“Gone With the Wind”: A Tale of Two Terrible People Falling in Love
On the surface, “Gone With the Wind” is a film that’s half spent listening to a whiny Southern brat lament a love she never had and half spent listening to Southerners lament the loss of an inevitably doomed lifestyle. But “Gone With the Wind” is more than a parody of the romanticism of the Confederacy; it’s a parody of romance itself. In it, there are four major characters; a married couple, Ashley and Melanie, who could not be more in love with each other and the Confederate cause, and Scarlett and Rhett, who only take breaks from loving themselves to indulge in the manipulation of better people. While Ashley and Melanie pledge their loyalty to a dying ideology, Scarlett and Rhett find refuge in narcissism, self-absorption, and exploitation.
Gerald O’Hara, Scarlett’s father, believed that “land is the only thing in the world worth working for, worth fighting for, worth dying for, because it’s the only thing that lasts.” I imagine many Confederate soldiers fought and died repeating this mantra to themselves in the midst of battle, but what good was the land after Sherman torched it? Southerners not only watched their homes burn, but watched their livelihood disappear following the abolition of slavery. All that was left was poverty and starvation. What good is land if you can’t prosper from it?
And what good is love if you’re too self-absorbed to enjoy it? Joyce Carol Oates wrote, “In love there are two things – bodies and words.” If this is true, neither Scarlett nor Rhett ever truly loved each other, or anyone else for that matter. Scarlett spends most of the movie fawning over Ashley Wilkes, a married man who speaks affectionate words to her but who she can never fully have. On the other end is Rhett, who at one point succeeds in marrying and fathering a child with Scarlett, only to find the experience unsatisfying and lacking the one thing he truly desires, for her to say she loves him. One chases a body, the other chases words, and neither is happy in the end.
If the film has one message, it’s this: don’t go chasing waterfalls. Or, more specifically, don’t be so self-centered that you can’t enjoy a union. The South could have avoided its decimation by accepting the abolishment of slavery and the inevitability of a changing world. In a similar sense, Scarlett and Rhett had ample opportunity to build a loving marriage, assuming either had taken the time to understand what love truly meant. Love is cooperation. It’s not one side persuading or manipulating the other, but two people who work together because they truly care about the other person. Rhett only cared about a conquest and Scarlett only cared about a fortune and both are temporary endeavors.
So what makes them terrible people? The same thing that makes anyone terrible. Carelessness.
Let’s start with Scarlett who is, in every sense of the word, a sociopath. In fact, the film opens with her strumming the heartstrings of two fawning ginger soldiers while she ho-hums on about how boring war is. This will set the stage for her to enter three marriages; one to make another man jealous, one to escape poverty, one to expand her fortune, none for love. Did I mention the first was Ashley Wilkes’ brother? And the second is her sister’s fiancée? Terrible.
Then there’s Rhett, the epitome of smug assholishness. He spends most of the film telling Scarlett he loves her while he bangs prostitutes. He also might be a psychotic, as indicated in the scene where, in a drunken stupor, he regales his wife with fantasies of smashing her head like a walnut. Charming.
So how do you make a love story with two self-centered douchebags as its main characters? Easy. You set it over the backdrop of the antebellum South. Any behavior seems tolerable when juxtaposed with the horrors of slavery. You stole your sister’s fiancée? Well, at least you’re not a slaver. You threatened to murder your wife? Well, at least you’re not a slaver. You use everyone around you for your own personal advancement? Well, at least you’re not a slaver. What’s that, Mammy? They used to be slavers? Well shit.
The true tragedy that results isn’t that Scarlett and Rhett never found love together. That, like the dream of the Confederacy, was doomed from the beginning. The true tragedy is that Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler have been embraced by book readers and moviegoers alike as characters worthy of admiration and imitation. Scarlett is often praised as a feminist icon, a survivor of desperate circumstances who uses the one advantage she has to get ahead, her charisma. Rhett is painted as a dreamboat, who conquers his only weakness by telling the woman he loves that he “doesn’t give a damn.” They’re the literary role models for egoists too smart to worship the Kardashians.
It may pain some to hear that one of the great romance novels of all time is, in fact, a stinging critique of romance itself. Scarlett and Rhett, who spend the entire book caught up in their own selfish romantic pursuits end up alone in the end while Ashley and Melanie find time to devote themselves to causes outside of themselves and enjoy a long, healthy relationship with each other. It’s a reminder that morality and love are inseparable and we can’t truly accomplish one without embracing the other.
Then again, they were all slavers, so fuck all of them equally.