Thematically, Gone With the Wind is all about the world being out of whack and off kilter and what that does to the people in it. This is where a lot of the apparent romanticization of plantation society comes from, but it’s also the reason this is a romance novel I love to bits. The plot would not work if the social mores and concepts around love weren’t dysfunctional, and the book knows it. But I think the tension about monogamous love and coerced fidelity actually comes in as a distant second to its unrelenting awareness that women were not given the space they deserved to be real people.
Lots of people argue back and forth over whether or not Scarlet counts as a feminist heroine. On the one hand she defies social convention to go into business and succeed where plenty of men don’t, a big argument for the yes-it’s-feminist crowd. On the other hand, she’s not pro-women, she’s pro-Scarlet and uses her sexuality for everything. I’d grant both sides their points, add in that without a good business head and the brass required to use it, no amount of feminine wiles would have been enough. I don’t think the book’s claim to feminist quality relies on Scarlet at all. Long before we get any inkling that Scarlet is more than a pretty, shallow girl, the book is already pointing out the gender problems in the society.
Gerald rode beside the carriage on his big hunter, warm with brandy and pleased with himself for having gotten through with the unpleasant business of Wilkerson so speedily. He had shoved the responsibility onto Ellen, and her disappointment at missing the barbecue and the gathering of her friends did not enter his mind; for it was a fine spring day and his fields were beautiful and the birds were signing and he felt too young and frolicsome to think of anyone else. (84)
There are dozens of quotes in the early chapters where the book just casually drops, “The women worked their assess off and covered for the men’s mistakes and the men cheerfully didn’t notice and carried on.” I picked this one because Gerald’s reaction to Ellen’s death is, I think, one of the most heart-wrenching moments in the book. She just about literally works herself to death and losing her destroys him. But here he is, on page 84, contributing to it. Assuming the reader tracks the details of their relationship across 500 pages, you don’t get a much clearer argument. Ellen was a real, developed, capable woman who Gerald didn’t understand, and that lack of understanding and his willingness to profit off it is his undoing. Right there, the book opens with “Women are real, capable people,” and sets up, “Forgetting that will end in insanity and death.”
Another point, let’s take a look at Miss Pittypat. Like many of the characters in the book, having to interact with this woman would drive me toward homicide. She is the epitome of what a woman allegedly ought to be; delicate, fainting, frivolous, and uselessly dependent on others – especially men – for everything. Melanie pretends she’s dependent on Ashley while quietly guiding him along. Mrs. Merriweather et. al actively intimidate everyone, including the men. Ellen nurses a secret longing for a dead lover not her husband. Every single (white, I’ll get there tomorrow) woman in the book except Miss Pittypat with the least bit of happiness breaks from the official conventions in some fashion. And Miss Pittypat is tolerable as a character in the book only because in her exquisite, continuous misery she makes great comic relief. It’s in the subtext for most of the book, but when Melanie and India start feuding the book comes right out and says it.
Yes, Pitty owed love to Melanie, security to Scarlet, and what did she owe India? Nothing, except that India’s presence kept her from having to break up her pleasant life and make decisions for herself. It was all most distressing and too, too vulgar and Pitty, who had never made a decision for herself in her whole life, simply let matters go on as they were and as a result spent much time in uncomforted tears. (943)
The book has, by this time, established India as a sufficiently dour, unpleasant person that being forced to live with her does seem rather a fate worse than death, and the point here seems to be clear, as well. Women who break from the official standard have a chance at happiness and contentment. The ones who don’t wind up quietly, helplessly miserable.
