Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Scarlett O'Hara's Complex Relationship with the Slaves in "Gone with the Wind"

"Gone with the Wind" (1939) remains a controversial movie to this day due to its depictions of slavery in the South leading up to, during, and after the Civil War.  This is understandable on many levels because slavery remains a blot on the history of our great nation.  Any film that purports to depict that time period and subject matter is bound to tread dangerous territory.  I personally think it's a great film, with vivid and exciting characters, but I can understand why the movie might rub some people the wrong way.  I am not a proponent of political correctness in the least, but as an American of Chinese descent I acknowledge how there are depictions of Asians in cinema that offend me, like Wayne Wang's "The Joy Luck Club" (1993), so I am the last person to ever suggest that African Americans, or anyone else for that matter, shouldn't be offended by the movie.  The interesting thing is, "Gone with the Wind" has an innate appeal that allows it to transcend notions of political correctness so that its fans encompass a wide spectrum of individuals from different nationalities, religions, and ethnic backgrounds.  I have found that people you'd least expect to like "Gone with the Wind" happen to worship and enjoy the movie wholeheartedly.  I think one reason why its appeal remains so widespread is because its depictions of slavery, and of the slaves, is more complex and nuanced than is typically acknowledged by politically correct interpreters of the film.  As such, people are able to enjoy "Gone with the Wind," and appreciate the characters and themes of the story, without having to embrace or condone the institution of slavery.

One aspect of the movie that remains complex is Scarlett O'Hara's (Vivien Leigh) personal interaction and relationship with the slaves who work for her.  Unlike the other Southern slave owners in the movie, Scarlett is the only one who has any sort of substantial dealings with the slaves.  While there is a definite mistress-servant dynamic with regards to how Scarlett deals with Mammy (Hattie McDaniel), Pork (Oscar Polk), Prissy (Butterfly McQueen), and Big Sam (Everett Brown) in the film, there's also much more to it than that.  There is a directness and candor with regards to Scarlett's relationship with the slaves that is distinct and separate from her relationship with everyone else in the film.  In contrast, her sisters Suellen (Evelyn Keyes) and Carreen (Ann Rutherford) don't have nearly as complex and nuanced a relationship with the slaves as Scarlett does, and they grew up in the same house as she did.  Throughout "Gone with the Wind," Scarlett is in a perpetual state of subterfuge and manipulation with the way she interacts with Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), Melanie Wilkes (Olivia De Havilland), and even Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) because she's trying to fool them into believing she's a better person than she is so that she can get what she wants and needs from them.  But Scarlett isn't like that when she's with the slaves.  One could validly opine that it's because she's the mistress, they're the slave/servant, and they have to put up with her no matter what her eccentricities are, and follow her directives accordingly.  But I think it's deeper than that.  Scarlett is cognizant of the fact that the slaves know what kind of person she really is underneath all of her airs and, as such, she can't easily manipulate them like she does the others.  She can relax around them and admit her fears, vulnerabilities and concerns in ways that she can't around the other Southerners in the story.

Most people point towards Scarlett's relationship with Mammy to demonstrate the complexity of the movie's depiction of the slaves, and there is much evidence in the movie to support this contention.  Despite Mammy's status in the first half of "Gone with the Wind" as a slave (and, thus, possession) in the O'Hara household, in many ways she is also one of the most formidable characters in the story.  Like Rhett, she's one of the few characters in the story who isn't frightened or intimidated by Scarlett in the least, and remains blunt and honest throughout the story whenever she feels Scarlett is making a mistake.  More than Ellen O'Hara, Mammy is the true mother-figure in Scarlett's life.  When Scarlett puts on airs about Ashley Wilkes liking a girl who has a healthy appetite, so that she can avoid having to eat before the Twelve Oaks Barbecue, Mammy slyly reminds her that Ashley hasn't expressed any interest in wanting to marry Scarlett.  As such, Mammy reminds Scarlett of how she's pinning all of her hopes on a man who only gives her crumbs in-return for the unearned adoration she bestows upon him.

