Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Quotable Rhett Butler: Of Something Rich and Strange

Call me Ishmael Scarlett. You see, this week's edition of our Quotable Rhett Butler series features a literary reference that, until recently, went over my head, completely. Granted, The Tempest was never my favorite among Shakespeare's plays (I am more of a gloom and doom, Macbeth kind of gal), but I was still surprised that not even after reading it twice did I notice the Rhett line staring me in the face. The Rhett line from one of my favorite and most often reread dialogues in the entire book... Oh well, here it is, in all its elusive glory:
"And I fear that when you can afford to fish up the honor and virtue and kindness you've thrown overboard, you'll find they have suffered a sea change and not, I fear, into something rich and strange..."  
-- Gone with the Wind, Chapter XLIII
This is from the conversation Scarlett and Rhett have on Aunt Pittypat's porch in December of 1866, after Ella is born. Scarlett sets forth her principles in life, that include acting like a fine honest rogue now and trying to be a lady later, when she could afford it. I've always found it interesting that it's Scarlett who offers the nautical metaphor in the first place,  for it seems unlike her to be so eloquent: 
"I've felt that I was trying to row a heavily loaded boat in a storm. I've had so much trouble just trying to keep afloat that I couldn't be bothered about things that didn't matter, things I could part with easily and not miss, like good manners and--well, things like that. I've been too afraid my boat would be swamped and so I've dumped overboard the things that seemed least important."
                            -- Gone with the Wind, Chapter XLIII
Her words offer Rhett the perfect opportunity to expand on the metaphor. He talks about the difference between Scarlett and her honorable neighbors who would rather go down with their ships than renounce their principles, and expresses doubt at the idea that a transformation like the one she suffered could be reversed. Both of which, must be said, forebode Scarlett's evolution in the book and the doom of their marriage. 

His literary allusion is to Ariel's song from the first act of Shakespeare's The Tempest. It is, I think, one the most famous parts in this play, the one where the airy spirit Ariel, ordered by his master, sings to Fernando to lead him to Miranda. At this point, Fernando is convinced his father drowned in the shipwreck that brought him to the island, and Ariel does nothing to dispel this idea, on the contrary (btw, have I mentioned that I do like Ariel?):
"Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;

Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell
Hark! now I hear them,--Ding-dong, bell."
                    (1.2. 451-468; emphasis mine)
So what about you? Do you all love The Tempest and I was alone in my Scarlett-like oblivion to this reference?

Ariel on a Bat's Back by Henry Singleton (1819)


  1. You are amazing! "Full fathom five thy father lies" is instantly recognizable. I had no idea where that allusion in Rhett's observation came from, but it always struck me. It made me think of cargoes thrown overboard by blockade runners in danger of running aground or being overtaken by Yankee blockaders. Excellent work!

  2. I think you'd have to re-read the book quite a few times to catch that--I've read the Tempest, but I NEVER would've caught that reference.

    Hm...I think the real question is, when the hell did Rhett find time to read all these books and plays?

  3. To be fair, I am convinced I would have never caught it if it weren't for this article about Gone with the Wind that mentioned it.

    The good side to all this? It means we'll still be finding new things in this book when we're 80.

  4. This is one of my favorite dialogues between Rhett and Scarlett, because it comes at the time of his greatest passion for her - and her growing love and need for him. The conversations between them during this time show how great their love affair really was.

    Your point about her uncharacteristic eloquence is dead on. This is the only time she speaks metaphorically - which gives the reader a clue of
    her true intellectual capacity.

    While some people write Scarlett off as the big "B", she is in fact a remarkable woman because at the time of this dialogue she's only 21-22 years old. Think about what she's already experienced: marriage, widowhood, birth of a child, war, delivering a baby with bombing going on outside the window, evacuation, her mother's death, her father's mental breakdown, poverty and famine.

    Her "dark lady" characteristics come into play is bcause she suffered a major personality change that twisted her from being stong-willed and in the words of both Rhett and Ashley "high-spirited" to being relentlessly hard-driving and self-centered. Because Rhett loves her, and because his passion for her is overwhelming at this point, he repeatedly tries to turn her back. He marries her with the hope that by giving her the money and security she so desparately craves, she'd change and soften. Because that didn't happen until after Bonnie's death, when Rhett was already in a dissipated condition, their estranged marriage was to damaged to repair.

