black men think of Scarlett's attractiveness is not our concern; at a later point some former slaves of her father, dragooned into the army, encounter her in the road and 'capered with delight at the meeting and with pride at displaying before their comrades what a pretty Young Miss they had,' but being 'good boys', this is more the delight of dogs showing off an owner than an act of human assessment: the possibility that they might find her sexually desirable cannot be countenanced as long as the boys remain good. Black men who meet with Mitchell's approval are not caught by Scarlett's charm, and black men who see her as a sexual possibility are 'insolent' potential rapists, actuated less by interest in that particular woman than in an upstart desire for white women in general.
White men, on the other hand, are animals of a nobler breed. The Tarletons are, within the same chapter, compared to animals too, but where black characters are likened to elephants and apes, the Tarletons are likened to their hounds and horses - European, domesticated, luxury creatures, whose behaviour is everybody's responsibility but their own: 'as mettlesome as the horses they rode, mettlesome and dangerous, but withal, sweet-tempered to those who knew how to handle them.' (So if they kill you, it's your fault for handling them wrong.) Men, in this most female of books, are of a kind: 'They are men, aren't they?' demands one Southern lady, exasperated at Scarlett's surprise that all her friends are Klansmen. Southern society in Gone With The Wind is a mixture of nature and nurture: conformity is expected and social pressure strongly exerted, but the results are simultaneously described in essentialist terms. Who you are, with a few exceptions, rules what you do.
'Men', in other words, is a term loaded with expectations, contradictions and exclusions, meaning a great deal more than 'male members of the genus homo sapiens.' 'Men' are a caste and a kind, with temperaments and politics and destinies all but inherent in their nature. With her sweeping dismissal of all non-Southern-gentlemen-men in the very first sentence - the only men worth mentioning are the ones on whom Scarlett's charm can be safely practiced - Mitchell immediately locates us in her world.
Her tone, too, quickly assures us that she is talking to an equal. We may or may not actually be Southern aristocracy, but the narrative voice includes us in that closed circle. 'The Tarleton twins' are invoked with a casual gesture - not 'Brent and Stuart Tarleton', but 'the Tarleton twins', as if we know the Tarleton family already and can be trusted to know which twins are being referred to. The first sentence immediately inducts us as members of the white aristocracy.
And yet, we are white aristocrats gifted with a degree of perspective not attributed to most 'men' - and we are probably female aristocrats too, given the briefness with which Mitchell dismisses the other gender. Mitchell begins by telling us something that's almost a secret: we get to see Scarlett through her eyes, and her eyes, we are implicitly told, are sharper than most of her characters'. Gone With The Wind strikes a beguiling tone between the analytic and the conspiratorial so flattering to the reader that it is probably the best explanation for why the glaring racism so often doesn't glare. Mitchell takes us into her confidence, and what she offers is an insider's view: we get to enjoy all the luxury and exclusivity of Southern gentry while also pluming ourselves on being smart enough to see through it. An audience lulled with a sense of its own cleverness is far easier to slip things past.
This is the charm of telling us that Scarlett was not beautiful, but ... The balance between 'not' and 'but' implies a willingness to consider things complicated. That is a voice one is generally tempted to trust. In a novel where Black and White are so brutally differentiated, the style strongly conveys the sense that the author believes matters are not black and white. Like a soft-voiced Southern matriarch, Mitchell's tone implies gentle reason even when it bays for blood.
So much for the narrative voice. What of the girl it shows us?
As with any novel that foregrounds a character's name in the first sentence, the name is important. Originally, Scarlett was to be called 'Pansy' until an editor pointed out that the name had associations with homophobic slang.* 'Scarlett' was intended to evoke the heroine's Irish ancestors who fought against British rule, a name that neatly places the Southern aristocracy in the same victim position as the dispossessed Irish, and, of course, also carries with it the overtones of colour, of passion, blood, drama. O'Hara, at once mellifluous and earthily Irish amidst the more aristocratic-sounding names like 'Tarleton' and 'Wilkes', echoes the 'ar' of 'Scarlett', linking both inseparably in a world where marriage will soon, technically, shear her of the latter. Marriage does not change Scarlett, and the internal rhyming of her name keeps her, linguistically as well as psychologically, a perpetually single woman.
Significant, of course, is that we first see her in an act of deception - not a lie, but a performance that dupes the very eyes of her onlookers. Scarlett goes through life presenting a false front to everyone, even herself, and in our first glimpse of her we see a girl so skilled in deceit - so naturalised in it - that she is able to mislead people not just about her inner self, but about her outer self as well: her very face is concealed within a role.
But we, who see through this role, are immediately encouraged to support her despite her lack of beauty: to admire her hybrid vigour over the delicacy of other Southern ladies (though only an intermixture of different white bloodstrains, of course), to appreciate the intelligence that goes into her charm more than the genuine feather-headedness of her rivals, to side with a heroine who is faulty. As Rhett remarks, 'You've got murder to your credit, and husband-stealing, attempted fornication, lying and sharp dealing and any amount of chicanery that won't bear close inspection. Admirable things, all of them. They show you to be a person of energy and determination and a good money risk. It's entertaining, helping people who help themselves.' And it's entertaining to read about them too, to the point where we're encouraged to overlook that fact that on Scarlett's 'credit' list is also slave-owning, support of torture (she shrugs off her father having a slave beaten for failing to rub down his horse), complicity with domestic terrorism (she opposes the Ku Klux Klan on the grounds that it might lose her money, but has no moral qualms about protecting her friends when they participate in it, only financial ones), and within her own race, emotional abuse and neglect of her children (consider her treatment of her poor little son). Mitchell is smart enough to be open about some of these - she acknowledges that Scarlett's a bad mother, puts it in the context that she becomes a mother very young at a time when she has to refugee, and later shows her frustration at finding that her son seems afraid of her. The slave-owning and terrorism, though, is couched in other explanations: protecting white women from rape, a kind of police force born of 'tragic necessity'. Scarlett's faults as a wife, mother and friend are presented as understandable; her racism, on the other hand, is presented as justified.