Mammy is also the one who tells Scarlett that she's making a mistake to go to Atlanta to stay with Melanie, after Scarlett's first husband Charles Hamilton (Rand Brooks)--Melanie's brother--has died.  As Mammy wisely opines "Savannah would be better for ya.  You'd just get in trouble in Atlanta...You know what trouble I's talkin' 'bout.  I's talking 'bout Mr. Ashley Wilkes.  He'll be comin' to Atlanta when he gets his leave, and you sittin' there waitin' for him, just like a spider.  He belongs to Miss Melanie."  Mammy knows that Ashley doesn't love Scarlett, and that her presence in Atlanta will only stir up trouble and land Scarlett in hot water.  Mammy doesn't want to see Scarlett hurt everyone around her, including herself.  Mammy is also there when Ashley returns from the war and Scarlett impulsively starts to run out to greet him, just as Melanie is running towards Ashley.  Mammy grabs Scarlett and sagely reminds her that he's Melanie's husband now.  Throughout "Gone with the Wind," Scarlett tries to hide how deeply her feelings are for Ashley in front of almost everyone, but she is honest about her feelings in Mammy's presence.  Mammy's knowledge and understanding of Scarlett's unrequited love for Ashley enables her to try and help Scarlett to avoid embarrassment and scandal from inadvertently revealing her feelings for him at inopportune moments.  In many ways, Mammy represents the conscience that Scarlett has, but chooses to ignore throughout the movie.

One aspect of "Gone with the Wind" that continues to trouble people is Scarlett's interaction with Prissy, particularly during the scene in Atlanta when Melanie has gone into labor with no doctor around to help.  As you will recall, the Yankees are due to arrive any moment, and Prissy finally admits that she lied about knowing how to help give birth to babies.  The scene where Scarlett slaps Prissy out of anger and frustration remains disturbing decades later because it is the one scene in the movie that doesn't try to soft-pedal the dominance that slave owners had over their slaves during that time.  Scarlett was out of line in hitting Prissy, and there's no way to rationalize or justify her actions at that moment.  The only thing that redeems Scarlett is the fact that she doesn't leave Prissy behind when Rhett shows up at Aunt Pitty's house to help them all escape from Atlanta before the Yankees arrive.  Rhett informs Scarlett that there's been fighting around Tara all day, and that it would be crazy to trek through there with Prissy, Melanie and her baby.  He rhetorically asks if Scarlett intends to leave them behind.  An impatient Scarlett tells Rhett that she intends to make sure that they all get back to Tara safely, including Prissy.  Scarlett exclaims, "They're going with me and I'm going home and you can't stop me!"  One might conjecture that Scarlett doesn't want to lose a slave who she could put to use once they're back at Tara, but given how frightened Scarlett is at that moment concerning the Yankees' impending arrival, she could have easily abandoned Prissy in order to expedite a faster and easier escape.  But she doesn't because, for better or worse, Prissy is part of the team and, like military personnel, Scarlett seems to feel a duty to ensure that no one who is part of her group is left behind.

Scarlett also has a rather complex and nuanced relationship with the men who work at Tara: Pork, the family's valet, and Big Sam, the field foreman.  When Pork informs Scarlett that Jonas Wilkerson has become a carpetbagger and that his friends intend to raise the taxes on Tara, Scarlett says aloud that she will ask Ashley what to do about it.  Pork reminds her that Ashley doesn't have the tax money and Scarlett responds, "Well, I can ask him if I want to, can't I?"  Scarlett's reaction is interesting because she doesn't respond to Pork in a manner that would indicate that it's none of his business that she's consulting Ashley about the taxes, which is how one might normally expect a mistress of the household to address one of her servants.  Instead, Scarlett gets defensive about it, almost as if she feels she has to justify to Pork her reasons for wanting to reach out to Ashley on this issue.  Later, after Gerald O'Hara has died, Scarlett gives Pork her father's pocket watch as a memento.  Pork tells Scarlett that she should sell it to get the money to pay the taxes on Tara.  Scarlett tells Pork, "You take it, it's for you.  Pa'd want you to have it...You think I'd sell Pa's watch?  And don't cry.  I can stand everybody's tears but yours."  In so doing, Scarlett recognizes the role that Pork has played in her family's household for presumably decades.  The fact that she acknowledges that she can handle everyone's tears over her father's death, except Pork's, suggests to me that she knows she has to remain strong for the others in the household she regards as weaker and needing more support.  Scarlett's admission that Pork's tears would unnerve her suggests that she regards Pork as someone who can be strong, just as she is.  If he cracks under pressure, it might be too much for Scarlett to handle and would allow her to give in to her fears that she won't be able to surmount this latest challenge.  Scarlett relies on Pork to stay strong for her sake.  As such, Scarlett leans on the slaves for emotional support more than is usually acknowledged in the movie.

