Scarlett O’Hara Can Teach Us How To Survive Anything

Allow me to acquaint you with or reintroduce you to Scarlett O’Hara, Gone with the Wind’s green-eyed, dark-haired Southern-belle of a heroine. GWTW is set during the American Civil War and Reconstruction. Over the course of these thrilling historical events, simmering with social issues, the reader witnesses Scarlett’s development from a spoiled, vain 16-year-old, to an independent, strong, albeit lonely, woman at 28. Scarlett is an intensely flawed character. She is selfish, manipulative and at times strategic in the most negative sense of the word—we are talking about a woman that married three times without even considering love after all.

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“You’re so brutal to those who love you, Scarlett.
You take their love and hold it over their heads like a whip.”

Despite Scarlett’s many unlikeable qualities, she proved to be a powerful heroine who changed me following my encounter with her last year. This is because Margaret Mitchell used Scarlett to explore why some people survive and others do not, making the book an accurate portrayal of the human instinct to survive through selfish means. Therefore, Scarlett may reflect the reader more than we would care to admit. The question that I kept coming back to was what sacrifices and strategies would I have enacted in Scarlett’s position? Would I be like Scarlett, or her nemesis Melanie, who was a first class act and the “sword and shield” attributable to Scarlett’s heroic acts?

As I read the book the question troubled me. However, overtime I realised Margaret Mitchell did not want her readers to be Scarlett. While her life is tremendously exciting, it is not the life of a happy or content person. Instead, Mitchell portrays the power of determination through Scarlett, while encouraging readers to put it to proper use through proper means. We learn through Scarlett’s experience that some acts are too ruthless, that some people are not worth the time we give them, and others should never be taken for granted.

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Scarlett’s determination to survive at any cost has resulted in millions of readers to root for her success. As she said, “hardships make or break people,” and not for one instant does the audience want Scarlett to fail. Scarlett’s urgency to provide food and shelter for those she felt responsible, survive the civil war and restore her plantation to its former glory resulted in choices that clashed with the social conventions of the time. These choices and Scarlett’s lack of care concerning her reputation make her a true feminist heroine. Scarlett shrugs off the expectations of her class in order to do what had to be done. She relies only on herself, never once crying to any authority figure or man to save her. Scarlett completes work formerly completed by slaves such as picking cotton, becomes a shrewd businesswoman, kills a man and uses men for strategic gain—not as objects of love to meet her agenda. This meant many of her personal tensions went unresolved due to Scarlett’s mantra following every significant plot point: “I can’t think about that right now. If I do, I’ll go crazy. I’ll think about that tomorrow.”

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This practical attitude towards hardship depicts an unexpected trait in Scarlett: her practicality. She was not a day-dreamer, nor did she sit and wait for things to happen. She was proactive, and always acted in order to improve her circumstances. Despite being born into wealth and being a great beauty, she never felt entitled to a better life. She understood the importance of hard work and never expected life to give her any special treatment.

I have thought about this aspect of Scarlett’s character a lot throughout the year. Whenever I have faced my own troubles or have caught myself thinking about what I was entitled to, I have remembered Scarlett’s words: “Life’s under no obligation to give us what we expect. We take what we get and are thankful it’s no worse than it is.”

When taken to an extreme, this attitude made Scarlett cynical (“Death, taxes and childbirth! There’s never any convenient time for any of them.”) and left her personal life in tatters when Rhett Butler, the one man who truly loved Scarlett, leaves (“I wish I could care what you do or where you go but I can’t… My dear, I don’t give a damn.”). Scarlett’s neglectful attitude towards her emotions and those of others resulted in her greatest loss. Unfortunately, Scarlett manages to justify these consequences through her belief that she truly had no other choice. Thus, never taking responsibility for her actions until it is too late: “And apologies, once postponed, become harder and harder to make, and finally impossible.”

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In the last 250 pages the historical context takes a backseat as Margaret Mitchell explores the complexity of human relationships through surveying the damage people can inflict on each other, the devastation which follows wrong timing and realisations made too late. Scarlett prides herself on practicality and being grounded in common sense, but there was one exception: her feelings for Ashley. Her infatuation with Ashley, and her failure to win him drives the plot just as much as the historical context. Despite her intelligence, she has no insight into her own motives or emotions. She does not realise until she has lost everyone that everything she did was for Ashley, a man she had idealised and loved unconditionally without grounding her desire for him in any sort of reality.

“I loved something I made up, something that’s just as dead as Melly is. I made a pretty suit of clothes and fell in love with it. And when Ashley came riding along, so handsome, so different, I put that suit on him and made him wear it whether it fitted him or not. And I wouldn’t see what he really was. I kept on loving the pretty clothes—and not him at all.”

When I read this passage in the book it was as if someone has put into words one of my life long struggles—idealising people and never letting that ideal go for fear of what I must do when I admit to the truth. Knowing someone as strong as Scarlett could fall prey to investing time in people that are a sunk cost comforted me, but also challenged me to learn from Scarlett’s experience. During times of hardship, Scarlett clung to an ideal, she was fooled into thinking if she could win Ashley, life could be what she wanted. Even though being with Ashley was an impossibility, and he was ill-suited to her. The comfort she took from the ideal kept her going, but it was an unhealthy move to make. I thought when reading this how different her life would have been if she had simply realized sooner Ashley was not the one for her. This is impossible to imagine though, because her idealisation of Ashley was such a driving force, that without it, she would be a very different heroine.

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GONE WITH THE WIND, Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, 1939

I have always found it more effective to learn from mistakes than victories. The wisdom one can gain from the power of hindsight and taking the wrong path is unparalleled. While Scarlett is an impressive and inspirational independent feminist heroine, her inability to deal with emotions and her idealisation of Ashley are powerful lessons. Honesty and openness regarding emotions is not weakness. Instead, it is an act of bravery, which can precent years of heartache. Scarlett also taught me that I should not fall prey to romanticising the past, that there is power in facing the reality of a situation, no matter how scary that is. Realising people are not what we thought may mean we have to make changes to how we conduct ourselves and in some cases motivate ourselves, while these changes are hard to make they are necessary. Unless we too, want to end up alone, having isolated the right people at the expense of living in an imaginary world with only phantoms to keep us company.

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Madison Edilson

Madison Edilson

Madison hails from New Zealand: the land that brought you Lorde, and their flightless bird, the kiwi.She has just completed her Bachelor of Laws and Arts, and unwittingly stumbled upon a “real” law job despite her plans to become a florist.Madison dreams of becoming Anne Shirley, raiding Mindy Kaling’s closet, having Mr Darcy fall in love with her, acquiring Belle’s library, and becoming best friends with Emma Thompson. Her ability to host a flawless tea party is uncontested; she is a floral-print enthusiast and body-positivity activist.But she has been unable to keep a laptop alive any longer than a year and a half to date.You can read about her mishaps, which she documents for public consumption at her blog: themessofmyfruitlessefforts.blogspot.co.nz and follow her on instagram @madi_irenee.
Madison Edilson
  • A’dja Jones

    I’m a little late to the party, but this was a wonderful read!! Thank you for sharing your insight.