One problem with modern American romance is that very little can prevent two Americans who love each other from getting married. (So long as they don’t share a combination of sex chromosomes, and it’s fair to say the tide is turning on that one.) This freedom — relatively unheard of in human history — is perhaps why we have more romantic comedies these days than romantic epics. It’s a limitation dictated by the times. Any story where two heterosexual Americans face any serious obstacle on the path to marriage is going to strain credulity or just plain bug people. While I’ve seen neither Valentine’s Day nor New Year’s Eve — and at the risk of being factually incorrect — I simply can’t imagine those kinds of movies trade in a currency of love problems whose snags aren’t pretty easily untangled. Such stories, as a classical matter, deal, rather, in misunderstandings, missed signals, crossed signals, and bunglings of translation from one heart to another. They’re nice and all, but does anyone out there get hit where it really hurts when they see or read a romantic comedy?
There’s something better, obviously, a more heightened version of the old Boy Meets Girl, Loses Girl formula. I’m talking about the previously mentioned romantic epic, and I’m talking about this because I’ve had a running conversation with my dear wife over the last few years about just what makes a romantic epic epic. This conversation hit a high point recently, as we’re finishing Gone with the Wind, a book I’ve been reading to her since last June.
Somewhere out there, you’re thinking, “Oh my God, I’m a Gone with the Wind fanatic!” Look — I don’t want to insult you, but if you’re a harder-core fan of Gone with the Wind than my wife, I’ll wear a red dress and dance the Macarena on the courthouse lawn. They just don’t make Gonezos (©) any bigger than my spouse. You cannot physically restrain her from paroxysms of joy when the damn thing’s on. She quotes from the film’s dialogue the way 2003-04 circa college guys spat lines from Old School. We’ve never been to the “Road to Tara Museum,” but it is strictly a matter of time.
She’s not alone, obviously. Gone with the Wind inspires mad devotion, in part, I think, because it works as both a romantic epic, and a tale of female empowerment. One reason for the story’s universal appeal, in fact, might lie in how neatly it nails a tricky middle ground between the Left and Right on issues of feminism. Scarlett is a thousand percent devoted to women’s rights — except really in any plural or political sense: Scarlett wants freedom for herself; she’s only truly interested in economic freedom; and could frankly give a damn about the rights of other women, or political liberty, voting, etc. She understands — with a clearsightedness that would be cynical if it weren’t so simply observant — that having money means you don’t really need to vote. For instance, late in the novel, she and Rhett entertain Georgia’s Scallywag Republican Governor at their tacky new McMansion, and even though Scarlett bears a real grudge against the Gov and all his Yankee ilk, she butters them up nonetheless, the better to use them for her own purposes.
In this sense, Scarlett is both a proto-feminist hero, and an almost Ayn Rand-y paragon of self-advancement. Not only does she tickle the imaginations of liberals and libertarians, but her canny progress from marriage to marriage takes place entirely within the boundaries of so-called “traditional” womanhood — something I’d bet more than a few Schlafly-types have found validating.
Even Scarlett’s devoted anti-intellectualism works to her advantage. You will not find a character in American fiction more rigorous in her disdain for abstract or philosophical topics (except as they give pasty old Ashley Wilkes something to be amazing at). Scarlett is interested in nice things, food, money, property, and getting what she wants — nothing else. The key feature of her character is therefore a sort of materialistic pragmatism — and since every branch of American politics considers itself “the practical one,” Scarlett occupies prime real estate to be adored by all sides.
All that being said, and just as ludicrously fantastic a character as Scarlett O’Hara is (the highest compliment you can pay a fictional character is Odyssean, and boy oh boy, is Scarlett Odyssean), none of this would register if Scarlett weren’t given an appropriately larger than life backdrop against which her labors could unfold. The Civil War? Check. Gone with the Wind also wouldn’t work, though, unless there were real problems for the story’s centerpiece romance. Something has to impair the parties’ full consummation in order for the love story to qualify as epic. The more grand the obstacle, the more epic the romance.
A quick survey of romantic epics bears this out. War, of course, is about the grandest and most epic obstacle a love affair could ever trip over. (See The English Patient). Class distinctions also place high on the list. (Likewise Atonement). Tragic events (cue flute from “My Heart Will Go On”) are obviously another. In my opinion, the most epic American romance of the past ten years was a little flick called Brokeback Mountain (based on the short story from Annie Proulx’s “Close Range,” whose lingering after-effects are a version of the same gut-gnawing pity induced by the movie). Brokeback Mountain is a romantic epic for the same reason only same-sex couples are really good candidates to have epically problematic love stories, at least in modern America: the problem for that story’s couple is pretty damn intractable, given their time. In fact, Brokeback Mountain has a harder edge than other classic romances, because the characters aren’t simply kept apart by grand circumstance, but by a threat of doom. Some band of redneck vigilantes would definitely have murdered Jack and Ennis if they’d ever tried to live together happily. The fact that death was a strong possible outcome — because of their love, and not incidental to it — puts that story on a high plane, stakes-wise.