Similarly, Scarlett's scenes with Big Sam also reflect the certain level of comfort and ease she feels around him.  When the Yankees are initially bombing Atlanta, and the residents are fleeing the city in fear, Scarlett is rushing to Aunt Pitty's house after she has gotten fed up with volunteering at the hospital.  She's fleeing through the streets when she runs into Big Sam and the other field hands from Tara, who are being sent by the Confederacy to help dig ditches.  Scarlett seems genuinely happy to see Big Sam and the other slaves from Tara, calls out each of their names, and tells them "Goodbye Big Sam, goodbye boys.  If any of you get sick or hurt, let me know."  Scarlett expresses a level of concern for the slaves that we never see from the other slave owners.  Later, when Scarlett is riding her buggy through shanty-town and is attacked, and Big Sam comes to her rescue, she again seems genuinely happy and grateful to see him.  As she rushes away on her buggy wagon, she stops when she realizes that Big Sam is the one who fought off her attackers.  She appears relieved to see him and stops the buggy so that the two of them can escape the seedy shanty-town milieu together.  If Scarlett was as callous as people expect her to be about her slaves and servants, she would've just left Big Sam behind after he fought off her attackers (just as she would've, but didn't, leave Prissy behind when the Yankees were closing in on Atlanta).  Back at Frank Kennedy's house, as Kennedy gives Big Sam money and instructs him to head straight to Tara to avoid being arrested for this altercation, Vivien Leigh's voice registers a moment of vulnerability and sincerity when she says "Goodbye Sam, and thank you" while Scarlett is busy crying in order to generate sympathy from Frank for being attacked.  At that moment, she's trying to manipulate her husband Frank to feel sorry for her, but she drops her facade long enough to express gratitude to Big Sam for coming to her rescue.

I think the fact that Scarlett doesn't take the slaves for granted is the reason why they all continue working for her long after the Civil War has ended.  Unlike the Wilkes', whose slaves never came back after Twelve Oaks was burned down by the Yankees and after the war has ended, the slaves remain a part of Scarlett's household for decades to come as she works hard to help everyone around her rebuild their lives in post-war Atlanta.  Mammy, Pork, Prissy, and Big Sam could have taken other jobs, but they chose to continue working for Scarlett.  One could opine that the reason for this is because of their uncertainty of forging new lives for themselves as emancipated slaves in the post-Civil War South, and that would certainly be a valid point to make.  But I think a more valid reason is because Scarlett, in her own way, has demonstrated to them that she values their presence in her life and doesn't take them for granted the way the other slave owners may have treated their servants.  At one point, when Scarlett and Ashley argue over the use of convicts as workers at their lumber mill, he sanctimoniously declares that he "will not make money out of the enforced labor and misery of others." Scarlett reminds Ashley that "You weren't particular about owning slaves."  Ashley tries to rationalize things and says that he would have freed his father's slaves after he had passed away if the Civil War hadn't happened, and claims that he treated his slaves better than the convicts are being treated.  However, we never see Ashley throughout the course of "Gone with the Wind" have any meaningful interaction with his slaves, or anyone else in the movie for that matter.  Ashley can espouse high-minded ideals of freeing the slaves because, as with everything else in his life, he thinks of his slaves in terms of romanticized abstractions, not as flesh and blood individuals.  Scarlett remains a taskmaster with her servants to the end, but she watches their back just as much as they watch out for hers.

I think the moment that sums up Scarlett's relationship with her slaves is the scene, right after the intermission, when Gerald O'Hara (Thomas Mitchell) complains to Scarlett about how tough she has been with the slaves as they pick cotton in the fields.  Gerald O'Hara makes the cringe-worthy statement, "I've been talking to Prissy and Mammy and I don't like the way you are treating them.  You must be firm with inferiors, but you must be gentle with them."  Scarlett responds, "Yes, Pa, I know.  But I'm not asking them to do anything I'm not doing myself."  Despite Scarlett's apparent affirmation of Gerald O'Hara's statement, I think her response actually suggests that she doesn't necessarily think of Prissy, Mammy, Pork, or Big Sam as "inferiors" at all.  Despite the class differences between their characters, Scarlett is holding them to the same standards that she is holding herself to.  If Scarlett indeed felt that they were "inferiors," as her father suggested, she would assume that they were too helpless and ineffectual to assist in her efforts to rebuild their lives after the war.  Gerald O'Hara appears to regard the slaves almost as if they were children to be coddled, whereas Scarlett treats them in a straightforward manner like the adults that they are.  Scarlett might lose her cool, and scold or get mad at them, but she never mocks or condescends to them.  While I wouldn't go so far as to suggest that Scarlett thinks of them as her equals (and, to be honest, she doesn't think of anyone else in the movie, except maybe Rhett, as her equal) she also doesn't take them for granted for the reasons I've already underscored.

