- A Study of Scarletts: Scarlett O’Hara and Her Literary Daughters by Margaret Donovan Bauer
A Study of Scarletts applauds the eponymous heroine for refusing to accept prescribed roles for Southern women. In the course of this lively and engaging book, Bauer proceeds from a first chapter on Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone With the Wind to four subsequent, chronologically-ordered chapters that draw comparisons between Scarlett and the heroines of four carefully chosen inter-texts. These include Charles Frazier’s civil war novel Cold Mountain, Ellen Glasgow’s Barren Ground, set in the years before and after WWI, Toni Morrison’s Sula, set after WWI, and Kat Meads’s The Invented Life of Kitty Duncan, set in the 1950s and 60s. The first aim of this reader-response analysis of Gone With the Wind is to defend Mitchell’s heroine against the harsh criticisms not only of scholars but also of students and of a more general audience who often know the character only as she is represented in David O. Selznick’s film. Scarlett is not the “sociopathic bitch” (12) that Bauer believes many have found her to be, but rather a character who consistently violates readers’ heterosexist biases and narrow, “couple-centric” (93) views. Bauer’s subsequent exploration of four other novels featuring strong female characters acts as a kind of inter-textual extension of her initial defense of Scarlett. In each of the female protagonists, all of whom refuse to quash their own desires in order to conform to social strictures on women, Bauer glimpses ambitions and strengths that elevate Scarlett insofar as we can see similar features in her own character. Indeed Bauer, who describes having been disturbed by Mitchell’s ending, often tries to predict a certain kind of future for Scarlett based upon what happens to the characters in these suggestive inter-texts.
A key tenet of Bauer’s argument is that the greater loss to Scarlett at the end of the novel is not Rhett Butler, a “broken alcoholic” (7), but Melanie Wilkes, who gave Scarlett a love more unconditional than that offered by Scarlett’s mother, Ellen O’Hara. To deepen and elaborate upon her claim that Scarlett’s relationship to Melanie is more significant and constructive than her relationship to Rhett, Bauer offers analyses of the crucial role of the friendships between Charles Frazier’s Ada Monroe and Ruby Thewes, Toni Morrison’s Sula and Nel, and even Kat Meads’ Kitty Duncan and the narrator Mo. To explore the varied reactions of strong lone female characters to the lack of support provided by absent, cold, or withholding mothers, Bauer explores the reaction of Ellen Glasgow’s Dorinda Oakley, and uses Morrison’s Sula as a pretext for meditating upon “the false ideal of unconditional mother love, the failure of which leaves the characters feeling unloveable” (98). Throughout her inter-textual analysis, [End Page 151] Bauer traces thematic continuities in these various authors’ treatment of female characters who often navigate the world independently of male protection, and who face a series of comparable challenges for precisely this reason.
The stakes of making this argument, which Bauer anchors in careful close-readings, are not strictly academic. Bauer makes her own relationship with the fictional heroine an explicit part of her analysis, and also speaks of being inspired to counter not just opinions published by other scholars but also those held by lay readers and by her own students. While these are compelling and intimate motivators for Bauer, one problem with the reader response model that she employs is that it relies on the claims that “many” read books or characters in one way or another, without always substantiating those claims with cited references, documented response, or anything other than anecdotal evidence. I wish the book positioned itself more specifically in relationship to the significant body of scholarship that has been produced on Mitchell’s novel and on her heroine. A number of scholars...