I have to say, I’m really falling for Rhett Butler. I think he’s about as interesting, entertaining, and deep a character as I’ve run into on the journey thus far—perhaps not quite equal to Wharton’s best work in Age of Innocence, or the very best characterizations in Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey, but this is excellent territory to be in. He’s almost single-handedly moving my opinion of Mitchell, because I think he so clearly complicates the image of the South at the time—Butler is Southern born-and-bred from an excellent Charleston family, and yet he sees through his society with incredible perception—and because I think she so clearly agrees with him much of the time. He’s helping clarify parts of the novel that I’ve been a little uneasy about, and the roller-coaster he’s taking through Atlanta society is revealing most of these folks for who they really are, to the point that they hate him for it. If the rest of the novel can live up to the pace and tone she’s taken here in Part Two, this is a really great read, a much more complicated novel than its reputation gives it credit for being. Point to Mitchell, in other words (and some apologies for my harsher comments in earlier posts).
Melanie Hamilton Wilkes, too, is really growing on me—she’s not just a goody-two-shoes, and her courage is apparently greater than almost anyone we’ve met thus far (including the soldiers). What’s better is that Mitchell makes me believe her, since it would be easy to have a tough yet unfailingly kind character come across as a little too perfect. But Melanie has just enough edge to keep away such thoughts, and generally she seems to represent Rhett’s inverted mirror image. Both of them are people with the courage of their convictions—Melanie chooses to turn that integrity towards civilization and constructiveness, while Rhett’s integrity makes him a cynic and a bit of a scoundrel. But each of them know the quality resident in the other, and there is a remarkable respect shown in their limited interactions, given that Melanie’s about the most beloved person in Atlanta in 1864 and Rhett about the most despised. Another point to Mitchell.
Ashley Wilkes, in a fairly minor role in this section, is still nicely complicated—we don’t really know what he thinks, largely because the narrator seems to be afflicted with Scarlett’s blindnesses, and Scarlett has no clue how to make sense of Ashley most of the time. But this is okay, since this is the section where we want some mystery about Ashley, I think—just why is he fighting, and what does he think of the Cause? How does he really feel about Melanie, and how does he feel about Scarlett? What is he willing to do about either of them? I’m fairly certain Ashley possesses more badness than the novel knows yet—I wouldn’t be at all shocked if, on an ethical level, he’s a worse man than Rhett Butler in some respects (and maybe the ones that matter). Given his sterling reputation, this only makes him more interesting to me. I wish Mitchell would give me a bit more with him when he’s home, but still, a nod in her direction for another excellently handled character.
I am a little uneasy about the treatment of Scarlett, though. Mitchell gives us Scarlett, time and again, as the coward, the schemer, the fool. She doesn’t understand half of what Rhett says, or Ashley for that matter. And it doesn’t seem to be that difficult—we the readers aren’t confused. So we’re left undeniably seeing Scarlett as somewhat stupid—a child who can be bought off with a hat or a new dress, a simpleton who doesn’t know what she wants except on a very instinctive and irrational level. I can’t help thinking that Mitchell hated Scarlett a bit, or at least that Scarlett on some level represented someone in her life that she wanted a bit of comeuppance for. This doesn’t necessarily make for bad writing, I should note, but it does make me uncomfortable at times (just as I was uncomfortable with the relative glee Booth Tarkington seemed to have in stepping on Alice Adams’s hopes and dreams….a young lady not that different from Scarlett in some respects). I don’t quite know what Scarlett’s doing in the novel, and since she’s our main character, that is just a little destabilizing as I read. I do get the sense that she’s a survivor, but not like Rhett and Melanie are. She’s a survivor because she’s content to hide in the shadows, to live off of blackmail or resentment, to nod along with society while secretly disagreeing. In other words, the integrity that’s so appealing in Rhett and Melanie is light-years away from Scarlett, or so I’m reading her right now. I can come up with reasons to excuse her, but I don’t personally find them very compelling….again, I feel a bit as though Mitchell’s stacked that deck. We’ll see how I handle Scarlett as she comes through the war—perhaps I’ll find other sides to her character.
I’ve complained a bit about Mitchell, but I’m actually enjoying a lot about the novel, so I’ll keep the shots brief here at the end. But I have to say, it is so bizarre to me how invisible half of Scarlett’s world is. She has a son, though he is never actually in the room, and only rarely remembered or mentioned. Where is he, if not with his mother? With the slaves, of course…..who are also never in the room, and really almost never remembered or mentioned. About 99% of Part Two gives me Scarlett as a dancing woman at parties, a nurse at the hospital (occasionally, for the flirting) and a whole lot of murmured conversations in the parlor, often with Rhett Butler. But this can’t possibly have been her whole life—she would have to deal with her son sometimes, and with the slaves who are raising him. Again, we can say “that’s not what Mitchell’s writing” and okay, she can make that choice, but I find it weird. Anybody who wrote a biography of Winston Churchill that didn’t mention World War II would be making a choice, but it would be a weird one, since it omits some really formative parts of the man’s experience. It’s hard not to feel that Scarlett’s relationships to her growing son and to the slaves who will soon be free are so insignificant that the author is right to waste zero time on them. She certainly has enough pages to work with, and I personally feel that her decisions to omit certain elements and storylines seem very strategic to me. More on that as it develops.