Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel, Gone with the Wind, is an epic love story following the life and loves of protagonist, Scarlett O’Hara, and is often remembered for its incredible 1939 film adaption starring Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable. Scarlett is considered to be the cunning and manipulative hero of the story, yet many people question whether her actions really are that of a heroine.
We mustn’t forget that Scarlett was a mere teenager when the story began, being only sixteen at the time of the infamous Wilkes’ barbeque. Nevertheless, it is clear that she is vain, self-centred, and somewhat spoiled but also that she has an intelligent, bright mind and is unlike the typical Southern belles around her. Scarlett’s flaunting of the social conventions may not have been viewed by those around her as appropriate but it showed that underneath her shallow exterior was a woman with great intelligence and an instinct for survival, as well as a way of thinking well ahead of her time.
She chose the day of the announcement of Ashley’s marriage to Melanie to break to him that she was in love with him but he recognised her actions as that of a young woman who had become so attached to an idea that she would go to great lengths to see it come to fruition. Her attack on him when he denied loving her was harsh and definitely would not have been considered socially acceptable, yet she is acting on impulse and taking cues from her heart instead of her head. This is a mistake that Scarlett often makes throughout the story, and it is that that leaves her in difficult positions on many occasions.
Scarlett: You led me on! You made me believe you wanted to marry me!
Ashley: Now, Scarlett, be fair. I never at any time…
Scarlett: You did! It’s true! You did! I’ll hate you till I die! I can’t think of anything bad enough to call you!
When she was left to take care of her ill sister-in-law and her new born baby as well as a childish servant in the midst of one of the worst civil wars the world has seen, Scarlett acted with bravery and strength. There is no doubt that she could have left them for dead for her own selfish reasons, but her love for them – which was there, whether she knew it or not – was what willed her to continue on the path home. She would have protected them with her life, even if it meant putting herself in danger. This shows that not everything she did was in her own selfish interests.
As her father Gerald O’Hara so proudly pointed out to her, through the pain, suffering and heartbreak Scarlett endured, there was only one constant thing which remained as a comfort to her; Tara. Stealing her younger sister’s fiancée in the way she did may, on the surface, appear to be deceitful and selfish, but Scarlett was doing the one thing she knew would keep her home standing and her family housed. She does her sister wrong in the name of what she considers to be a greater good and although there was malice in her plan, the main interest was that of her family and their wellbeing.
I can’t let Tara go. I won’t let it go while there’s a breath left in my body.
It is Scarlett who, after the war, makes sure that everything returns to normal and it is she who runs the house, just as she had seen her mother do when she was growing up. Seeing her father decline into madness can’t have been easy for her, yet she carried on her duties of what she knew would have mattered most to him. In one of the most powerful and memorable moments in the film, Scarlett, the blazing red skies of Georgia behind her, vows to do whatever it takes to survive the struggles and keep her family alive, showing her determination and dedication to those around her.
As God is my witness, as God is my witness they’re not going to lick me. I’m going to live through this and when it’s all over, I’ll never be hungry again. No, nor any of my folk. If I have to lie, steal, cheat or kill. As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again.
Scarlett knows how to act in her own best interests except in matters of the heart but the viewers’ insight into her private thoughts and schemes can, at times, make her appear to be a bad person, but they do not overpower her good deeds. She acts upon what she believes is right and fights to get what she wants, and despite her sometimes selfish ways, it is this that makes Scarlett O’Hara such a compelling character. All in all, her actions do balance out and she is quite heroic, yet she is such a complex character that it is impossible to label her as either a ‘hero’ or a ‘villain’.
She’s human; that’s all, and it is that that has made her story endure for nearly eighty years, and will do for many years to come.