Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Gone With The Wind: Four Fascinating Characters, Four Fatal Flaws

It's been said that the most notable characteristic of America's "most beloved epic novel" is its larger than life, yet deeply flawed characters. There's no question about it — these characters, Rhett, Scarlett, Melanie, and Ashley, some of the most famous in all of literature — are as variegated, as alternatingly despicable-and-sympathetic, and as purely human as any characters you might ever stumble across on the fictional landscape. Kudos, Mags! Too bad you got hit by that car, and couldn't tell us what happens next.

Anyway, going back and forth between rooting for and then being disgusted by these characters was by far my favorite part of the novel. For all the ups and downs of each character, each also has the infamous "fatal flaw." No matter the other positive qualities, this flaw is what  leads to destruction — not necessarily of themselves, but certainly of their happiness. So, since this, to me, was the most interesting part of this very interesting novel, let's take a look at look at each. (What follows assumes that you've read the book (or, I guess, seen the movie) and therefore have at least a cursory knowledge of plot. In other words: Contains Spoilers.)

Scarlett is the easiest to talk about in the context of the fatal flaw, because she's quite flawed — she's manipulative, selfish and harsh. But none of those are fatal. What's fatal for her is that she believes that her manipulation, selfishness and harshness are enough for her to overcome any obstacle. And they're not. With Rhett, she meets her match. Scarlett does have fine many qualities. She has a stern sense of tradition, and she's willing to to do what is required. She also is a strong, willful woman, not something that was easy or generally accepted in that society. But those qualities are often overshadowed by her negative ones. For instance, she may be strong and willful, but she's only willing to combat cultural norms when it serves her need to do so. Otherwise, as in the case of her treatment of ex-slaves, she doesn't care. She's by no means enlightened. Even marrying Frank to save Tara isn't altruistic, because it's to her benefit. And she manipulated poor Frank at the expensive of his happiness and her sister Suellen's.

You've heard the "women love him, men would love to be him" idea, right? That's Rhett. In fact, Rhett is the only character whose side I was on from beginning to end. He's the archetype of manliness (how many times does Mitchell describe his mat of black chest hair and hard muscles?). So it's a bit ironic that Rhett's fatal flaw is love. It's only when he sacrifices his independence and aloofness to marry Scarlett and then to dote upon his daughter Bonnie, that he begins to unravel. All his life, he'd shunned normal ways of behaving, and been wildly successful. But the minute he returns to earth, so to speak, he's overwhelmed by the same problems the rest of the mere mortals face. And that's what destroys him. He's not equipped to handle it. He goes insane, not wanting to bury his dead daughter. And he falls out of love with Scarlett, realizing she'll never live up to his ideal.

Melanie is, as Rhett says, "the only completely kind person I ever knew." That's admirable as hell, but she is also blissfully naive, choosing not to believe that there could ever be any cruelty or harshness in the world. Ultimately and ironically, this doesn't destroy her (her death does), but it aides in the destruction (of the happiness) of all three of the other characters. Her flaw is introduced early in the novel as she misinterprets Scarlett's sadness as mourning for Charles — Melanie's brother who Scarlett married to spite Ashley, after he rejected her. But Melanie's naivety becomes much more central to the novel as Scarlett is constantly maneuvering to keep Ashley near her, and Melanie chooses to believe it's out of loyalty, not for ulterior motives. At one point, Scarlett considers "flinging the truth tauntingly in Melanie's face and seeing the collapse of her fool's paradise." Melanie's naivete, even though it works as a shroud of defense for Scarlett's devotion to Ashley, is so frustrating even to Scarlett, who stands everything to lose by revealing the secret of her love, that she actually contemplates revealing it just to spite Melanie. Fascinating.

Ashley, to me, is the least interesting character. He's a milquetoast. No guts. He pretty much packs it in on life after he returns from the war. Mitchell explains at one point that Ashley and Rhett are cut from the same cloth. The difference, though, and it's a big one, is that Ashley's sense of honor and decorum has dissolved his backbone, whereas Rhett isn't worried about such convention. Of course, it is admirable that he is loyal to his wife, resisting the temptation to run away with Scarlett. But he's also too loyal to convention to ever make anything of himself. And it's Melanie's naive loyalty to Scarlett that forces him to go to Atlanta and work in Scarlett's lumber mill, instead of striking out on his own to New York.

So now you're wondering if I liked the book? I did. A lot more than I thought I would, in fact. I had a misconception that this was a lovey-dovey, females-only story. It's far from that. I mean, Scarlett and Rhett don't even "fall in love" until about page 800. I was amazed at that. (In fact, the only really sappy part here is that my GF and I read this at the same time so we could discuss. I know, Awwwww.) As a Civil War geek, I loved all the historical detail — of course, everyone knows about Sherman's march to the sea, but I didn't know about the slow advance towards Atlanta with Johnston defending the railroad the whole way. That was fascinating! And, finally, the last lines are haunting: "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."

