[On November 26, 1942 the great Casablanca premiered in New York. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that film and four other wartime romances!]
On why I’d still critique Mitchell’s romantic hero, and a more interesting side I’ve come to better appreciate.
Occasionally in this space I’ve referenced my first published article, which appeared in the Southern Literary Journal 15 years ago: “‘What Else Could a Southern Gentleman Do?’: Quentin Compson, Rhett Butler, and Miscegenation.” The quoted question in that title comes from the pivotal scene, early in Mitchell’s second half, when Scarlett finds Rhett in jail; he’s shot and killed an African American man for “being uppity to a [white] lady” (614), and asks the question of Scarlett. But as I noted in this post, for the whole first half of the novel Rhett has resisted and challenged the stereotypical “Southern gentleman” worldview on issues like slavery and the Civil War, such as in the key scene where he argues that the “Southern way of living is as antiquated as the feudal system of the Middle Ages. … It had to go and it’s going now” (238). This moment and statement in prison thus represents a striking change in his perspective and character—one that will continue throughout the remainder of the novel, culminating in his final decision to leave Scarlett in search of somewhere in the South “where some of the old times must still linger” (1022).
In my article I called Rhett’s transformation into a conservative white supremacist the greatest failing of Mitchell’s novel, and I would still say the same. After all, she creates Rhett as a really compelling and attractive romantic male lead (including for the reason I’ll get to in the next paragraph), and thus draws readers into feeling the same continued interest in him that Scarlett does (despite Scarlett’s repeated attempts to focus instead on the far more conventional Ashley Wilkes). As a result, we’re willing to go along with Rhett into those white supremacist perspectives far more easily than we otherwise might have been (at least if we’re more progressive readers), and even to see our own move, like his, as simply a begrudging recognition of the realities of Reconstruction’s “horrors,” of racial equality and the threat of miscegenation, and a bunch of other mythic nonsense that Mitchell’s second half fully and frustratingly perpetuates. (Rhett’s and Scarlett’s realizations of what “Reconstruction in all its implications” means  indeed comprise a key arc of Mitchell’s second half.) For all those reasons, with Clark Cable’s uber-charismatic film performance layered on top of them, I would call Rhett one of the most destructive characters in American literature.
No literary work can or should be defined through the lens of a single social or political issue, though, and Mitchell’s novel isn’t simply or solely about race and the South (important as it is to keep those themes in mind). And if we turn instead to the question of gender roles and expectations, Rhett, like Scarlett, becomes a more consistently complex and genuinely attractive character. As I argue in my article’s opening, Scarlett appears to be a Southern belle stereotype (with her “magnolia-white skin” and “seventeen-inch waist” ) but throughout the novel challenges and undermines those images, becoming instead an increasingly independent and strong woman. Similarly, while Rhett could be superficially described as a classic gentlemanly suitor, I would argue that his continued interest in Scarlett is due instead to his recognition of how different she is from the stereotype—particularly if we contrast their relationship with that of the far more conventional/stereotypical Southern characters Ashley and Melanie Wilkes. If readers are going to continue falling in love with Rhett—and again, it’s very hard to read Mitchell’s novel and not find him attractive—at least he offers (especially for the time periods of the novel’s 19th century setting and its early 20th century publication) a relatively nuanced and thoughtful portrayal of gender and identity.
Next romance tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other wartime romances you’d highlight?
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