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Leading ladies, rotten mothers

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Emma Bovary and Scarlett O'Hara are two of the most hateful mothers ever depicted.  Here's Emma, responding to her toddler daughter's demand of attention:

But there, between the window and the work-table, was little Berthe, tottering along in her knitted boots, trying to reach her mother, to grab hold of the ends of her apron strings.
-- Leave me alone! said Emma, pushing her away.
The little girl soon came back again, even closer, up against her mother's knees; and, leaning to steady herself, she gazed up at her with big blue eyes, as a thread of clear saliva dribbled from her lips on to the silk of the apron.
-- Leave me alone! repeated the young woman sharply.
The look on her face frightened the child, who began to cry.
-- Can't you leave me alone! she said, elbowing her away.
Berthe fell over by the chest of drawers, against the brass fitting; she cut her cheek on it, blood trickled down.

(p. 107.)  Scarlett seems to have studied at the Emma Bovary mothering school.  Here's Scarlett, bemoaning her pregnancy with Ella:  "When she thought of the baby at all, it was with baffled rage at the untimeliness of it."  (p. 624.)

"Aren't you proud to be having a child?" [asked Rhett.]
"Oh, dear God, no!  I -- I hate babies!"
"You mean -- Frank's baby?"
"No -- anybody's baby."

(p. 638.)  As for Wade, Scarlett's oldest, his attempts at gaining his mother's attention are consistently met with "Don't bother me now.  I"m in a hurry" and "Run away, Wade.  I am busy."  (p. 823.)

In all societies, mothering is such a weighty measure of a woman's value and virtuousness that it's remarkable that these two enduring ladies of literature are such abominable mothers.  Bad mothers are unsympathetic.  Why would readers devote the time and energy to spending hundreds of pages with these two loathsome mothers? 

As readers obviously do spend the time and energy necessary to finish Gone with the Wind and Madame Bovary, repeatedly, they can apparently take bad mothering in stride when it's a character trait in their novels' heroines.  One reason may be that extraordinary adventures become possible for women who are not maternal.  In a sense, bad mothering is necessary for verisimilitude.  If Scarlett and Emma Bovary had accepted the roles that society had selected for them, then they'd have been normal mothers, and they wouldn't have gotten themselves into the messes that ruined their lives and make such great reading.

Scarlett's and Emma's bad mothering also contributes to the reader's sense of justice at the comeuppance both women receive at the end of the tales.  These ladies aren't merely victims of their authors' sadism; rather, they deserve their fates because, among other things, they've been appalling mothers.  Readers respond positively to this shape of righteousness in the narrative arc.

Finally, bad mothering shows a kinship between Scarlett and Emma and male protagonists of great novels.  By being lousy mothers, Scarlett and Emma signal their exceptionalism: they're not like other women; they're non-maternal.  They're like great men, who are driven by the imperative of realizing their potential in a non-domestic context, who'd rather live out their destinies directly than vicariously through their children. 

Privileging the self over others, including offspring, is a sharply double-edged trait.  It's both necessary for greatness, and the most ready mark of a narcissist -- or, in non-clinical terms, an asshole.  Truly great people rarely calibrate this trait with sufficient sensitivity: witness artist-monsters like Pablo Picasso and V.S. Naipaul.  As for the mere narcissists, the trait leaves their personalities an unmitigated disaster. 

In life, the misfortunes that rank above being the child of such a person are few.  On the page, there's enough distance to make it a captivating dymanic about which to read.    

Of fear, femininity and fiction

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In the past month, I've had may opportunities to feel fear.  I've feared running out of money, of course; a constant fear in my hand-to-mouth existence these days.  I've feared having an ulcer, the most recent manifestation of another underlying fear of mine: cancer; or, more generally, physical degeneration in disease.  I've feared for my physical well-being and, specifically, being raped, another fairly stable baseline in my life, especially when I find myself (as I did recently) careening around Mumbai, at night, with a stranger at the wheel and no idea where he was taking me.

I don't enjoy feeling frightened, and I don't find much social support for the experience of fear.  Just two weeks ago, I attended a training on maintaining security in disaster operations, where I was surrounded by men who were described (or who described themselves) as "impervious" to fear and who equated being "strong" with being fearless.  I, on the other hand, was the person who cried during the hostage-taking simulation; no one congratulated me on being strong.

I therefore savored two passages in recent reading selections.  In Gone with the Wind, Grandma Fontaine warns Scarlett,

Child, it's a very bad thing for a woman to face the worst that can happen to her, because after she's faced the worst she can't ever really fear anything again.  And it's very bad for a woman not to be afraid of something. . . . [T]hat lack of fear has gotten me into a lot of trouble and cost me a lot of happiness.  God intended women to be timid, frightened creatures and there's something unnatural about a woman who isn't afraid.

