Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Quotable Rhett Butler: All Great Neptune's Ocean and a Farewell

So this is it, folks, the last ever installment of the Quotable Rhett Butler series. It has been my favorite thing to write for the blog and I hope you enjoyed it just as much as I did. We say goodbye today with one of the most easily recognizable of Rhett's references, one that comes straight from Shakespeare:
"'Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood clean from my hand?'" 
Gone with the Wind, Chapter XLVII
This line occurs during the scene in Pittypat's library, before Rhett proposes. Scarlett is wrecked with guilt and admits that her actions made Frank's life miserable and indirectly caused his death. Rhett's reply, using a direct quote from Shakespeare, seems to juxtapose their situation (her breaking down and confessing to her sins; he being there to alleviate her fears) to a similar scene in Macbeth, the one immediately after Macbeth kills Duncan.  The words Rhett uses belong to Macbeth himself:
"Whence is that knocking?
How is't with me, when every noise appalls me?
What hands are here? ha! they pluck out mine eyes.
Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand?
No, this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red."
Macbeth, Act 2, Scene 2
There is one important difference between the two scenes though (besides Scarlett not being guilty of murder, of course). In Shakespeare's play, Macbeth is the one shaken by the enormity of his own deed, while Lady Macbeth tries to calm him down, basically by mocking his emotional state and hesitations. In Gone with the Wind, Scarlett  breaks down and Rhett offers the comforting. This reversal of roles is made more interesting by the fact that neither Lady Macbeth, nor Scarlett are conventional female characters. In fact, they share a fair number of characteristics that set them apart from women of their respective time periods.

To begin with, they are both more ambitious and determinate than their husbands. (This, at least, applies to Scarlett's first two husbands, though I suppose there is a case to be made for Scarlett also being emotionally stronger than Rhett, all things considered.)  Of course, Scarlett's ruthlessness is far less reaching than Lady Macbeth's and  justified by her evolution and experiences throughout the book, and her transgressions far less severe. But Lady Macbeth pushing her husband to commit murder still finds a softer echo in Scarlett bullying Frank into actions that don't agree with his worldview/code of honor (like forcing his friends to pay their debts). 

In both cases, the characters' real strength (comparable to that of any man) is opposed to the role society assigns to them as women. We know how Scarlett assuming traditionally masculine roles was seen by Atlanta. What is interesting to note though is that the words used to describe that episode parallel yet another extremely famous speech from Macbeth, the one where Lady Macbeth, afraid her husband won't be up to whatever it takes to attain their goals, begs "Come, you spirits/ That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, /And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full/ Of direst cruelty."

Here is Scarlett's behavior during her marriage with Frank, seen through the eyes of Frank and of Atlanta: 
"All of his life, Frank had been under the domination of the phrase 'What will the neighbors say?' and he was defenseless against the shocks of his wife's repeated disregard of the proprieties. He felt that everyone disapproved of Scarlett and was contemptuous of him for permitting her to 'unsex herself.' She did so many things a husband should not permit, according to his views, but if he ordered her to stop them, argued or even criticized, a storm broke on his head."
--Gone with the Wind, Chapter XXXVI
And here is Melanie, acknowledging that these words have been used to describe Scarlett:
"I don't mean you've ever been unwomanly or unsexed yourself, as lots of folks have said. Because you haven't. People just don't understand you and people can't bear for women to be smart."
--Gone with the Wind, Chapter LV
As someone pointed out in this excellent analysis, throughout the novel Scarlett fails to fit into traditionally feminine roles, while excelling at traditionally masculine ones. She's a bad daughter, nurse, wife, mother etc., but a great businesswoman and provider for her family. Moreover, she often pushes the men in her life to play the passive roles usually reserved for women. These actions are all regarded as evidence that she is unsexing herself, and thus sanctioned by society. 

So, if they are so similar in their defiance of gender roles, why is Scarlett moping around and waiting for Rhett to tell her everything is fine, while Lady Macbeth dismisses her husband's guilt and focuses on practical matters (such as how to frame others for the murder)?

At the core of Scarlett's character, there are a number of tensions between conflicting traits, such as her sentimental attachment to the Old South and her practical embracing of the New South, her desire to conform to traditional feminine roles and her (how shall I put it delicately?) utter lack of talent for them. As such, it is not surprising that there are a handful of scenes in the book where Scarlett is passive/weaker and in need of help, where she in other words reverts to the role of the woman.  And these moments are almost always connected with Rhett, who is constantly depicted as being hyper-masculine and the only one able to put Scarlett in her place, so to speak. 

The contrast between the two scenes above, the scene in Macbeth and the prelude to the proposal scene from Gone with the Wind, shows that we are dealing with exactly that sort of moment here. While Lady Macbeth, true to her character, was the one in control and able to steady her husband's nerves, here it is Scarlett that needs the comforting and Rhett who is able to provide it. It is no wonder then that this scene segues into the proposal, where Rhett continues his manly man strike by kissing Scarlett into submission.

Now, before I leave you, if you want to read a really cool, really interesting piece on the function Shakespeare quotes and allusions play throughout Gone with the Wind, check out this article: The Old and New South: Shakespeare in Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind by Darlene Ciraulo. It is completely worth your time, I promise, and it discusses at length the parallel between Scarlett and Lady Macbeth.

And now, goodbye and thanks for reading!
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