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Selfish, Scheming, and Vulnerable: Why Scarlett O’Hara Will Always Remain an Iconic Character

One of the finest stories of the previous century, Gone with the Wind has been hailed as an enduring classic since its publication in 1936. Set against the American civil war, the novel depicted the forgotten world of a southern plantation in Georgia and the way slaves were treated at that time. Apart from its problematic and racial representation of black people in America, the novel also gave us a protagonist beyond comparison -- Scarlett O'Hara.

The novel traces the journey of the protagonist as she matures from a naive, attention-loving young girl to an adult who would take every road, bend every rule, and do whatever it takes to survive.

She is introduced at the beginning of the novel, surrounded by her admirers, as the author reveals her beauty in intricate detail. And yet, it is not easy to like Scarlett O'Hara, and even more difficult to appreciate her. In the course of the novel, she comes across as a cunning, manipulative girl who marries a man she does not love in order to spite the man she does, and later unceremoniously 'steals' her younger sister's fiance. 

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Scarlett O'Hara is evidently not the quintessential female protagonist literature has churned out time and again. She does have her virtues, but they lay deeply buried under layers of flaws and come out only in flashes. She is neither the Elizabeth Bennet you may aspire to be, nor the Jane Eyre who had all your sympathies. In the novel, she occupies the space between a protagonist and an antagonist, often times doing more harm than good. And yet, she has retained a singular position in literature, a protagonist who has earned our grudging admiration, a conflicting woman who refused to succumb to adverse situations, and one who claimed her body and her right to live, long before readers were acquainted with feminism.

She is literature's most unconventional female protagonist.

By generating binary characteristics in the lead characters, fiction had, until recently, carved out a typical trajectory that the protagonist must traverse. These not only simplified the characters but also made it convenient for the narrative to tie the loose threads at the ends, and to make two seemingly different people fall in love with each other. Having said that, the stakes have always been higher for the female protagonist. There may be a Heathcliff, but a shrew must be tamed at the end. She may be plain or beautiful, spirited or wary, but she most definitely must be virtuous. The goodness in her should be compelling enough to make her readers like her unanimously.

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With Scarlett, who appears long before several of her counterparts made their appearances on the literary scene, Margaret Mitchell flouts convention. The heteronormative coyness and nobility demanded of a female protagonist is completely absent in the shrewd, manipulative Scarlett. In fact, if virtues are anything to go by, Ashley's wife Melanie, the most ethical and chaste character in the novel, should be the leading lady of the novel. But Melanie fails to rise above the crowd. She has our sympathy, but Scarlett wins our admiration. 

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It is not only her beauty and vanity that sets Scarlett apart. Mitchell infuses in her a rare strength of character that remains till the very end. She falls in love with Ashley and unhesitatingly proclaims it. The significance of such an action can be most intensely felt when placed within the socio-temporal time the novel was set in.

Even after her proposal is rejected, it does nothing to dampen her spirit and her determination. Scarlett is convinced she loves Ashley and willingly takes up the responsibility that comes with the declaration. She takes care of Melanie, takes complete charge of the situation when the latter is about to give birth, and she does all of this as Ashley had asked her to do it. At the same time, she refuses to languish in the sorrow of unrequited love. She waits for Ashley to reciprocate her feelings but that does not stop her from doing what she wants. Matters of the heart may be important to her, but her actions are seldom guided by it.

She is completely aware of her agency, wears it as a badge of honour, and follows her own private definition of morality.

One may accuse her of a lot, but Scarlett cannot be accused of being untrue to herself. Apart from Ashley, it is the pre-war, idyllic Tara, the haven she lived in, that is most dear to Scarlett and when the ownership of the place is threatened during the war, she does all that it takes to deter it and willingly undergoes heartbreak, humiliation, pangs of hunger, and even contrives situations to ensure that things go according to her wishes. She says, “I can’t let Tara go. I won’t let it go while there’s a breath left in my body,” and she stands by it.

Source: mage source

Left completely on her own, Scarlett marries a man much older than her, without feeling any love for him, in order to protect Tara. Though the action may appear ghastly to our fragile morality, Scarlett does that willingly for the larger good.  

In fact, among all the crises and exigencies that life throws at her, her will to survive is never dampened. After enduring the war, she realises the worth of money and vows to herself never to go hungry again. She remains true to her word, even if that implied devising her own rules and calling the shots.

Her vulnerability and indecisiveness make Scarlett terribly human.

Apart from her fiesty and stubborn exterior, Scarlett O'Hara is essentially human, broken and vulnerable. Not only is she a difficult character, but also extremely misunderstood. That is what makes her so palpably human.

She takes decisions for the larger good but, much like us, it is in the matters of the heart where her clarity seems clouded. For the longest time, she remains in love with the idea of love, refusing to acknowledge what was laid out before her. The love she feels for Rhett Butler, and the love she receives from him, goes completely unnoticed by her. 

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We have all been in her shoes, albeit at different points in our lives. We have all been in love with an idea and realised the worth of true love only when it threatened to walk out on us. Much like her, we have found solace in the thought that, “Tomorrow is another day.”

There have been several critiques of Scarlett O'Hara, and like Georgia native and author Tina McElroy Ansa believes, Scarlett revels in her racial superiority. Notwithstanding these, one cannot deny the hope the character provided, the zeal she possessed, and the tragedy she undergoes as she not only loses both her children but hears the fading footsteps of the man she loved, walking out of the door. 

In many ways, Scarlett O'Hara is the precursor to several female characters, carving an alternative path for them, and walking on it till the very end, alone.

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