May Read of the Month: “Study of Scarletts,” by Margaret Donovan Bauer

Margaret Donovan Bauer

Margaret Donovan Bauer

Reviewed by Donna Meredith

Think you know everything there is to know about Scarlett O’Hara? Not so fast! Margaret Donovan Bauer’s newest book will likely have you reexamining the true nature of this American icon.

Bauer’s intelligent analysis of five novels with strong female characters in A Study of Scarletts: Scarlett O’Hara and Her Literary Daughters is worth anyone’s time, but will especially appeal to those who love southern literature or feminist studies. In addition to Gone with the Wind, the study encompasses Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, Ellen Glasgow’s Barren Ground, Toni Morrison’s Sula, and Kat Mead’s The Invented Life of Kitty Duncan.

An important contribution, Bauer’s study thoroughly explores relevant literary criticism of these novels while providing fresh insights and comparisons of her own.

Bauer rightfully distinguishes Margaret Mitchell’s heroine in the novel from Vivien Leigh’s portrayal in the movie, reminding us how much of Scarlett’s strength was lost in the movie version. Scarlett, Bauer points out, assumes what is traditionally a man’s role as protector and provider for her own and Melanie’s family while the men are off at war. Critics generally overlook the weaknesses of Ashley and Rhett, neither of whom is a good match for Scarlett. She is both rebellious against tradition and unselfish in her sacrifices for those she loves. Neither man appreciates both sides of her personality. Only Melanie loves Scarlett unconditionally, and it is this friendship Bauer views as a central source of Scarlett’s growth and strength. The loss of Melanie will prove far more devastating than the loss of Rhett going forward, Bauer posits. Yet, despite losing everyone she loves, Scarlett will survive and even thrive as she returns to Tara. After all the loss and destruction caused by the war, Mitchell offers hope and a future for Scarlett: “Tomorrow is another day.”

In the second chapter, Bauer traces parallels between the Scarlett/Melanie friendship and the Ada/Ruby relationship in Cold Mountain. Again, comradeship between women sustains a nontraditional family structure. Neither novel offers a happily-ever-after ending for the romantic relationships. Instead, women become the heads of households. Ada will mourn Inman, but her story back home while he is off at war is inspiring. Like Gone with the Wind, Cold Mountain is a story less often told, that of the women left behind and the courage and fortitude they develop as they face new challenges and tests of character.

The third chapter is devoted to Barren Ground, an often underappreciated novel which I was delighted to see included in this study. The plight of Dorinda Oakley, whose very name blends romantic elements with strength, moved me to tears when I read it in college. Dorinda is betrayed by her foolishly romantic side, but she also illustrates that even a foolish romantic can have a “vein of iron in her soul” that enables her to survive on her own. Bauer’s research indicates that Margaret Mitchell had read Barren Ground, offering the possibility that Dorinda Oakley served as a prototype for Scarlett O’Hara. Both headstrong characters eschew traditional women’s roles and romantic relationships, gaining strength and sustenance by working the land. In their youth, both women “are infatuated with romantic heroes of their own creation,” understanding little of the true nature of the men they are attracted to, Bauer tells us. The novels also share a similar rejection of war and the senseless destruction of property. Dorinda says, “The worst thing about [war] is the number of people, both men and women, who enjoy it, who embark upon it as upon a colossal adventure.” All three novels Bauer analyzes deromanticize war.

In the chapter on Sula, Bauer points out that female friendships sustained Scarlett and Melanie, Ada and Ruby, and Sula and Nel; female companionship is the missing element in Dorinda Oakley’s life. Bauer argues that our culture frequently fails to value female friendships, assigning them secondary importance to the male/female relationships. Yet all these novels contrast love that nurtures and supports, as opposed to love that attempts to constrict—the unfortunate outcome of many traditional marriages. Morrison’s novel examines a friendship destroyed when one woman beds another’s husband. When Sula sleeps with Jude, she has no intention of harming Nel; Sula had always “lived in a house with women who thought all men available, and selected from among them with a care only for their tastes,” and she was “ill prepared for the possessiveness” that came with the marriage of Nel and Jude. Again, Bauer questions whether our platonic friendships aren’t of “stronger foundations and longer lasting than our relationships with lovers.” For example, when Nel wonders how she will handle losing Jude, she wishes she could turn to Sula to share her feelings. The loss of that friendship proves devastating.

The final chapter explores a novel I haven’t read, and so perhaps cannot do justice to Bauer’s analysis of its themes. In The Invented Life of Kitty Duncan, those who narrate the story believe Kitty is a self-absorbed sociopath. According to Bauer, an alternative reading is that Kitty may instead refuse “to live by social standards that would thwart the pursuit of her own desires and thus stand in the way of her living a fulfilling life.” Though Kitty’s story occurs a century after Scarlett’s, surprisingly little has changed in regards to the “limitations of life as a southern lady.” Both Kitty and Scarlett observe the “drab existences of mothers who obsessed with a clean and orderly house and well-behaved daughter at the expense of their own lives.” The importance of unconditional love of one woman to another is a theme that unites all these stories. Such love gives strength that endures throughout a lifetime. The positive note for the future is that Kitty’s daughter, “accepted for who she is by her mother, is going to thrive.”

Each of these novels examines “difficult” women who cannot “accept the limitations set for their gender.” Bauer notes that “Scarlett, the one among them who adapts most readily to the changes” brought about by the Civil War, “continues to be judged harshly by those around her—including Rhett—for her unconventionality.” But Bauer points out that even though Dorinda, Ada, Sula, and Kitty are censured socially for their behavior, they “don’t spend a lot of time dwelling on the past or even worrying what their mothers would say, as Scarlett does. There is progress in that.”

Bauer concludes that “[t]he characters who continue to live beyond the page, like Scarlett O’Hara and her literary daughters, are the ones who inspire us to wonder what they’re up to next, not the ones with a nicely tied up happy ending.” It is a point well taken. Happy endings are the stuff of fairy tales; the real challenges of life come after the wedding.

Louisiana native Margaret Bauer is the Ralph Hardee Rives Chair of Southern Literature at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina, where she was named one of ECU’s ten Women of Distinction in 2007 and received the University’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Research and Creative Activity in 2014. She is the author of The Fiction of Ellen Gilchrist, William Faulkner’s Legacy: ‘What Shadows, What Stain, What Mark,’ and Understanding Tim Gautreaux. The University of South Carolina Press published A Study of Scarletts.

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  1. Fascinating and fabulous subject matter that I cannot wait to read ! I’m so glad to know about this new and wonderful world. Amy Wilson

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