Who’s Story is It?

I see where it’s started up again. HBO sheduled Gone with the Wind, and that brought howls of outrage. HBO temporarily pulled it, and promised to add an intro about the “context,” which I suspect to be something about when it was made and “art.” To tell you the truth, this sort of thing happens so often now I barely pay it attention. The usual complaint is about the portrayal of slavery, which lets me know the outraged haven’t watched it, or have only a superficial knowledge of history. Otherwise, they would have picked up on the stunning scene during the Battle of Atlanta where the slaves sing part of Go Down Moses. That song is a spiritual that had a double meaning among slaves, comparing the plight of the Hebrews in Egypt with their own. In the film it’s used to good effect, in one swoop showing the slaves desire to be free, and drawing a parallel between the plagues of Egypt and the destruction of the South, with the hint that both came from same thing. That’s powerful, and apparently goes over the heads of the critics.

I suspect that’s not the real point of the criticism, anyway. I suspect what really upsets critics is the portrayal of Southerners as people. Bigotry against Southerners seems to have come back into style these days.

The critics also miss something just as significant, a question anyone who spins a tale must at some point answer: Who’s story is this? Gone with the Wind is Scarlett’ s story, from the beginning to the end. Not Rhett’s, not Melanie’s, not Mammy’s; no one but her’s. Who’s story, as well as the type of story, shapes the tale, how it’s told, what’s shown, what’s not. Edgar Alan Poe famously wrote that that everything in a short story must aid in the overall effect. This extends to novels, really, any form of story telling. This means the type of story has a major bearing in how it’s told.

To see this, ask what kind of story is Gone with the Wind. Some might say it’s a historical romance. Well, not exactly, for at the end Scarlett looses her true love. The story of a strong woman? Scarlett is every bit of that, but that’s who she is, not what the story is about. Simply put, Scarlett’s story is a tragedy, and like all good tragedies, it’s one of her own making. In using any means to pursue what she thinks she wants, the love of Asheley, she loses the one love she finally realizes she wanted, and had, all along. The immortal line uttered by Rhett at the end of the film shocked audiences as much for its terrible finality as its profanity. Scarlett’s love walks away in the fog of her uncertain future, never to return. Scarlett’s chickens have come home to roost.

Knowing this, we can back away ans see how everything in the film underscores the aspect of tragedy. To say more ruins an story many think they know, but have never actually read or watched. See it for yourself, preferably on DVD. You may not like the story, but you can see the elements of tragedy, an dhow the backdrop of the Civil War and Reconstruction parallels her own internal conflicts.

This is so obvious that when Bette Davis lost out to Vivian Lee for the role of Scarlett, the studios gave her a similar role in another movie. The title? Jezebel.

Now, what if the protagonist of Gone with the Wind was Rhett? It’s still a tragedy, but think how it would be different. The wealthy Rhett becomes a blockade runner in the war, and during Reconstruction ends up in jail. And yet he is attracted to Scarlett as a moth to a flame. He never witnesses the horror of the field hospital, or the birth of Melanie’s child, or the events at Tara, no more aware of them than Scarlett is of his life as a blockade runner. In telling the story from Rhett’s perspective, the entire tale changes even though most of the major events remain the same.

Let’s shift to Melanie, also a tragedy, but of a different sort. Good, sweet, oblivious Melanie. There lies the tragedy of her story. Imagine how such a story would unfold, all the machinations of Scarlett that she never really sees, but which the reader or viewer is aware by their effects. Hers, perhaps, would be the hardest story to tell.

If we shift to Mammy, we have a story that modern critics think they want told, but I don’t think they’d like it. Her life as a slave is over before the movie is halfway done. What follows is her new life in freedom during Reconstruction. When her life intersects with Scarlett’s again, it is as a hired servant. This raises the question of why she is willing to work for her, and that leads to a story the critics might not want, particularly if it’s historically accurate. For Mammy, like the rest of the slaves, had fled Tara when given the opportunity, clearly taking advantage of her new freedom. And yet she finds reasons to return to Scarlett as an employee. This leads to uncomfortable questions that must be confronted to tell her story.

Yet Mammy’s story would perhaps be the most compelling, because of all the characters in Gone with the Wind, she has the most sense. I’ve joked that if Gone with the Wind was told from her viewpoint, it might be called White Folks are Crazy! and done as a memoir, with Mammy as a Casandra who sees what’s going on, but no one listens to her. Her story would not be a tragedy, as it starts out in slavery and ends in freedom, and that alone would change how her story is told compared to Scarlett’s.

This is how story is tied to a character. Twice I’ve had ideas for stories that just didn’t work, until I figured out that it belonged to a different character. Once I made the sift, everything fell into place. Telling their stories from another character’s point of view didn’t work at all.

This is why, despite the critics, Scarlett’s story is just that; one only her character can tell, and anything that steps beyond that or the tragedy ends up weakening it. Protesting Gone with the Wind because it doesn’t dwell on slavery is like protesting Roots because it doesn’t give time to Harriet Tubmann. Somehow, I don’t think we’ll see that happen.