Scarlett & Jo

[Alyssa Rosenberg]

Since it's apparently Lincoln Day here on the blog, I thought I'd dive into the Civil War fray, but from a somewhat different perspective.  There's no question that racism is the primary social issue at stake in the war and Reconstruction, but the abolitionism also laid the groundwork for the campaign to give women the right to vote, and the war was, like World War II, profoundly disruptive to women's social roles.  It's no accident that two of the greatest portraits of women in modern literature come from Civil War novels.  Gone With The Wind's Scarlett O'Hara and Little Women's Jo March live on opposite sides of the Mason-Dixon line, come from different backgrounds, and their personalities evolve in different directions.  I'm not sure they would have liked each other very much.  But I love them both, and re-reading both novels in recent weeks, I've been struck by how much they have in common.

At the beginning of the Civil War, Scarlett is a privileged planter's daughter whose main talents for are manipulating men and, in a nice bit of foreshadowing, for mathematics.  Jo is the second-oldest of four daughters in a once-comfortable family left poor by their father's poor financial decisions, and without a reliable income when he decides to join the Union Army as a chaplain.  Gone With the Wind is much more explicitly a novel of the Civil War than Little Women is, and as such, Scarlett has direct contact with combat and an enemy army, while Jo lives her life far from the front lines in Massachusetts.  But in both novels, economic survival comes into direct conflict with both Northern and Southern expectations of femininity, and Jo and Scarlett both forge solutions that make them semi-kindred spirits.

When the war threatens their families, both Scarlett and Jo sacrifice their physical beauty to protect the people they love.  When the Union Army takes Atlanta, Scarlett makes a terrifying and physically exhausting flight to her family home in a wooden cart, pulled by a dying horse, that carries her son, a slave named Prissy, her sister-in-law who has almost died in childbirth, and her infant son.

"She had never in her life been out in the sunshine without a hat or veils, never handled reins without gloves to protect the white skin of her dimpled hands," Margaret Mitchell writes of Scarlett.  "Yet here she was exposed to the sun in a broken-down wagon with a broken-down horse, dirty, sweaty, hungry, helpless to do anything but plod along at a snail's pace through a deserted land."

Scarlett's hands become a symbol of her shifting worldview throughout the immediate post-Civil War period of Gone With the Wind.  On her arrival home, Mammy, the slave who helped raise her, expresses shock at the blood clots and callouses on her hands from driving a balky horse for almost an entire day.  That concern represents, to Scarlett, Mammy's inability to see that their circumstances have changed forever: "In another moment, [Mammy] would be saying that young Misses with blistered hands and freckles most generally don't never catch husbands."  For a woman who has been raised with the sole skill of catching men, Scarlett's abandonment of that ideal is a significant reversal.

In Little Women, the scene of Jo's sacrifice provides a comedic break in a sad and tense section of the novel.  The girls' father is wounded, and their mother must go to Washington, D.C. to visit him in an Army hospital.  She sends Jo to borrow the money she needs to make the trip from Aunt March, a wealthy relative who thinks (semi-correctly) that her brother has little sense and is responsible for his family's poverty.  Jo works as Aunt March's companion.  But when she's faced with the humiliating prospect of begging from the older, Jo, a confirmed tomboy, sells her hair to a wigmaker to earn the money instead.  When she comes home with a shorn head and $25, one of her sisters cries "Oh, Jo, how could you? Your one beauty."  It's kind of funny, but Jo's desperation is real, as is some of her humiliation: she had to convince the wigmaker to take her hair even though he didn't think it was pretty or fashionable enough to sell.

Those steps away from feminine ideals of beauty are the first that Jo and Scarlett take as they venture into male-dominated working worlds.  It's a transition that is easier for Jo than for Scarlett: Lizzie Skurnick had a great post at Jezebel last week in which she argued that the value of work is at the core of both the March family's and the novel's values.  In contrast, the fact that Scarlett's mother taught her nothing whatsoever about work makes her incredibly angry, and is one of the main reasons she ends up rejecting her mother's entire set of values, throwing out a lot of good things in the process.  "'Nothing, no, nothing she taught me is of any help t me!  What good will kindness do to me now?" Scarlett thinks as she prepares to try to save her family's plantation.  "What value is gentleness?  Better that I'd learned to plow or chop cotton like a darky.  Oh, Mother, you were wrong!"

But she emerges from that despair an almost terrifyingly competent businesswoman, much to the consternation of her second husband, Frank, who finds after their marriage that "her voice was brisk and decisive and she made up her mind instantly and with no girlish shilly-shallying.  She knew what she wanted and she went after it by the shortest route, like a man, not by the hidden and circuitous routes peculiar to women."  She borrows money to buy a mill and ends up with a thriving lumber business, and after Frank's death in a Ku Klux Klan raid (Scarlett is undeniably racist throughout the book, but she's not particularly attached to slavery as a concept, thinking it's not worth the war, and she takes the consistent stance that the Klan is impractical and stupid.) she runs his store far more competently than he did.