(Also, I was shocked to learn that in the book, Rhett doesn't say "Frankly" as he does in the most famous line from the movie. It's just "My dear, I don't give a damn.")

(One final, final thing — My favorite quote from the novel: "My dear, the world can ignore practically anything except people who mind their own business." — Rhett)


  1. I loved reading this book and I loved reading your commentary on the characters - they are so terrible in their own ways that you can't help but love them!

  2. I read this book for the first time in a read-along a year (two years?) ago. OMG, the hugeness of the book and tiny little font, but I'm sure I'll read it again. I agree with everything you said here. Love love love Rhett. He really deserves me, but he could only be tamed by someone like Scarlett. Now Scarlett, you had to admire her spunk, but what a bitch. My most detested character was Ashley. He needs to be smacked. Hard.

  3. Glad you liked GWTW,Greg. You pretty much hit the nail on the head with the four leads,altho I think that Melanie was at times deliberately not seeing the dark side there(especially that night when the menfolk went out to seek "street justice").

    Scarlett is the most complex and the most self centered character in the book-the first time I read the book,she overwhelmed me,the second I hated her guts but the third time had me admiring her spunk(even if she refused to be enlightened there).

    Spoiler Alert for this next part(for those who haven't read the book):

    My theory about her love for Ashley vs. Rhett is that Scarlett wanted to be with someone who was more like her mother,that "gentle lady" who married Gerald O'Hara on the rebound from a passionate forbidden love.

    Ashley seemed to be that kind of pillar of strength person at first but on closer examination and life experience,he's more of a follower than a leader.

    Rhett is more like Scarlett's father;a smooth talker and straight shooter,which is why Scarlett is drawn to and yet repulsed by him. Granted,Gerald fell apart when his wife died but so did Rhett when Bonnie did as well.

    Those two were more in sync with Scarlett than she wanted to admit and realized perhaps too late.

  4. Well don't I know feel terrible for never having read this. :0 I have to admit that this is the first time I've actually wanted to read it.

  5. I'm so glad you liked it! This is my favorite book by far. And this is a great post. Made me want to read it again. :-)

  6. I love the way you reviewed this. Makes me want to go back and read it!!

    And I think I awwwed out loud about you guys reading this together. =)

  7. This is my favorite book and I agree with your sentiments on the characters. I am so glad you liked it! Word of advice-avoid the sequel Scarlett by Alexandra Ripley. It couldn't even come close to touching GWTW.

  8. As Greg's GF, I am glad we read this book concurrently. Honestly, I previously read GWTW at age 13 for class extra credit. I enjoyed it much more this time around since I had Greg to discuss it with. Scarlett is by far my favorite character. She is a sassy bitch that always finds a way to win and I love it!

  9. Well, I watched the movie when I was a teen, but you make me feel like I'm missing something right there Greg.

  10. @Becky - Well, they are certainly all terrible in their own ways, but I'm not sure I loved all of them. ;) I did love the book, though.

    @Sandy - Agree on all accounts - I kept thinking that if somebody gave Ashley a good ass-whoopin', he might snap out of it. I suppose he did get shot trying to avenge Scarlett's attack, but that didn't help much, did it?

    @lady T - Good analysis! Yeah, I think Scarlett at first was in love with Ashley as a girlish crush - he was dashing and handsome. Then she loved him as force of habit - not really loving him, but loving the idea of loving him. You're right - he certainly represents the "Old Ways" which Scarlett desperately misses. He's her connection back to happier times (like when her mother was alive) so she holds steadfastly to what she thinks is her love for him.

    @Trisha - It's worth the time - I'd recommend it for sure!

    @Amy - It's easy to see why it's a classic. Probably not my favorite of all time, but I did really like it.

  11. @Jenny - Thanks, I think. It was fun - a mini-book-club. Just don't tell my friends. ;)

    @Holly - Yeah, when I finished, I read through some reviews of Scarlett. Seemed like the more people loved GWTW, they hated Scarlett. I'm skipping it for sure.

    @Stephanie - There is only one possible word to describe the experience of reading GWTW with you: Touching.

    @Ben - I've actually never seen the movie - but going to try to fix that soon. Did you like it?

  12. Great post! I was on Rhett's side all the way through the book too. I'm visiting the USA for the first time this summer, and going on a southern states road trip, so I look forward to rereading this one before starting :)

  13. Loved your review. This is one of my favorite books, but your insights gave me new views on some of the characters. And that last quote? Too true.

