Melanie Wilkes is one of my favorite characters in all of fiction. Yes, I know, most of my favorite characters are psycopaths or fascinatingly miserable, but there is breadth to my tastes and there’s loads of room for Melly. It’s not just that she’s such a perfect foil for Scarlett – calm, intellectual, compassionate – but that she is largely the axis around which the book spins and she manages that role with such grace. I’ve met people like Melanie, people who are naturally and unconsciously kind, but they don’t show up in fiction very often and when they do, they’re often cliched or more plot-device than person. Melanie is none of these things. And that’s what makes her role in this book so beautifully, subtlety magical.
I should probably do an essay about glorification of the Confederacy in Gone with the Wind, because I don’t read it here quite like a lot of people do and talking about Melanie brings us right up to it. On the other hand, I don’t really want to do back-to-back 3,500 word essays, either. So let’s table as much of that discussion as we can for another day, and feel free to scream in the comments if I set off some twitching.
The book does this marvelous thing with Melanie where she is both the thing that thwarts Scarlett’s desires, and Scarlett’s only hope of ever actually getting what she wants. Without Melanie, Scarlett could have had Ashely from the start and the need that helped her focus and kept her going through misery, war, and poverty would have vanished like so much smoke. Instead, her obsession with Ashley takes the place of conscience, and it becomes the only limit on Scarlett’s behavior. Ashley is the only thing that ever prompts self-analysis from Scarlett, or anything like an interest in the inner lives of other people. Without Ashley, Scarlett would have come out of the war an utter sociopath, and she’s not far off even with him. Just by existing, just by making sure Scarlett would never get enough of a handle on Ashley to figure out she didn’t want him, Melanie single-handedly enables our heroine to cling to humanity long enough to grow up and get some sense.
More impressive, though, is the mirror for princes effect Melanie has on Scarlett. Without fail, Melanie interprets everything Scarlett does benignly, attributing thought, motive and intentions Scarlett never had to her actions. Scarlett stays with Melanie in Atlanta and drags her through the siege not because Scarlett is a good person, but because fear of disappointing Ashley drives her to. Yet every time Melanie expresses gratitude for Scarlett’s stalwart caretaking, Scarlett has to face the discrepancy. Objectively, staying with a pregnant woman, rescuing her from battle and then caring for her through privation is a good deed, and Melanie gives Scarlett the space to potentially embrace correct action for the right reasons.
The scene where this is most important comes after Ashely’s surprise birthday party, when Scarlett goes to Melanie to confess. Melanie refuses to hear explanations of any sort because her faith in Scarlett won’t permit it. And here we get the first inkling of an independent conscience from Scarlett, one unmotivated by fear of disappointing somebody she cares about or fear of personal torment in hell.
Yes, it would be her cross, until she died, to keep this tormet silent within her, to wear the hair shirt of shame, to feel it chafing her at every tender look and gesture Melanie would make throughout the years, to subdue forever the impulse to cry: “Don’t be so kind! Don’t fight for me! I’m not worth it!” (936)
Absent Melanie’s utter faith, Scarlett could have had an honest scandal, been utterly cut off from everybody decent, and lost any chance of actually growing up into a worthy person. Melanie believes Scarlett is good and Scarlett, knowing she isn’t, has to actually contemplate that. The first cracks in her immaturity have already started, but Melanie is the wedge that will crack them open, and this moment here is the thin end of it.
Melanie’s powers of illusion extend beyond Scarlett, though. As the paragon of what a good Southern woman ought to be, Melanie has the power to shape what a good Southern woman is. Take, for example, her triumph with the Committee for the Beautification of the Graves of the Glorious Dead. (That name is a punchline that will never get old.) Melanie doesn’t just stop them from ignoring Yankee graves on the grounds that Yankees are evil and unworthy of their effort. Melanie humanizes the Yankees, insists they can’t be a universally bad breed, and convinces the committee that the right thing to do is to put flowers on all the graves. Melanie is the path that allows these women to cling to the ideas and fictions that keep them going without letting those ideas become a path to demonizing others and undermining the moral foundations of the dreamers. Time and again she does this, creating a space where it’s safe to speak out against the war and to question the direction their society has taken without becoming a traitor to that society.
I’m going to talk about what she does for Ashley just long enough to say that yeah, keeping an anti-Klan, anti-secession, abolitionist sane and respectable in post-war society and enabling him to buy mills and turn away convict labor is a good thing, and Melanie did that.
No, far more interesting to me is what Melanie does for Rhett. As far as I’m concerned, the emotional pinnacle of the book is Rhett’s scene with her after Scarlett’s miscarriage, but I’ve got a perverse fondness for putting characters I like in that kind of misery. Sure, Melanie is a great device for showing the reader Rhett’s humanity, but what she does is much cooler than that; she gives him an escape route.
Rhett’s respect for and fondness of Melanie is definitely the flag Mitchell planted to tell the reader, “Yes, he’s a scoundrel and does bad things, but he’s ultimately a good guy.” And it’s good the reader knows that, because there are parts of the book where Rhett doesn’t. He changes his spots, but remains ever the leopard, owns the fact, and with nothing else to judge himself by would drink himself into oblivion at Belle’s, come the end of the book. Twice Melanie enables him to reach for happiness, first in keeping Scarlett away from Ashley long enough for Rhett to marry her, and then in enabling the reform of his reputation, allowing him to spoil Bonnie and sparing him the agony of blighting her prospects with his own misdeeds.
I think it was Melanie’s image of Scarlett that kept Rhett going right up to the end. As long as somebody could see Scarlett as a mature, adult person, Rhett could hope Scarlett would actually become one. That, not Ashley’s sudden availability, is why Melanie’s death triggers his decision to leave. But where he goes and why is important.
“I’ve reached the end of roaming, Scarlett. I’m forty-five – the age when a man begins to value some of the things he’s thrown away so lightly in youth, the clannishness of families, honor and security, roots that go deep.” (1021)
We, the reader, have known he values these things since the night he enlisted in the army. Melanie gives him the space to contemplate that, to see the potential for sincerity and goodness mixed in with the hypocrisy and cruelty he experienced in his childhood, and thereby gives him the path he needs to that life. It’s contentment, not happiness, but it beats the hell out of what anybody else in the book walks away with. Scarlett, freshly enlightened, has to make up for the last eight years of her life, Ashley is incompetent, India guilt-wracked, Pitty stuck with India, Will Benteen married to Sueellen…contentment looks pretty good. But without Melanie there to show Rhett that it is possible to value family and honor and security without being his father, he’d have never made it.
Melanie Wilkes, you are a creature completely out of touch with reality, but you make reality better by doing it. I’m a fan.