To be clear, my intent is not to romanticize slavery or "Gone with the Wind's" depiction of it at all.  As stated at the outset, slavery remains a blot on the history of the United States and cannot be rationalized.  However, I believe that it's because of the subtle nuances in the depiction of the slaves, and Scarlett O'Hara's interaction with them, in "Gone with the Wind" that many viewers are able to come to terms with aspects of the movie that are genuinely troubling to them.  As with any great work of art--and I do consider "Gone with the Wind a great work of art--it's the controversial aspects attached to it that allows it to maintain intrigue and relevancy through the decades.  Scarlett O'Hara's relationship with the slaves--as well as the brilliant performances of Hattie McDaniel, Butterfly McQueen, Oscar Polk, and Everett Brown that brought warmth, humor, and humanity to characters that could have been completely one-dimensional stereotypes--provides a level of balance so that contemporary viewers are able to appreciate the scope and depth of Margaret Mitchell's timeless story that producer David O. Selznick brought vividly to life over 73 years ago. 


  1. I felt like i was reliving some of the scenes in the movie and viewing them with a different perspective. You hit the nail on the head regarding Scarlett's relationship with her slaves. Your perspective is very on point, you are clear and give the viewers something to think about. I really love "Gone With The Wind" it is a classic and will always be one of the best loved movies of all times. By the way whoever you are, your article is very will written and your writing skills are superb. Thank You

  2. I think you do an excellent job here in separating Scarlett's treatment of slaves at Tara with the general deplorable conditions of a slave economy in history. This is a very thought-provoking essay and one that has changed my viewpoint on the film at least as far as the main character is concerned.

  3. "Scarlett is cognizant of the fact that the slaves know what kind of person she really is underneath all of her airs and, as such, she can't easily manipulate them like she does the others. She can relax around them and admit her fears, vulnerabilities and concerns in ways that she can't around the other Southerners in the story."

    Nail on the head! As should be clear from the other comments, this is a remarkably insightful--even brilliant--analysis. You really must publish.

    "Gone with the Wind" is as complex as you say it is, and Scarlett's character, and her relationships, are vividly displayed and quite honestly depicted. Thanks for a great analysis, particularly on your core issue of Scarlett's relationships with the slaves.

  4. I think you're right about Scarlett -- and that's one of the things that bothers me the most about the movie. Scarlett is a fictional character, and has fictional relationships with her slaves. Contemporary accounts of slavery paint a very different picture of what it was actually like. I worry that generations of people who have seen Gone with the Wind don't realize that, and imagine that most slavers were like Scarlett.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I see your point, but you could say the same about any film that purports to dramatize a historical time period--that film goers might confuse a work of fiction with historical fact. GWTW has never tried to sell itself as a docudrama that attempted to accurately depict historical fact. It's a highly stylized romantic drama filled with fictional characters--and my analysis of Scarlett is as a fictional creation and not as a real life individual. In chatting with many people through the years about GWTW, I have never encountered anybody who thought it was an accurate portrayal of slavery. There are many major film and TV productions--from the TV miniseries "Roots" to the recent feature film "12 Years a Slave"--that dramatize the horrors of slavery to help ensure that future generations won't confuse GWTW with reality.

    2. Not that it matters but I am an African American and seeing Scarlett with her slaves was like a breath of fresh air. There are so many slaves movies made over the years that depict what it was like to really be a slave, that no one will confuse Scarlett's portrayal of her relationship with her slaves to any other slaves. It was just nice to see her being friendly with them. But make no mistake no one thinks that is what it was like for slaves. The accounts in history has shown us what it was really like.

  5. There are further examples in the book about how Scarlett feels about the slaves at Tara. In one scene, set in Atlanta, transplanted Yankee women are discussing hiring household workers. Scarlett suggests freed slaves, but the northern women say they "wouldn't have one in the house" nor would they want a black person to touch their children. That brings Scarlett to angry tears, thinking of the kind and gentle ministrations of Mammy, Dilcey (did not appear in the movie) and Pork to the O'Hara family over the years.

  6. Slave or not, Prissy was a fool. "Scarlett was out of line in hitting Prissy, and there's no way to rationalize or justify her actions at that moment." Frankly, I would've slapped her too. Melanie's birth was a harsh one since she didn't have the strength for it. When Scarlett realized Dr. Meade wasn't coming she immediately turned towards Prissy for help. Prissy lies put Melanie and her baby in danger. Time and time again throughout the novel, Prissy proves herself to be an idiot and stupid. Mammy makes her distaste for her known and Dilcey often makes apologies for her daughter. But in a way it can also stand for the, "dominance that slave owners had over their slaves during that time."

  7. I enjoyed this article. Your analysis is spot on. You articulated thoughts I have had but lacked the words to express.