The character in the book who comes closest to a feminist has to be Rhett. He doesn’t quite get there, but he comes awfully close. His attraction to Scarlet is the first obvious clue – he falls for her precisely because she’s a smart, fearless, capable woman. This is explicitly the source of her appeal to him as contrasted with the other, prettier girls he boasts about getting bored of. Women are mysterious, delicate creatures to Rhett. He apprciates them as people, is shamelessly comfortable with female bodies including pregnancy and whatnot, is thoroughly sex-positive, and appreciates the damage done to them by a culture that values shallowness and vapidity in its females. He isn’t perfect, see his comment about Yankee girls making it clear they don’t need men and that being why they’ll never be as appealing as Southern women, but he makes it most of the way.
It’s telling about the book’s intentions, then, that the character most closely resembling a modern feminist is established as the correct object for affection. Even Scarlet figures out what a waste of space Ashley is by the end, opting instead for Rhett. Of everybody in the book, I’d say Rhett makes it out the least scathed, too. Like Scarlet, he’s got the strength to get through what happens to him, and unlike her, he walks out of the book on a path he chooses and ready to be content with his life.
Some of you are probably screaming because I’ve glossed over Rhett’s flagrant possessiveness and the, er, fuzzy consent scene. I’m getting there. Gimme sec.
Remember, I’m reading this book as one built on examining the damage done to its characters by the things wrong with the world. This is why I started with Ellen and Gerald and Miss Pittypat. Context and setting matter. This book could not be set somewhere else or during a different time without fundamentally changing its thematic content. This but there book is saying things about war and the South and feminism but there is no stand-in character for the author. None of the characters stand back and expound the themes or messages. They’re too enmeshed in the setting to do that. The pointers come from the narrator and from the way the story unfolds. Once, just once, Scarlet explicitly examines the the role her society approves for women.
A startling thought this, that a woman could handle business matters as well as or better than a man, a revolutionary thought to Scarlet who had been reared in the tradition that men were omniscient and women none too bright. Of course, she had discovered that this was not altogether true but the pleasant fiction still stuck in her mind. (610-611)
Being Scarlet, this thought process ends in a determination to make money and that’s the end of it. But Mitchell left it on the page for the reader to pick up, and mix in with all the other hints, clues and observations contained in the book. This is a feminist book without a single feminist character in it, and deliciously avoids the painful didacticism that undermines or dates other books so relentlessly on message.
But that brings us to the problems with Rhett, our almost-not-quite champion. This time through I noted three marks against him; the comment about Yankee girls, Bonnie, and the afore mentioned consent-fail. The comment about Yankee girls is, I think, so clearly an artifact of his Cherlestonian upbringing and suppressed but still present cultural conditioning that it’s not very interesting; it’s there because he wouldn’t be a human character without it. Bonnie, though. Well, Bonnie.
Even before Scarlett was able to be about again, she noticed Rhett’s pre-occupation with the baby and was somewhat nettled and embarrassed at his pride in her in front of callers…
“You are making a fool of yourself,” she said irritably, “and I don’t see why.”
“No? Well, you wouldn’t. The reason is that she’s the first person who’s ever belonged utterly to me.”
“She belongs to me, too!”
“No, you have two other children. She’s mine.”
“Great balls of fire!” said Scarlett. “I had the baby, didn’t I? Besides, honey, I belong to you.”
Rhett looked at her over the black head of the child and smiled oddly.
“Do you, my dear?” (880-881)
Want to see a poly girl’s crush waver? Yeah, this scene is actually the moment where I go, “Wait, maybe Rhett isn’t so perfect,” far more than the other one. I can handwave his jealousy about Ashley but this implication that he wants to own Scarlett, one he confirms in their parting scene at the end of the book, this is squick-inducing. Like the stereotype of the modern woman, Rhett might not care about sexual fidelity but he’s hung up on emotional fidelity. And in a book set when and where it is, there is no handwaving expressions about ownership. Rhett, you scoundrel, you let me down.