Jo, on the other hand, has always been prepared to work.  One of the earliest scenes in the book is of her heading off to Aunt March's as her older sister, Meg, heads off to her governess gig for an unhappy wealthy family.  The girls all mend, cook, clean, etc., though not all with overwhelming competence.  But after the war, Jo begins to take on a significant part of the financial burden for her family.  She starts selling occasional short works of fiction, and after two serious personal disappointments, moves to New York City, where she takes a job as a governess (acceptable female employment) and starts writing thrilling and macabre adventure tales for the gloriously-titled Weekly Volcano (decidedly not acceptable female employment, though Louisa May Alcott wrote thrilling newspaper tales herself).  Unlike Scarlett, who came close to starvation, and is driven beyond all conventional bounds of propriety by the need for security that experience gave her, Jo isn't necessarily writing to keep food on the table.  But she is writing for her sister's life: Jo's fiction buys a winter coat for her dying sister, and a trip to the seaside that she hopes will save her.

Work is really the point at which Scarlett and Jo's lives begin to move in opposite directions.  Scarlett's work makes her an outcast because she isn't willing to work within feminine ideals.  While other Atlanta women do acceptable things to make money, whether painting ugly china or baking pies to sell to the occupying union army, Scarlett refuses to play within acceptable boundaries.  Not only does she work within rough industries, but she chooses deliberately unacceptable methods, hiring convicts to work in her mills, and letting one of her supervisors kill several men in the name of profitability.  It's a neat character sketch: Scarlett is considered coarsened partially because of absurd societal expectations for women and their proper roles, but her character is also really damaged by what she decides she can do for money.

Jo, on the other hand, finds a path through writing and work to be the kind of woman she found it so difficult to be in the earlier sections of the novel.  Her friend and eventual husband encourages her to write a sensitive memoir instead of trashy fiction.  When Aunt March leaves Jo her grand house, Jo founds a school for boys (and the occasional girl), which is the subject of Little Men, a setting that gives her the opportunity to be a mother figure, but also to encourage her female students to be strong, and her male students to be something other than macho archetypes.

Lest this get TOO dour, both books have hilarious sections about gender and expectations.  In Gone With The Wind, when Rhett Butler saves the lives of the Atlanta men who are in the Klan by sneaking them through Belle Watling's whorehouse, one of the men, the highly respectable Dr. Meade, is shocked to find out his wife wants to know what the whorehouse looks like:

"Are there cut-glass chandeliers? And red plush curtains and dozens of full-length gilt mirrors? And were the girls--were they unclothed?"

"Good God!' cried the doctor, thunderstruck, for it had never occurred to him that the curiosity of a chaste woman concerning her unchaste sisters was so devouring. 'How can you ask such immodest questions? You are not yourself. I will mix you a sedative."

"I don't want a sedative. I want to know. Oh, dear, this is my only chance to know what a bad house looks like and now you are mean enough not to tell me!'"

And in Little Women, Jo gets into a terrible comedic snit over the fact that her friend Laurie's tutor has stolen one of her sister Meg's gloves in what she believes is a piece of steroetypically lover-like behavior.  The descriptions of the girl's attempts to play out exaggerated male and female roles in the plays they put on in their living room and attic are amusingly subversive, too.

I don't know that either novel is exactly feminist.  Margaret Mitchell has a very, nasty funny crack in a section on Scarlett's drinking about women "who were insane or divorced, or believed, with Miss Susan B. Anthony, that women should have the vote."  The fact that the sublime sexual experience of Scarlett's life is an instance of marital rape is horrifying.  Scarlett is deeply dependent on the attention of men, and to say she's a repeat girl-on-girl crime offender is an understatement for a woman who marries her own sister's fiancee and lusts after the husband of the woman who she belatedly admits is her best friend and her moral compass.  There's a required repression of emotion in Little Women that is troubling--as Lizzie points out, Jo isn't even really allowed to be angry when her younger sister burns her novel.  All of the sisters who live end up married and living out fairly conventionally female lives.

But Jo and Scarlett remain vibrant, viable characters decades after they first appeared on the page because they transcended the boundaries laid for women of their times.  Scarlett's fierce will to survive and prosper are compelling in any period, even when her 16-inch waist and apple-green afternoon dresses became anachronisms.  Jo's struggles with her temper, her intellectual passion, and her writing are not tied to any age, even if the expectations of what she would do with them are.  The Civil War created the opportunity, and the need, for both Scarlett and Jo to defy convention, and the literary world is a richer place for them.