Of course, Scarlett and Rhett face nothing like that. In fact, the inductions drawn from this drive-by survey point to a troubling conclusion for Gone with the Wind’s “epic” status. Scarlett and Rhett aren’t really kept apart by the Civil War. Rhett’s such a dastard that he sits most of the conflict out, right there in Atlanta, with Scarlett and the other ladies, speculating in foodstuffs and running off to England every now and then. Scarlett is in mourning, of course (her first husband died almost immediately after the War broke out), so preemptive norms of seemliness might interrupt the pair’s march to happiness — but Scarlett didn’t even like Rhett at that point, and all Rhett was interested in (I don’t think this scandalous wrinkle is mentioned in the movie) is having Scarlett be his mistress, his (goddammit, but it fits) “no strings attached,” “friend with benefits.”
Rhett does eventually run off to fight, in the last days of the Confederacy, and by the time he and Scarlett cross paths again, Scarlett’s desperate for cash to save Tara, and throws herself into Rhett’s arms, an offering of virtue given in sacrifice for the survival of Tara. Rhett sees right through this (with help from Scarlett’s grubby little turnip paws, of course), and flat, dropkick rejects her, sending her right into the arms of old Frank Kennedy. Once Frank dies, Rhett swoops in and proposes marriage, knowing he can’t wait forever to catch Scarlett between husbands. They marry, seem fond of each other, until Rhett figures out Scarlett is never going to get over that God damned Ashley Wilkes, and it’s “Adios amiga.” Microphone drop. I don’t give no damn.
But take a closer look: What does this story lack that other romantic epics have? Are Rhett and Scarlett kept apart by war? Class distinction? Tragedy? Disease? Threat of destruction?
Nope. They get together because they can, and they break up because one gets pissed at the other. A less grand set of circumstances could not be found.
This is not epic — this is mundane.
At this point I’m in deep trouble. If the takeaway from this essay is that Gone with the Wind lacks the status of an epic romance — that it is, in fact, nothing but a love story with two rather bratty protagonists — my wife is not going to be happy with me.
Fortunately, the genuine size of Gone with the Wind, the sheer land area it occupies in the American imagination, offers enough glitz and orchestra to rocket even the flimsiest of romances up to orbital heights. Whether we’re talking about the novel or the movie, this story is celebrated. The film is such a gigantic deal that it’s easy to forget how enormous a deal the novel was: It won the Pulitzer Prize, captivated the nation, is apparently (if you believe Pat Conroy’s introduction to my copy) given a Biblical place of honor on many a Southern coffee table, and had its movie rights sold off for the unheard of at the time sum of $50,000. At any serious gathering of top shelf American cinema, Gone with the Wind would be at the Kane, Casablanca, Godfather table. Even as non-pop-culture-obsessed a writer as Flannery O’Connor has a story (one of her weirder ones (and that’s saying something)) that involves the famous Atlanta premiere of Gone with the Wind: “A Late Encounter with the Enemy,” which in classic Flannerian style makes us feel both sorry for and annoyed by a cranky genteel Southern White who thinks too highly of himself, in this case because they gussied him up for the movie premiere in a Confederate military costume, which now that he’s way older thinks is actually his original battle uniform and so insists on wearing to special occasions.
Think about that. Gone with the Wind is such a huge deal, Flannery O’Connor wrote a story that hinged on its status in the texture of Southern life. Flannery O’Connor. It doesn’t get any bigger than that.
Which is all to say, something is epic about this story. Can it be an epic because it makes us feel epic? A horror story scares us, a comedy makes us laugh, a tragedy makes us cry — I suppose a romance makes us feel, uh, twitterpated — is that, then, the real mark of genre? Not some academic’s induction based on a leisurely survey of the available material, but the specific kind of blast the story delivers, the special effects it drives into the hearts and guts of readers?
If that’s the case, then I think I’m sitting pretty with my wife. Because Gone with the Wind has got the chops in spite of the fact that the love problem at its center is not only mundane, but teenagerly so. Rhett really does love Scarlett, but has to act like he doesn’t, to protect his feelings, because he knows Scarlett never got over Ashley being the one man she couldn’t have. Drop that love triangle right into a CW plotline and nobody’s going to raise an eyebrow.
In other words, Gone with the Wind surpasses the un-epicness of its romance, and makes us feel romantically epic all the same. This is a serious accomplishment. I wish I could explain how it’s done. Of course, part of it is the historical backdrop, but I think a more important factor is just the expansiveness of the couple, particularly Scarlett (though Rhett’s a pretty insanely intriguing character, too — I’ve heard rumors he was based on Sam Houston — go read about that crazy bastard some time).
But maybe it’s epic because it’s just so successful as a story. I think we need to feel that a story is about everything in order to let it in, let it move us. That’s the mark, I think, of the true masterpiece, and if anything could coherently separate “literature” from “fiction,” that’d be it. It’s a pretty simple standard, actually — all any story has to do is just show us the meaning of life.
Gone with the Wind qualifies. Something in Scarlett’s practicality, something in her determination, something in her hunger (I don’t mean the turnip-eschewing kind, I mean the way Scarlett from the very first scene is driven by this crazy, all-consuming, no-boundaries-recognizing hunger for everything, the way she just wants it all) — there’s something brutal and fine to that. In her strange optimism, too, the way she pushes everything unpleasant from her thoughts, so that faced with the collapse of her third marriage, she is almost transported, idiotic, almost insensate, in her belief that she can fix it all, have it all, that she can get Rhett back — which of course wouldn’t mean that she’d have to give up on Ashley, too — and, most impressively, in her faith that tomorrow holds all the space you’ll ever need to get what you want, and keep it.
This is one of the strange centers of the world, a vein of pure human talent, unearthed and irrefutable, mysterious, friendly, beckoning, and fully beyond us.