Mitchell doesn’t. Rhett suffers two great blows in the book, and they both tie into this possessiveness. Bonnie dies explicitly because Rhett indulges her and lets her raise the jumping bar too high after saying she had to wait until she could sit a bigger pony. (A detail, incidentally, cut from the movie which generally ignored most of the subtlety in the book) Like Gerald’s suffering after letting Ellen work herself to death, Rhett possesses Bonnie to the point that nobody’s efforts to curb his spoiling work, and that indulgence kills her and wounds him. Rhett is flawed and wrong in wanting to express his affection the way he does, and the book’s plot engines punish him for it. The second blow, of course, is failing to take possession of Scarlett, suffering with the desire to, and finally realizing that he’s lost his passion for her. There was no safe way for him to go about falling in love with Scarlett, and the way he went about it is at least 60% of what makes him appealing to me, but absent that need to possess her, their timing just might have lined up. He doesn’t pack his bags and leave when Bonnie dies; he waits until Melanie is dead and Ashley is free. It’s the (mistaken) realization that he’ll never really have Scarlett that cements this second wound for him. His inflexible need for emotional fidelity robs him of the chance to have an adult relationship with Scarlett when she’s ready to be an adult. His desire to spoil and coddle and own might be something dangled to the reader as part of his appeal, but it certainly isn’t endorsed by its consequences.
And that brings us, at last, to the scene in the book where the feminist arguments get really thorny. I’m utterly in capable of looking at this scene objectively – the movie oversimplified it and I saw it when I was too young when I saw it to get what was going on. It was all high drama and tension with Rhett giving Scarlett a well-earned telling off, dramatic exit up the stairs, cut to smiles. Once i was old enough to get what was going on it was too late for a shocking first exposure. What happens in the movie is rape, hands down, and the handling of the next day is done badly, without question. I’m not even interested in entertaining an argument about this scene, as rendered in the movie. (You could argue that after the camera cuts, he dropped Scarlett in bed and stormed off to Belle’s, but then you have to explain exactly how Scarlett wound up pregnant and I don’t think you can.)
It’d be nice if the book were that easy, but I can’t bring myself to look at it that way. Part of that stems from a series of complex, inconclusive, thoroughly unsatisfying thoughts I run into with pre-sexual revolution marital rape in general. On the one hand, I operate from a strict, “If it felt like rape, you were raped,” philosophy, and no amount of cultural or historical context is going to change that. What gets thorny for me is looking for a rapist. Modern days ideas like enthusiastic consent are wide spread enough that short of a reason to suspect fabrication, for every person claiming rape there’s a responsible party to be labeled as a rapist. Current standards make it clear that acts undertaken where ambiguity or miscommunication are possible means minimal standards for consent were not met. Period. Easy peasy. But that’s modern context. This book is not set in our culture. It wasn’t written in our culture. And it is actively engaging with questions about female sexuality and the idea that women might crave and enjoy sex as men do. This leads us to a rather sticky mess.
What we have is a culture where a woman in Scarlett’s position cannot consent to sex outside of marriage. If she has extra-marital sex then officially, she’s been seduced and the person she had it with (assuming a man, I’m not sure what would happen with a discovered lesbian affair) is liable to be shot. In one of my favorite scenes in the book, Rhett proposes that Scarlett become his mistress, but even that proposal runs a risk of getting him shot. Inside a marriage, officially, consent is a given. The book reminds us of this well before the problem scene, when Scarlett bans Rhett from her room and he points out that he could divorce her for it. In other words, officially, Scarlett is not the arbiter of her own consent, her marital status is. A decent, respectful husband will take his wife’s opinion into consideration when opting to exercise his marital rights, but he’s not a rapist of he doesn’t because her consent is understood. Modern women aren’t more delicate or victim-prone than historical counterparts, so these wives could still feel raped, but to call their husbands rapists…I struggle here. These men have been raised with the understanding that their wife’s consent is a given. At points in history they’ve been told that a good woman is going to say no and be repulsed or otherwise displeased or upset but they should go on with it anyway. To call them a rapist assigns responsibility, and I struggle with doing that to somebody who has, effectively, been lied to.