    Another poster raised the question of how Rhett found the time to read all of those books. He was raised in priviledged circumstances and trained in the classics. For all of his roguish mannerisms and "devil may care" attitude, he has a number of sterling qualities - such as his devotion to Bonnie and his genuine affection for Wade and Ella. This is all consistent with his characterization as the Byronic hero, who has a good heart in the end. That it takes Scarlett 1000 pages to realize this and that he is really the "honorable" hero she fantasized Ashley to be is the ultimate irony of the book - and her final(and in the opinion of some, a justified) comeuppance.

    You mentioned Macbeth...there are a lot of similarities between Macbeth and GWTW. There are also a lot of similarities between GWTW and ANNA KARENINA. Mitchell certainly knew her classic tragedies.

    I just got introduced to your blog a few days ago. I am really enjoying it. Keep up the good work!

  5. @Anonymous- Welcome and thanks for your insightful comment and kind words. We're so glad you're enjoying the blog. Thanks for reading! :)

  6. @ anon Thanks! You raise a number of very good points. I agree with the fact that Scarlett's change is something that troubles Rhett and that will eventually contribute to the death of their marriage. And like you, I admire Scarlett during these Kennedy years. I think that if the message of this book is "gumption," MM also has a way of showing that survival comes at a price.

    In what concerns Macbeth , I plan to write a post soon comparing Scarlett and Lady Macbeth. I am actually very much looking forward to that.

    In what way do you find GWTW similar to Anna Karenina? I'd need to think about that one. Other than maybe the existence of a love triangle (Karenin-Anna-Vronsky), I find them quite different in both message and style. I'd be very interested to hear your more detailed thoughts on that (or, of course, if anyone else has an opinion on this topic).

  7. Anonymous--you raised some interesting points and I hope to read more of your comments. Would you consider creating a profile/username so you won't have to be known as Anonymous? :-)

    I read a smattering of Shakespeare in high school and college but never "The Tempest," so I of course missed this reference. Which is another reason I love this blog! I'm learning so much, and these topics add depth to the book. There is always something new you can glean from it.

    What I find interesting about Scarlett's speech is that she's using a nautical reference at all. She grew up in landlocked north Georgia (as did I). I doubt Scarlett had ever been in a boat unless she did on a trip to Savannah (the trip before the opening of the book where she got freckles from being out on the beach) or while in Charleston. Perhaps she phrased it that way because she knew Rhett the boat captain would understand. But it's interesting she should be the one to express her feelings that way.

    I've never doubted Scarlett's intelligence. She's far from stupid. She's just lazy when it comes to academics. Women weren't supposed to demonstrate academic intelligence. Bluestockings like Melanie were considered an oddity. Scarlett was raised to grow up and catch the interest of men, and most men didn't want a smart woman. Remember when Rhett says this:

    "I don't care what fools say. In fact, I'm ill bred enough to be proud of having a smart wife."

    Rhett knows she is smart, and I think what always frustrated him about her is that she chose not to apply her intelligence.

  8. @ bluesneak. I agree. Most girls in the County were just as ignorant as Scarlett (like Randa and Camilla who, Scarlett says, couldn't spell "cat", lol). And remember how Scarlett decides that if Ashley was attracted by that, she would be more empty-headed than Cathleen Calvert.

    I think that Rhett's presence is the one that made her think of boats. After all, her first thought when she sees him is to the pirates in the book she had been reading Wade.

  9. Thanks for your kind words ladies...Yes, I'll create a profile shortly.

  10. The juicy tidbits that you ladies are unearthing make me realize how amazing Margaret Mitchell was. Oh, I know that she was quite a remarkable woman because she wrote a book that has held my attention for years and years. Beyond that, however, you're proving to me that despite having not been a very good student (aka Scarlett) in her early years of education and ultimately, having had to leave Smith College after her mother's death, she did absorb a vast amount of literary knowledge.

    I have never read The Tempest and while this quote has always been a favorite of mine, I never would have caught the association without your insightful blog.

    There are so many authors that just throw a story together and have the good fortune to sell it to a publisher and rake in millions. Mitchell, without the help of the Internet, wove a fascinating tale that is not only historically accurate (which I know was a priority of hers) but is chocked full of intricate details that only treasure hunters like you ladies could uncover for all of us.


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