Monday, March 2, 2009

Gone with the Wind

The New York Times ran a review of a new book about Gone With the Wind, called “Frankly my Dear: Gone with the Wind Revisited,” by Molly Haskell -- that defends the novel and its film incarnation.

I think it’s true that women from my mother’s generation --like my mother -- avidly admired Scarlett for her spirit and her “masculine” ability to fight the odds and survive. They admired her willingness to flout the rules and do what she wanted, which must have been deeply vicariously satisfying in times of greater social constraint. They also, I have to say, admired her willingness to push aside loving, nurturing motherhood as central to her existence in favor of a more robust engagement with the wider world. They also appreciated her sharp tongue and her willingness to tell people what she thought. In a word, Scarlett was a rebel. At the same time, she was a narcissistic rebel without a shred of interest in generalized do gooding: Whether it was to dance a reel or accept a new hat, she rebelled to make life better for herself.

So yes, I would say that for a generation of women (at least some) who came of age in the 1940s and 1950s, Scarlett represented a deep, rich well of water from which they could drink, an (unconventionally) beautiful girl-woman who was the vicarious fulfillment of their fantasies.

However ... fairly recently, I watched the movie with a group of students, some of whom had never seen it before. Some of the girls were taken with Scarlett’s spirit of survival. I was struck, however, with how much this was a film about the Depression, not the Civil War. Of course this book, published in 1936 and made into a movie in 1939, became a blockbuster. It replayed for people, at a safe distance, their own recent experience of devastating financial upheaval. After all, the war, despite a few powerful, dramatic scenes, is largely peripheral or a plot device -- this is a movie about survival when the economic rug has been violently pulled out from under you.

On this latest viewing, I was also struck by how much Mammy is the moral center of the drama. She has a common sense, decency and grace that none of the other characters can attain. Certainly not Scarlett, with her vanity, star persona, unscrupulousness, hot temper and overwhelming, greedy sense of entitlement. Certainly not Melanie, damaged as she is by the ideology of honor and the Old South, willing to condone Ku Klux Klan murders to uphold a flawed social order, starry-eyed about motherhood to the point she dies in the attempt to have a second child. Certainly not Ashley, with his longing for the happy slave days on the plantation, his self-absorption, his misguided sense of nobility, his weakness, nor Rhett, with his cruel streak and tragic fantasy that he can bend reality to suit the whims of his young daughter.

But Mammy. She survives without the calculating, clawing manipulations of Scarlett, somehow always serene, always the same. The war may have changed Scarlett, and it might have turned both Ashley and Melanie into self-righteous killers, but it flows around Mammy, leaving her as unscathed as a rock. She remains who she is. She sees people for what they are -- and remains filled with compassion for them. She’s not damaged by lofty notions or an overblown sense of self and destiny. She has fewer highfalutin' ideals than the others, and yet does more day-to-day good than anyone else in the film. The moral high point of the movie may be when she calls Rhett and Scarlett mules in horse clothing ... and when, nevertheless, she accepts from Rhett the gift of red taffeta petticoat. She takes it freely: Mammy is one character you know can never be bought. She is the one character, even more so than Melanie, who does nothing but good for other people. Without her, where would any of them be?

I think we miss seeing Mammy as the moral center, the exemplar, the model of the good in the film, because she’s a slave/former slave and because we take her to be a stock character providing a combination of nurture and comic relief. We see her as acted upon rather than acting. But nobody, in the end, acts upon Mammy except in the most superficial ways. She’s deeply, deeply centered, her depths unknowable. She has the stillness of a Quaker. You know from all her actions that she cares more about people than about things and can always be trusted. Going from slave to free hardly ruffles her, because, you know, whatever her legal status, that she owns she her own soul.

Mammy is played in order to comfort whites that blacks are there for them and want nothing more than to care for them. But Mammy should disturb us. She’s an ever present critique of the damaging and childish histrionics of the main characters. They misunderstand her as they rely on her. She represents something completely different. She is where the real survival occurs, quiet, without drawing attention to itself, unseen but in plain sight, doing what needs to be done.

Frankly my Dear also mentioned the perpetual adolescence of Scarlett. That’s a contrast to Mammy, who is perpetually the adult, perpetually wise, more of a mother to Scarlett than the ephemeral, and ultimately useless Ellen. But it also bring to mind the childlike quality of Bella, the protagonist of the bestselling Twilight series vampire books (I just read this book and was somewhat horrified). What is it about childlike characters that attracts us?


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed this article in the NYTimes also. I think that Scarlett's selfishness and willingness to be ruthless, while at the same time remaining a sympathetic character is what is so secretly appealing to women. The freedom to be so self centered! It must have been especially heady for women in the 30s to see such a woman on film. I agree that Mammy is the moral compass of the book and film. I recently saw footage of Hattie Mc Daniel (mammy in the film) accepting the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in 1939. She looked so terrified, it was
heartbreaking. People in latter years mocked her comment about hoping to "be a credit to her race" but I always saw that as a self-protective act to deflect the backlash she must have feared after winning the award.
Lisa S

Ted M. Gossard said...

Interesting. This may have been a movie I fell asleep when Deb and I were watching it in the past. Not sure, though the main character, Scarlett does seem to ring a faint bell for me.

But interesting words, especially concerning Mamma, that she is like a Quaker. Unchanged by what goes on around her. Surely the more we're rooted in God through Christ, the more this will be true of us.

Thanks for sharing that. Does make me have an interest to see the film and this time stay awake during it (though that can take more than one attempt for me!)