This is not, perhaps, what Mitchell set out to do, but in its first sentence, Gone With The Wind contains a warning: For External Use Only. Scarlett O'Hara is not beautiful. She is, for all her empowerment, an awful person ... but so vividly is she written, so passionately are her struggles evoked, that somehow, the reader can end up overlooking it. The white reader, at any rate, and it's hard to imagine that Mitchell considered any other kind.
Gone With The Wind is not a nice book, but readers** seldom realise it when caught by its charm.
*Interestingly, Mitchell was called 'Peggy' by most people, and was married to a man called Red Upshaw. Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, Mitchell did not look unlike Vivien Leigh either.
**For Margaret Mitchell's definition of the term, anyway. One sometimes wonders whether she considered that black people could read at all.
O'Hara, ..., echoes the 'ar' of 'Scarlett', linking both inseparably in a world where marriage will soon, technically, shear her of the latter.
And even more, rhymes with "Tara"; and all of Scarlett's sense of self, of identity and agency, are rooted in her control of the land.
I was very surprised when I used the movie version in classes (okay, excerpts, it is a long movie) that students were, in general, incredibly unsympathetic to Scarlett in specific, the O'Hara clan in general and everyone in their social circle.
Since I don't think that a "post-racial" America has yet been achieved I put this down to changes in social cues/mores. Things which were supposed to make Scarlett "lovable" no longer struck many of my male students as such. And most of my female students reacted to her as if she was the alpha girl in a high school "mean girls" group.
Which I think speaks to what Kit has been discussing in many of her deconstructions -- that the authors use subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) cues to direct the audience's responses. When social agreements/understandings change those cues cease to work as initially intended.
I agree with your students that Scarlett's characterisation is close to that of the alpha girl of the mean girls. She admits to flirting with other girls' lovers just for the sake of triumphing over them, and her method for marrying her second husband is the same sort of underhanded technique in those modern works. And yet she's the protagonist of the story and her traits are understandable though not virtuous. Her racism is unexamined, but Scarlett's other troubling personality traits are depicted as exciting, entertaining flaws and amorality.
I've not seen the movie myself. The book is from Scarlett's point of view and encourages readers to identify with her; do you think the movie externalises the viewer more so that there's not quite as much empathy for her?
@Inkfrost - my reaction to the film was coloured by the fact that it's easier to show a disparity between someone's thoughts and action in a book. Vivien Leigh had to show a lot of sideways glances and obvious fakery to make it clear Scarlett's pretending; the upshot was that Scarlett looked less like an intelligent strategist and more like a tantruming child.
Rough gig for the black actors, that. Hattie McDaniel won an Oscar but wasn't invited to the wrap-up party. Butterfly McQueen refused to do maid roles after that and her acting career tanked. And the roles ... there's an opening scene where one slave shouts 'Quitting time!' in the fields, and another says, 'I's the foreman, I say when it's quitting time. Quitting time!', like two kids quarrelling over who's milk monitor this week. (TW: sexual abuse) I can't help but think of Toni Morrison's Beloved, where a chain gang is forced to begin every day by fellating their drivers. One man has the job of shouting 'Hiii!' when it's time to get to work, and being the first man of the day to say anything more than 'Yes, sir' is so important to the community that they call him 'Hi Man' as a mark of respect...
@Kit Whitfield & Inkfrost:
I think the movie is an interesting example of how different media allow different types of resistant/negotiated readings. It is clear that the movie is pulling out all the stops to make the audience pull emotionally for the south. Yet some of the actors (particularly Butterfly McQueen) insert subtle oppositional moments into their scenes.
What made the movie so emotionally powerful when it first came out in some ways works against it now. The visuals don't evoke blurry nostalgia for many of the young. Having no emotional connections with some of the things presented to the eye and ear they are left with the "facts on the ground."
For example, any sweeping shot of a large house evokes the question, "so who cleans it?" And any depiction of the heat the question, "so who is stuck cooking in the overheated kitchen?"
@mmy - that's a good point. I remember another moment that hasn't aged the way Mitchell would wish: ragged Confederate soldiers are straggling home down the road while a Northern 'Scallawag' drives past in a carriage, giving a ride to ... well, here's what I saw: a smartly-dressed, middle-aged black man with a fine bass voice singing an excellent rendition of 'Marching Through Georgia', slightly plump, but rather more handsome and alert-looking than the driver. In short, a middle-class businessman type.Post a comment
Now, after a few seconds reflection, I realised the film wanted me to see this as an image of horrible chaos. By the story's lights, the passenger was an ignorant, 'trashy' freed slave dressed up and elevated by the scoundrelly white guy, who was going to use him as an instrument of oppression against the martyrs in the road. Giving him a ride rather than the soldiers was like feeding your attack dog in front of a starving beggar.
But you really need racist eyes to see that straight away, and while I'm sure I have some bits of racism caught in my teeth (to use an image recently suggested by the admirable Jay Smooth*), I was of the wrong generation to react with immediate revulsion. It just didn't age well, thank goodness.
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