(p. 430.)  While I'm the last person to believe that God intended me to be timid or frightened, Grandma Fontaine's warning -- that a lack of fear has gotten her into trouble and cost her happiness -- resonates.  Danger, of course, is alluring, and once the deterrent fear wears away, the magnetic attraction of dangerous situations is less resistible.  Nor have I observed great happiness among people who are war junkies; once hooked on the adrenaline rush of conflict situations (or disasters, or other high-stakes danger), enjoying the pleasures of ordinary life is a challenge.  Most people I've seen "solve" this challenge with booze.

And, of course, women war/conflict/disaster junkies are especial outcasts.  Whether I buy in to Grandma Fontaine's standards or not, most of the rest of society does; and I haven't met a man yet who wants a war/conflict/disaster junky for a wife.

But there are worse fates than being an outcast, and Isak Dinesen describes one in "The Dreamers," the sixth tale in Seven Gothic Tales:

Alas, [says the famed story teller, Mira Jama, who now can tell stories no more], as I have lived I have lost the capacity of fear.  When you know what things are really like, you can make no poems about them. . . . I have become too familiar with life; it can no longer delude me into believing that one thing is much worse than the other.  The day and the dark, an enemy and a friend--I know them to be about the same.  How can you make others afraid when you have forgotten fear yourself? 

(p. 274.)  I had never before considered the relationship between fear and fiction, that the fearless hero is always the subject, and never the narrator.  Isak Dinesen's insight seems right: fearlessness atrophies the imagination.  (Indeed, Rhett often describes Scarlett -- who has become fearless -- as lacking imagination.)  Also, an absence of fear diminishes compassion for those who do feel fear.  (For example, the "impervious, strong" men with whom I was training couldn't relate to my fearful despair during the hostage simulation.)  And without imagination and compassion, you can't tell a story.

Perhaps, then, I should be more respectful of my own fears, should bolster myself against shame in feeling them, and protect my fears from erosion by experience.  Because to lose the capacity to tell stories -- the means by which I comprehend the world, process my experience, and comfort myself and others -- would be a true horror.

Scarlett and Emma

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Notwithstanding the tremendous differences in style, setting and story between Gone with the Wind and Emma (as well as the 121 years between their publications), Scarlett O'Hara and Emma Woodhouse are remarkably similar.  They are both strong-willed and rich.  They are both treated by society as beautiful, but handled by their authors somewhat less deferentially.  (The first clause of Gone with the Wind is, "Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful."  And Emma, though pretty, is second in beauty to Harriet Smith.)  They are both quick witted but narrowly focused in their interests.  They are both selfish and lack self-awareness.  And, perhaps most importantly, at the time we meet them, they have -- neither of them -- been in love.

"I never have been in love: it is not my way, or my nature; and I do not think I ever shall," says Emma (at page 75).  The fact that, by the end of the book, she has fallen in love with Mr. Knightley is what salvages her from perpetual bratdom.  In gaining self-awareness of her own heart, she grows up.  Most significantly, she ventures beyond the safety of her self-sufficient life, willing to risk the ever-present failure that lurks when any of us trades our solitary satisfactions for the hope of greater bliss in pairs.

Scarlett, on the other hand, thinks she's in love with Ashley, but her love for him has always struck me as false.  Ashley doesn't possess any of the qualities -- pragmatism, forthrightness, gumption -- that Scarlett prizes most highly, and perhaps it is for this reason that she can't comprehend him.  Ashley's function is not as the love of her life, but as the shield to protect her from ever truly falling in love.

For all the horror that Scarlett confronts, the one thing she fears is falling in love.  Scarlett, who reacts to the atrocities of war by committing passionately to survival, equates that survival with self-sufficiency.  She can envision (indeed, tolerate) a survival that burdens her with dependents for whom she must provide; but she cannot fathom a survival in which she is dependent -- even in a situation of mutual and reciprocal dependency, as (presumably is possible) in marriage.  Falling in love would deprive her of the independent self-sufficiency that she feels is necessary for her existence.

A woman who doesn't want to fall in love is a challenging character.  Jane Austen remarked that Emma was a character that only she could like, and Scarlett is far from sympathetic.  And yet both characters are compelling, both books masterpieces and -- not incidentally -- popularly acclaimed. 

Perhaps that combination of tough character and popular appeal arises from the humiliation both women endure.  Emma is mortified when Mr. Knightley criticizes her sharp treatment of Miss Bates.  Scarlett is humiliated so profoundly and so frequently that Margaret Mitchell appears almost sado-masochistic. 

That audiences can endure strong female characters as long as they get their comeuppance is received wisdom.  But maybe audiences are also warming to an uncomfortable truth fundamental to both tales: openness to the humiliations and tribulations of dependency is a prerequisite to falling in love; but a refusal to countenance such indignity is no protection against it.   

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This page is an archive of recent entries in the Mitchell, Margaret category.

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