  14. I'm so happy that you enjoyed this book, I really did as well. I've read it way too many times to count. I also love the unofficial sequel called Scarlet - I would highly recommend it :)

    Loved your overview of the characters, you nailed it all perfectly in my opinion!

  15. @Sam - Hope you enjoy your trip here! The Southern states roadtrip will be fun - make sure to have some grits! ;)

    @L.L. - Thanks for the kind words. Yeah, that quote just leaped off the page. Very profound!

    @Amy - Thanks. So Scarlett is actually good, eh? I'd been reading some less-than-flatteringly reviews of it and decided to skip it. Why'd you like it?

  16. I was just trying to convince a friend last week to read this! She hated the movie (well, she hates Scarlett) so she just won't. I reread it in the fall and adored it. I was trying to explain to her why it's okay to hate Scarlett, and that she has many admirable qualities too (loyalty, love of family - yes not Suellen, but seriously would you love her if she were your sister?, independence, strength of character, passion, bravery) but I did not convince her. You have inspired me to try again, as I think everyone should read this book. Personally, I don't think Melanie is quite as naive as you do - I think some of her blindness to the faults of her loved ones is a choice. But this is a very cool way of looking at the major characters.

  17. Love this post, Greg! You know from my BB posts that GWTW is my #2 favorite book -- such a nut for it! I love your analysis of the major characters.

    I definitely agree that Ashley is the most boring character and that he is too attached to decorum to do what needs to be done, but I wouldn't call that his fatal flaw. I've always found his fatal flaw to be that he resides so wholly in the theoretical that he cannot ever get anything done or be of any use. In that way, he's a great foil to Scarlett, who is the exact opposite -- she doesn't THINK about the implications of things, she just gets things done! That's also why they could never be a couple.

    Love this post, Greg -- about to go tweet about it :)


  18. @Carin - I wanted to write something about the (what I consider to be silly) debate about whether you have to like Scarlett to enjoy the novel/movie, but I was worried I'd piss too many people (like your friend) off. You're right - she does have admirable qualities and she's a very complex person. Whether or not you like her, you have to admit she's interesting. Melanie not being as naive as she seems is a legitimate point - I'm not sure I agree, but for the sake of argument, say she was turning a blind on on purpose. Isn't that, then, worse than just being naive?

    @Connie - Interesting point about Ashley - I think we're saying the same thing in different ways. You're right, his head is in the clouds, not in the practical. And the world doesn't ever conform to the way he conceives of it, so he gives up. But I think Scarlett does think about the implications of things she's about to do (sometimes the next day...), it's just that her conscience is so eroded, she doesn't always care about the consequences. She knows marrying Frank will be rather hurtful to Suellen, but the ends of saving Tara justify the means, so she doesn't care. She knows offering herself to Rhett as his mistress will make her an outcast, but again, Tara must be saved at any cost, so she doesn't care.

  19. Ah OK, so no one else likes it... I thought it was a great follow up though! Also, I first read it when I was much younger :)

  20. Hi Greg!
    Thanks for the post! I read this book many years ago and thought it was the most romantic thing in the world! Thinking back, though, from an adult point of view, you are completely correct! Thanks for making me think!

  21. Interesting point, Greg. I agree that Scarlett does think in some way about the consequences of her actions, but again only in a very practical sense, i.e. when she marries her sister's "beau" she realizes her sister is going to be angry. Except for one part of the book (when she suddenly wonders if she will go to hell), I don't think she thinks of the consequences of her actions in the ethical, theoretical, or moral sense. So I don't think she sees her marrying Frank as inherently wrong; she only recognizes that her sister is going to be angry.

    Ashley, on the other hand, thinks about the moral implications of everything and not so much the practical consequences. For example, when he tries to turn down Scarlett's offer to run the mill, he's turning it down because he sees it as morally incorrect, and that to him supersedes the reality of his general ineptness when it comes to providing for his family and the practical implications of leaving a good job offer like that.

  22. Awesome review. I love how you take it by character and unveil the fatal flaws. (I've read this novel three times, and it won't be the last!) :)

  23. Saw this movie on cable last night by accident. Fell in love with it! No wonder it's such a classic. And your post makes me want to go out and buy the novel, so I will :-) They just don't make movies like these anymore. And I'm sure I'll say the same about the novel.

    The best part to this story for me is the ending. It doesn't have to be spelled out, but dangled teasingly so that the reader can continue the epic story in his mind long after the book/movie is finished playing out. You'll know what's coming next because of who the characters are - Scarlett is forever obsessed with what she can't have, and she has a peculiar talent for being bullish and determined enough to get what she wants. Rhett's main character flaw is that he's a softie at heart and he's only ever loved one woman in his life. He also has a weakness for "lost causes."

    This only means that Rhett and Scarlett will forever be pursuing each other and that their love story will never end. Hence the open ending.