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Gone With the Wind is considered to be one of the all-time great movies ever to be made in the history of motion pictures. The movie features one of the top heroes of the period Clark Gable and a relatively unknown Vivien Leigh as the film’s leading characters of Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara respectfully. Set in the times just before and after the American Civil War, it is a story that has a number of elements like romance, love, jealousy, heroism, and courage running throughout the entire length of the movie. The movie is based on Margaret Mitchell’s hugely popular novel of the same name. The epic movie that runs for nearly four hours with an interval in between has won ten Academy Awards in 1939, the year of its release. It is also considered to be the biggest grosser in box office history if one adjusts for the inflation that has occurred in the 70 or so years since the film’s release.
People who are headstrong, spoilt, manipulative, insensitive, naïve, and arrogant can be changed into their sensibilities due to the circumstances of their later lives. Even though the film stars Clark Gable, it is Vivien Leigh who plays the part of Scarlett who is the central character of the film. The film with all its emotions and the background of the Civil War is actually about the transformation of Scarlett from a headstrong, spoilt, manipulative, insensitive, naïve, and arrogant Southern belle into a more sensible, determined, optimistic, and ambitious young woman.
There are three issues in the movie and all three relate to the transformation of Scarlett O’Hara as mentioned in the thesis statement. The first issue is the hardships she faced, the second one is the rejections she had to face from her two lovers and the third one is the meeting and eventual falling in love with an equally headstrong and dubious Rhett Butler.
A short synopsis
The film essentially covers two distinct and crucial periods in American history. The film has an intermission after the first 100 minutes or so. This first half shows the pre-war period and ends with the actual outbreak of the war. The second half deals with a period sometimes past the war and how the protagonists, especially Scarlett, go about bringing back their lives in order. Scarlett was brought up as a spoilt child in her father’s prosperous farm called Tara in the deep south of the country in Georgia. She is in love with (or thinks she is) Ashley Wilkes, but is turned down because the man is engaged to be married to Melanie Hamilton. Ashley owns the neighborhood farm called Twelve Oaks. The rebuttal happens during a party at the Twelve Oaks. Scarlett had gone there primarily to tell Ashley of her love towards him in the hope that he would drop the marriage plan and accept her instead. She is disappointed in this endeavor but has a chance to meet Rhett Butler who was present there, which later blossomed into a sort of romance. Civil war soon begins. Charles, the brother of Melanie request Scarlett’s hand in marriage and she agrees, not out of real acceptance or love, but in the hope of making Ashley jealous. Charles and other young men of the area volunteer for war and leaves for the battlefront. Charles dies soon after contracting pneumonia and Scarlett then moves to Atlanta to stay with Melanie. The city is soon under attack from the Northern army. Scarlett once again meets Butler at this time who asks her to come to Mexico with him. She refuses to say that she prefers her farm Tara, and returns to the place to find it standing, but looted by attacking troops. Her father is still alive but is mentally unbalanced by the whole turn of events, which included the war and the passing away of her mother. The second half of the movie is taken on from here. It shows the hardships faced and how Scarlett marries again this time for the money to pay for taxes on her farm. Scarlett becomes a widow a second time in the movie when her (second) husband is killed in an encounter with some hobos who had attacked Scarlett a little while earlier. Scarlett and Butler get married soon after and they also have a child called Bonnie. Bonnie also dies in an accident and the marriage soon breaks up. Melanie (who was living with them also dies) and by this time Scarlett realizes her true feeling about Butler. She requests him not to leave her, but he refuses. When asked what will happen to her if Butler leaves, his reply was (one of the most famous movie dialogues ever), “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn”.
The character of Scarlett O’Hara
The negative and petty character is revealed in many places throughout the movie, especially in the first half. It is mainly portrayed by her attitude and the dialogues that accompany it. It should be remembered that Civil War was about to break out at that time. The outcome of the war would have a profound impact on the way the Southerners lived, the most important one being the possible abolition of slavery. The general talk in most places where people gathered was about it and also about who will win it. In the movie, the first line mouthed by Scarlett reveals her character to some extent. In response to two of her suitors talking about it, Scarlett says, “Fiddle-dee-dee. War, war, war. This war talk’s spoiling all the fun at every party this spring. I get so bored I could scream. Besides, there isn’t going to be any war…If either of you boys says ‘war’ just once again, I’ll go in the house and slam the door”. To talk so casually about such an important event shows her insensitiveness and also perhaps her naivety. Her opinion about Melanie, whom she hardly knows at that time, is another instance. Her description (of her) when talking to her father one evening was that she is “pale-faced, mealy-mouthed ninny”. Even though born and brought up in a secure background on her farm, she tells her father that she does not like the place. Her father who believes that land is the only asset worth holding on to tries to reason with her in vain. He asks her, “Do you mean to tell me, Katie Scarlett O’Hara, that Tara – that land doesn’t mean anything to you? Why, the land’s the only thing in the world worth working for, worth fighting for, worth dying for, because it’s the only thing that lasts.” She just brushes aside that question and instead replies that “Oh, Pa. You talk like an Irishman”. Her selfishness and arrogance come across when the family is at prayers one night. She just can’t get over the fact that Ashley whom she loves is planning to get married to someone else. She speaks out almost to herself that “Ashley doesn’t know I love him. I’ll tell him that I love him, and then he can’t marry…”. One thing to be seen here is that Scarlett vainly thinks that just telling Ashley about her love for him is enough to change his mind. Another thing is that she does not stop to think about Melanie’s state of mind if Ashley somehow agrees to marry her instead.
