In defense of Scarlett O’Hara

Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm…

I have lately read quite a few book reviews of and discussions about Gone With the Wind. My relationship with this book goes back quite a while and it is one of my favourite books. I was therefore a bit shocked to read that so many people have a very negative view of the book in general and of the heroine in particular.

Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara

Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara

When I was young, not yet a teenager, my grandmother, my oma – my mom’s mother – used to roll my sister’s and my hair in little bundles, tied together with strings. She made sure the hair was damp and the strings were on tight and we were then sent off to bed. In the morning, we would have beautiful ring-lady curls, just like Scarlett O’Hara from Gone With the Wind. Oma had an edition of the book with pictures from the movie in it and she used to let us gaze at the beautiful girls with their curly hair and gorgeous dresses. The pictures were only back and white but oh, did they speak to my imagination!

Then when I was a teenager, I saw the movie for the first time. My mom saw it with me and confided in me that when she had read the book for the first time, she walked around for days feeling that something dreadful had happened, only to remember it was the ending of Gone With the Wind that had affected her so much. Considering my mom never told us much about herself as a teenager, and especially not about her emotions as a teenager, this made a great impression on me. Needless to say, I cried for days after I saw the movie for the first time.

Scarlett O'Hara at Tara

Scarlett O’Hara at Tara

All of this is to show how my relationship with this wonderful book started. I saw the pictures, saw the movie and only then did I read the book. Nowadays, I tend to read the book before I see the movie, but not so with Gone With the Wind. In my imagination, Rhett Butler had always looked like Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh was Scarlett O’Hara.

I have to say that in my first readings of Gone With the Wind I absolutely loved and adored Scarlett. I thought she was gorgeous, strong, full of life, and I aspired to be like her. Later, as I grew up and understood life a bit better, I could see her flaws. Scarlett O’Hara is as far removed from Mary Sue as a character can possible be, but for me, she is someone who is to be admired rather than admonished. And yes, I know she is a fictional character, but she is so complex and so well-written that she might as well have been a real person.

If you have not read Gone With the Wind, please mend the error of your ways and come back when you are done. Continuing to read this blog post without knowing Scarlett O’Hara would only be confusing.Critics of Scarlett say she is ego-centric, vain, spoiled and materialistic. As I said at the beginning of my post, I was shocked that some people really seemed to hate her. To dismiss her by saying she is a bad person, you have evidently not read or understood the book. Let’s take a look at the things Scarlett did in the years that are described in the book.

  • When war came to Atlanta and the city was under siege, Scarlett stayed in aunt Pitty’s house with Melanie, helping her deliver the baby even though she desperately wanted to go home. Sure, she did not think kind thoughts of Melanie, but she still did stay and helped Melanie through a very difficult child birth. When the baby was born, she drove herself, Melanie and Prissy with the baby to Tara, fighting off anyone who tried to steal the horse or wagon.
  • And when she finally came home to her beloved Tara in the hope to be embraced by her mother, in the hope that her mother would take her burden off her and give her some support and love, she found out that her mother had died and her father had gone mad. Let’s not forget she was still only a young woman at this time, almost still a girl. She didn’t fall to pieces when she found out that her mother had died, but she took charge and kept Tara running all through the war.Hollywood's Greatest Year: The Best Picture Nominees of 1939
  • During the war, and even after the war, it was Scarlett who kept Tara running, who kept food on the table and who took care of everything. If it wasn’t for her, a lot of people who have gone hungry and died and Tara would have been lost.
  • And when the war was all over and society was slowly built up again, Scarlett worked harder than anyone. She made the wood mill a successful business, fleecing the Yankees any way she could, but being good to the men in her employ. She didn’t just sit back and let others take care of her, she reinvented herself completely.

Sure, she did not recognise the good thing she had with Rhett, as she was caught up in her childish infatuation with the oh so dull Ashley. But in a way, who could blame her? She was brought up to revere perfect gentlemen like Ashley, and she had been forced to grow up very fast in extremely difficult circumstances. It is psychologically no wonder that she clung to that last remnant of her past, when the most she had to worry about was what dress to wear to the party.

In my view, Scarlett has always been a pillar of strength. She may have wanted to wail and tear her hair out and curl up in a little ball of misery, as she had plenty of reason to, but she always got up and did what needed doing. Through all the misery, hell, and disaster, she pushed her feelings aside and kept going. She never whined and never quit. She is not always a very likable character, but she is definitely admirable.

The scene that cuts me through the heart is not the scene where she vows never to be hungry again, but rather the scene where she comes home to Tara and is told that her mother died the day before. I have always viewed that as the turning point in the book, as that is the point where she knows she doesn’t have anyone to rely on anymore and she is utterly on her own.

Although, of course, the end is the most gut-wrenching part of all. Some say Scarlett got what she deserved, and a forced happy ending to this book would have ruined it, but I still think that Margaret Mitchell was particularly cruel to Scarlett.

After Rhett tells her he is leaving her, the book ends with this – I am excerpting this a bit:

She silently watched him go up the stairs, feeling that she would strangle at the pain in her throat. With the sound of his feet dying away in the upper hall was dying the last thing that mattered.

“I’ll think of it all tomorrow, at Tara. I can stand it then. Tomorrow, I’ll think of some way to get him back. After all, tomorrow is another day.”

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4 thoughts on “In defense of Scarlett O’Hara

  1. Wow, that’s some review!!! Actually, you even reformed me, because I also tended to find Scarlett something of a bitch! Thanks for your excellent analysis!!!

  2. I read Gone with the Wind so long ago, but I do remember loving Scarlett too. I think people tend to judge the classics by today’s standards and so end up objecting to the way women are shown, even if they are shown realistically for those times. She is a bundle of contradictions, but so are people, and I think that’s one reason she’s such a great character.

  3. Goed, mijn engels is niet zo geweldig (en schrijven kan ik het zeker niet goed), maar dit atrikel over Scarlett moest ik natuurlijk wel lezen. Ik ben immers ook enorm fan van Gone with the wind. Zowel boek als film. Ik geloof dat ik het boek al zo’n 4x gelezen heb.
    Ik ben het helemaal met je eens. Ik heb Scarlett nooit als complete bitch gezien, maar ook als een meisje/vrouw die bepaalde keuzes moest maken om te overleven. Ze was inderaad een zeer sterke vrouw. En ja, ze maakte natuurlijk ook grote fouten (maar wie niet….). Dat ze maar van die slapjanus van een Ashley bleef houden, was om te kotsen zo erg. Jouw visie op haar liefde voor Ashley had ik nooit eerder zo gezien. Daar zit namelijk wel wat in.

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