This struggle is academic in general, and particularly so when it comes to Rhett because, and this could be me reading him with modern sensibilities and a long-standing crush on him, I think he does know better. I’m convinced enough of his proto-feminism that I’m certain he’d look at that scene and be just as uncomfortable with it. There’s even a hint of it in the book; he disappears for two days. Shame? Remorse? I read it that way because it makes me feel better about him and I enjoy feeling good about Rhett. I can’t really argue with you if you don’t read it that way. But that doesn’t quite simplify things enough for me to comfortably draw a “Rhett, you did a bad thing,” line. Movie Rhett, absolutely. Book Rhett…
He hurt her and she cried out, muffled frightened. Up the stairs he went in the utter darkness, up, up and she was wild with fear…He was shaking, as though he stood in a strong wind, and his lips, traveling from her mouth downward to where the wrapper had fallen from her body, fell on her soft flesh…She tried to speak and his mouth was over hers again. Suddenly she had a wild thrill such as she had never known; joy, fear, sadness, excitement, surrenter to arms that were too strong, lips too bruising, fate that moved too fast. For thuld neither first time in her life she had met someone, something stronger than she, someone she could neither bully nor break, someone who was bullying and breaking her. Somehow, her arms were around his neck and her lips trembling beneath his and they were going up, up into the darkness again. (929)
Emphasis mine. That’s about half the paragraph that causes all the problems. Rhett’s behavior prior to that paragraph isn’t great, but neither of them treats the other one very well and he’s not escalating their baseline by much. At the beginning of this paragraph, Rhett’s in the middle of doing a very bad thing he knows is bad. By the end of it, around where I drew the underline, Scarlett’s making everything complicated by consenting. Dragging her up the stairs and the first kiss, not okay. Would Rhett have kept going even if Scarlett hadn’t changed her mind? You could argue it either way. If yes, why did he stop before they got to her room? That could have been his better angels stepping in. Or it could have been a convenient way to heighten the tension and get more sex on the page before the obligatory cutting away at the bedroom door. We know that, come the next day, Scarlett doesn’t feel raped. On the contrary, this is the moment she later fixates on as when she started valuing Rhett. (It’s not. There are hints well before this. But nobody is crediting Scarlett with great personal insight) It’s, saints preserve us, the first time Rhett really snags her attention.
I blame Mitchell for this one. If she’d at least given me a line scolding Rhett for the bit before the underlined bits, I could chalk all of this up to the complicated, messy fallout of letting anything other than incident by incident consent mediate how people go about fucking each other and saved us about a thousand words of essay. Instead, she drops this bomb in the plot and lets it sit there. It’s well done enough that I believe the whole sequence, from Rhett’s violation to Scarlett’s reaction. My best guess for making this work is that by the standards of 1936, since Scarlett consented before they got to bed this scene wasn’t as problematic then as it is now. I do not know enough about the sexual mores of 1936 to know whether or not that’s true. I feel like if she’d written it today the scene itself would have been largely the same, but we’d get a few dry remarks from the narrator in the aftermath.
I really want to point to Scarlett’s miscarriage and the agony Rhett goes through while she’s recovering as his plot-engine punishment for crossing lines, but I’m running face first into the part where Scarlett is the one who almost died, and it’s her book, not his. She’s being punished for abusing her children and being too stupid to value the right things, and there’s no reason the plot-engines can’t punish multiple characters with the same events. And arguing, “Rhett mistreats Scarlett, then nearly loses her,” is virtually the same argument I made for Gerald and Ellen. I’m sure that’s what the book is trying. The problem is that this time, it doesn’t work. Rhett’s too aware which simultaneously upps the tragedy and makes punishing him by hurting the women in his life less acceptable. The book never manages to fridge Scarlett, but I’m not about to praise it for trying in order to deal with fuzzy consent.
So, in summary, feminist book, no feminist characters, not quite perfect. And when they start selling Rhett Butler, I’ll take two.