Another interesting fact is that the character of insensitivity is also portrayed in the treatment of the film as well. The foreword to the film goes like this – “There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South. Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind.” Viewers familiar with actual history will never see eye to eye with this description. In reality, the Negro was treated quite harshly in general and was punished heavily even for petty crimes. The bestselling book ‘Roots’ by Alex Hailey is testimony to this fact. There might have been some owners who gave a good life to their slaves. But as far as human rights were concerned it was not a pretty life. It might have been pretty and romantic for the plantation owners and other wealthy whites. The film in that sense gives a wrong picture of the social life of that period. In fact, the presence of the Negro slave was only to fill in certain gaps and none of them have any profound influence in the unfolding of the story. It could also be that the character of Scarlett was in fact a result of growing up in such an atmosphere that existed in the South at that time.
There are still many more instances that reveal her early character. Soon after Charles dies, Scarlett appears at a ball organized for the fundraising of the war effort. Her aunt who accompanies her tells her that “For a widow to appear in public at a social gathering – every time I think of it, I feel faint.” Scarlett does the unthinkable (maybe even in modern times) by dancing with Butler who was one of the ‘war heroes’ present. The mourning period was not over and Scarlett was dressed in black. The situation was that the gentlemen were asked to bid for a chance the dance with the young ladies present for the ball, the proceeds to be donated to the war effort. Butler recklessly bid for 150 (when other bids came up to a fifth or sixth of that amount) dollars to have a chance to dance with Scarlett. The shocked audience could only watch in silence, while her aunt actually fainted.
The transformation of Scarlett O’Hara
It was only after the war started in earnest that Scarlett began to realize the brutality that it can inflict on both sides. Her humane side is shown for the first time when she agrees to help out as a nurse to treat the wounded at the local hospital in Atlanta. By this time the Northern army was on verge of capturing the city and its citizens were fleeing for safety. Scarlett has enough when she is asked to assist the surgeon to amputate the leg of a young soldier without the use of any chloroform. The soldier cries out in pain and fear are requested the surgeon not to go ahead. At that moment she runs out of the hospital shouting “I’m going home. I’ve done enough. I don’t want any more men dying and screaming. I don’t want anymore.” She decides to go back to her farm now acutely aware of hardships seen through her own eyes. Back home she gets another shock. Her mother had passed away, her father was not quite all right in his mind and her farm was looted by soldiers of the Northern army. She is accompanied by Melanie, her newborn baby, and a negro slave. Butler helps them to find a horse and a carriage and takes them par of the way. He then announces that he plans to volunteer for the Southern army. Even at that time Scarlett only thinks of herself and asks incredulously how Butler can abandon them.
Rhet Butler was not unlike her in many ways. During a conversation at the time of the ball, Butler tells Scarlett that he is not interested in the war cause. He adds that “I believe in Rhett Butler. He’s the only cause I know. The rest doesn’t mean much to me “.Having many similarities he could see through her character quickly. For example, his reply to her when left alone on the way back to the farm was “You helpless? Heaven help the Yankees if they capture you.” On an earlier occasion Butler responds sarcastically when she donates her wedding ring to the war cause by saying “I know just how much that means to you.” and adding that “The war makes the most peculiar widows.” The parley of “you are no gentleman” from her and the “And you’re no lady is another example.
The second half also shows how she struggles to bring her farm back into shape and profitability. Along with Ashley now back safe and sound from the war, she manages other businesses also.
Scarlett O’Hara has now undergone the three factors mentioned earlier, namely the hardships, rejection, and facing a similar character. Her optimism comes especially during the last scene when Butler says that famous line “Frankly, I don’t give a damn”. Feeling helpless she suddenly remembers her father’s thoughts on land. She resolutely decides to get her life back into shape with hope and courage. Her words were “Tara!…Home. I’ll go home, and I’ll think of some way to get him back! After all, tomorrow is another day!”
Scarlett has changed or in other words, her life and experiences have forced the changes into her. It has changed “Scarlett from a headstrong, spoilt, manipulative, insensitive, naïve, and arrogant Southern belle into a more sensible, determined, optimistic, and ambitious young woman. “