Monday, August 9, 2010

The Quotable Rhett Butler: Not Settee

Another week is upon us and with it one of Rhett's more famous lines. Uttered during the equally celebrated Atlanta bazaar, this line serves to once again set Rhett Butler apart among his fellow Southerners and anticipate one of the major currents in his relationship with Scarlett prior to their marriage. Here it is:
"I have always thought," he said reflectively, "that the system of mourning, of immuring women in crepe for the rest of their lives and forbidding them normal enjoyment is just as barbarous as the Hindu suttee."
--Gone with the Wind, Chapter IX
As a rule we try to explain the characters' lines ourselves. In this particular case, however, we were spared the trouble, for Captain Butler courteously expanded on the topic himself for the enlightenment of his very charming albeit ignorant companion. So, "in India, when a man dies he is burned, instead of buried, and his wife always climbs on the funeral pyre and is burned with him." That is suttee, and now that its basic definition is out of the way, we can focus on what I have to say more interesting aspects.

First of all, as it is our custom basically every day of the week, we have to praise Margaret Mitchell for historical accuracy. You see, the suttee, as this Hindu custom was referred to at the time, was indeed a topic of interest in the 19th century. It had been officially abolished  by the British authorities in Bengal in 1829, with the others provinces of British India swiftly following, but the custom took time to die down. And by time I mean a century. The ban was enforced under the threat of severe punishment, and of course Hindu locals objected against the unfairness of a law that prohibited what for them was sacred tradition. One general, Charles James Napier, became famous with his reply to such a complaint:
“Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom: prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive, we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned, when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs.” 
What can I say? The cultural relativism, it burns. Or hangs. (Will.Refrain.From.Jokes.Now.) 

So the suttee was well known to the European and American world. First, because it was a great way of morally justifying the British rule in its colonies, and colonialism in general. Like in the book mentioned above, the abolition of the suttee and of other violent customs, and implicitly the saving of innocent women were presented as “the purposes of Providence in planting Englishmen in India.” And then it was such a splendid example of how the fate of women could be worse. It didn't call for reflection on the place of women in general, but served to present the place of women in Western societies as civilized and desirable.

This is where Margaret Mitchell makes Rhett depart from his contemporaries. For, unlike them, he doesn't use the suttee as a counterpoint against which the mores of the Southern/Occidental society can shine. He uses it to create an analogy for the world they are living in. Scarlett, born and raised in the culture surrounding her, is blind to the faults in its customs, but when she's exposed to  what Rhett presents as an intensified version of those customs in a different culture, her mind instinctively tells her how wrong they are and as a result she promptly and naively asks why the police doesn't step in. (Of course, the cultural relativism? Just took a second tumble.)

What Rhett is trying to achieve here is basically what travel literature of the centuries before him sought by using the motif of the stranger, the outsider that can judge a society with alien  and presumably impartial eyes. His game is more subtle than that, though, and almost brings to mind Montesquieu's Persian Letters in the way it manages to satirize two societies at once. He doesn't want Scarlett to only acknowledge the unfairness of the Hindu custom, but also to translate that judgment in the terms of her own world and see that the mourning customs imposed upon her are in no way better : 
"How closely women crutch the very chains that bind them! You think the Hindu custom barbarous--but would you have had the courage to appear here tonight if the Confederacy hadn't needed you?" 
--Gone with the Wind, Chapter IX
Like Rhett himself, this reference is a fascinating mixture of the new and the old. On one hand, its natural place is in the 19th century. It is something that a man of Rhett's stand and education could have actually used in a conversation. But on the other hand, it is new with something that rings of the century to come. I remember reading a negative 1936 review of Gone with the Wind once, saying that Rhett's lines smell of historical hindsight. While I don't agree with the spirit in which that assessment was made, I do believe that a part of Rhett (the best part, I am tempted to say) is quite strikingly modern.

Oh, and randomly? This line: "... precisely as those worthy matrons in the corner would talk about you, should you appear tonight in a red dress and lead a reel." always makes me think of the movie Jezebel.

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