Monday, April 7, 2014

GONE WITH THE WIND: Her Own Worst Enemy

This is a blog post from Moral Premise Workshop attendee, Ed Godwin.

Her Own Worst Enemy
by Guest Blogger Ed Godwin
In the fall of 2012, I had the opportunity to hear Stan Williams give a luncheon speech at Rochester Writer's Conference in Michigan. I learned more about story structure in that hour than in all the advice columns and classes before and since. So when the opportunity arrived in April of this year for an all-day workshop, I jumped at the chance.
Listing the various key elements of a good story, he of course included the role of the antagonist, and how it was important that it be embodied in a person and not some vague concept. (Read his evaluation of CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE DAWN TREADER for a good example of this omission.)
Suddenly I was terrified that I might have to rewrite or abandon the story I'm currently working on. It didn't seem to have a clear antagonist, at least not at the beginning. So in an attempt to salvage my pride (a weakness nearly every writer has at some point), I searched my mind for an example of a successful story that had no clearly defined antagonist. And I found one--or I thought I did--in one of the most famous movies of all time: GONE WITH THE WIND.
I love stories with strong women, and Scarlett O'Hara of course is no exception. I find delicious irony in that her greatest asset, her will to persevere no matter what the cost, also blinds her to her ultimate goal of true love. But therein lies the clue to the dilemma. Who is her antagonist?
First, we have to realize that she has more than one goal: not only to (1) find true love, but to (2) save Tara and lift herself out of poverty by “beating [the Yankees] at their own game.”  The Yankees are a clear antagonist for the second goal, but this is a late subplot, starting with the defeat of Atlanta and the destruction of her way of life. Her desire to find love begins in the very first scene, and it isn't resolved until the very end.
So if finding true love is her main goal, who is her main antagonist? I first thought it was Ashley Wilkes. He's the one she's constantly pining after, yet his honor and fidelity always thwarts her devious schemes. But this goal is not a goal at all, it's an illusion. In a scene near the beginning, her father Gerald says "I want my girl to be happy. You'd not be happy with him." And like all good stories do, that sets up the main conflict right at the beginning: the pursuit of an impossible dream. I suppose even a false goal could have a “false antagonist”. But what she really desires is true love. She just doesn't realize it.
Is Rhett Butler her antagonist? In a minor way, yes. He comes and goes in various forms throughout the story, and is often the foil for her lesser schemes, such as paying the taxes on Tara. But in many ways he is as deluded as she is. He marries her, knowing her motivation is pure avarice, yet hopes she will eventually forget Ashley and love him instead. In that sense she is the clear antagonist for him, until his frustration drives him to seek comfort with Belle, the prostitute.
But Scarlett is so determined to win Ashley's love that it blinds her to the real thing, even when it's staring her in the face. It takes the tragedy of Melanie's death for her to realize she's been deluding herself all these years. If this is Scarlett's turn of events toward the truth of the moral premise, when she finally sees the truth, it is a complete departure from the recommendation that it should happen somewhere in the middle act. Any previous hint that she may be waking up to the truth is when Rhett carries her up the stairs for a night of passion, and she wakes up the next morning beaming with pleasure. But even that moment is less than thirty minutes from the end of a film nearly four hours long.
We love Scarlett. We also despise the scheming side of her (she treats criminals like slaves and her husbands like dirt), and at least partially applaud when Rhett walks away with his immortal "I don't give a damn." We love her and love to hate her at the same time because they both tie into the same moral premise in different ways, one of hope and perseverance (against poverty), the other of hope and perseverance taken to an extreme (her treatment of people and her obsessive infatuation). Scarlett O'Hara is her own worst enemy, both the hero and the villain, and therefore her own antagonist.
Margaret Mitchell only published one book during her lifetime. But what an impact that book made. All because she had the guts (or perhaps the sheer ignorance) to defy the rules and combine the antagonist and protagonist into one person. What resulted was one of the richest characters in literary history.

Ed Godwin
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So readers what do you think? I've not studied GWTW, but one of these days I'll look at the movie and scan the book. Let's hear from you. GWTW appears to be a tragedy. Is it? Is this a valid moral premise statement for the movie and its main characters, one of which might be the Confederacy? 
Clinging to lost hope leads to poverty and lost identity; but
Advocating delusions leads to destitution and anonymity.
Stan Williams

5 comments:

Linda Anger said...

Great Job, Ed!

I think you've done a fine job of working through GWTW - and showing the rest of us that sometimes we don't need more characters - we just have to be more astute in the development and understanding of those we already have.

And I love the moral premise you proposed, Stan - it's so right on. That's why we follow you!

Linda Anger

p.s. Stan will be speaking about Irony and Plots at the Detroit Working Writers 2014 Conference on May 17. Open to writers of all skill levels.

http://www.dww-writers-conference.org

Tad Blankenburg said...

When I think of “Gone With The Wind” the first two words that come to mind our ‘willpower’ and ‘survival’.

As Ed states, Scarlette’s strength is her willpower. However she selfishly applies this willpower throughout the movie. Survival seems like a natural goal for Scarlette. Margaret Mitchell puts her protagonist on the moral and physical losing side of America’s bloodiest war. On top of this, MM places her beloved Tara right in the path of Sherman’s March. A lot to handle for a young southern belle.

Rhett’s strength is also his willpower. He daringly busts the blockades in order to deliver goods to the south. His goal is profit and he spends his money on gambling and prostitutes.

In both cases, they use their strength to achieve short term goals.

Rhett seems to be isolated as he does not get caught up in the whims of war, he does not fit the role of a southern gentlemen. In fact, he is rejected by society in his hometown of Charleston. Scarlette is isolated due to her selfish actions.

Melanie, on the other hand, is the epitome of selfless. Perhaps to a fault. Although she doesn’t survive, she marries the man she loves, has children, and probably smiles more than anybody in the movie, indicating happiness. She also is respected by many characters, including Rhett who states in the movie that there are few people he respects and only a few whose respect he would like to have.

And yes, I think this is a tragedy. Scarlette, nor Rhett, find happiness in the end.

So here is an amateur stab at the MP:

Selfish willpower leads to short term gratification and isolation, selfless willpower leads to happiness and respect.

Tad Blankenburg said...

When I think of “Gone With The Wind” the first two words that come to mind our ‘willpower’ and ‘survival’.

As Ed states, Scarlette’s strength is her willpower. However she selfishly applies this willpower throughout the movie. Survival seems like a natural goal for Scarlette. Margaret Mitchell puts her protagonist on the moral and physical losing side of America’s bloodiest war. On top of this, MM places her beloved Tara right in the path of Sherman’s March. A lot to handle for a young southern belle.

Rhett’s strength is also his willpower. He daringly busts the blockades in order to deliver goods to the south. His goal is profit and he spends his money on gambling and prostitutes.

In both cases, they use their strength to achieve short term goals.

Rhett seems to be isolated as he does not get caught up in the whims of war, he does not fit the role of a southern gentlemen. In fact, he is rejected by society in his hometown of Charleston. Scarlette is isolated due to her selfish actions.

Melanie, on the other hand, is the epitome of selfless. Perhaps to a fault. Although she doesn’t survive, she marries the man she loves, has children, and probably smiles more than anybody in the movie, indicating happiness. She also is respected by many characters, including Rhett who states in the movie that there are few people he respects and only a few whose respect he would like to have.

And yes, I think this is a tragedy. Scarlette, nor Rhett, find happiness in the end.

So here is an amateur stab at the MP:

Selfish willpower leads to short term gratification and isolation, selfless willpower leads to happiness and respect.

Anonymous said...

I read only a beginning and knew right away Scarlet is her own antogonist. That's what I'm creating in my current story.

Anna Labno

Ed Godwin said...

Anna,

I had to laugh when I brought this concept up with my daughter about Scarlett being both the protagonist & antagonist. She said, "well, of course!" It's amazing sometimes when I apply great powers of analysis and come up with the same conclusion other people know intuitively. Maybe it's a female thing: you got it right away, too.

I'm curious about how many other stories follow this pattern, and how it affects the moral premise. (Send me an email if you want to chitchat about your character -- just click on my name in this msg).