Scarlett O’Hara Makes the Hero’s Journey
Joseph Campbell, in his book Thou Art That, argues that every hero’s journey consists of three parts: the departure, the initiation and the return. He also identifies the four functions of myth as “reconciling consciousness to the preconditions of it’s own existence” (2), “to present a consistent image of the order of the cosmos” (3), “to validate and support a specific moral order” (5), and “to carry the individual through the various stages and crises in life with integrity.” (5). In the movie Gone with the Wind (1939), adapted from the book by Margaret Mitchell, the character of Scarlett O’Hara neatly follows Campbell’s analysis of the hero’s journey and also follows his functions of myth.
As Campbell explains, the departure begins with a call to adventure or with an event which spurs the character to leave what they know. The hero may teeter between going and not going, but they eventually cross the threshold into the belly of the whale. When we meet Scarlett O’Hara, she is a stubborn, sixteen year-old, Southern belle, living comfortably within the supportive and nurturing environment of her parents’ home. She romantically daydreams of her love, Ashley Wilkes, and is oblivious to the hard realities of the world. In one day, everything begins to change for Miss Scarlett. She learns that her Ashley is intended for Melanie Wilkes, news of the Civil War breaks out during her much anticipated barbeque, and the young men in attendance at the barbeque rush off to sign up as soldiers. Suddenly, nothing remains as she knew it. Scarlett is entering that belly of the whale through no choice of her own.
Campbell points out that the hero is never alone on their journey. People often accompany the hero, such as a wise old man. The wise old man of this film is Scarlett’s father, Gerald O’Hara. In the midst of all this change, he expresses his wishes that Scarlett won’t fawn over Ashley when Ashley doesn’t love her, and that he doesn’t believe Ashley could make her happy anyway. In the same scene, when Scarlett complains that Tara, the family plantation, doesn’t mean anything to her, her father reinforces the value of “the land” and the priceless inheritance that Tara represents.
The next step on the hero’s journey is the initiation. Here our hero is confronted by trials in which she meets with the goddess, achieves atonement with her father, and experiences a transformation when she receives her boon. Scarlett experiences a break with the goddess, as Campbell describes it, when her mother dies from typhoid during the ravaging of Tara by Yankee soldiers. Scarlett atones with her father by caring for him, in his failing mental state, on his plantation. In the role of adult, she begins to see why he took so much pride in his land. After Mr. O’Hara dies, Scarlett leaves Tara again and marries Rhett, but their child dies along with Rhett’s love. Everything she knows has been stripped away, including Melanie and Ashley, leaving on her own to face her destiny. With nothing left, her dead father’s voice calls to her, telling her of the importance of Tara, that land is the only thing that matters and the only thing that lasts, a reminder of what she truly finds important. Scarlett realizes that even if she doesn’t get Rhett back, she can draw her strength from Tara. In truth, she has had the strength within her the entire time, with or without the land.
Upon return, Campbell says that the hero is no longer the same person they were when they left. Scarlett has drastically transformed from a spoiled, short tempered and pouty young girl into a heroic woman with the ability and will to survive nearly impossible feats. She has also graduated from caring only for her own interests to expanding her care toward others. She has developed an enlightened sense of value in both herself and her family heritage. This is a far cry from where she began, although the physical location is the exact same point.
In reference to Joseph Campbell’s functions of myth, the following aspects of Gone with the Wind account for all four. First, when faced with the deaths of her family, friends, and many thousands of soldiers, and after shooting a defected Yankee in self defense, each of these instances lie in direct contrast to Scarlett delivering Melanie Wilkes’ baby. Scarlett becomes very aware of the life and death cycle as well as her place in it. Second, Scarlett is exposed to “a consistent image of the order of the cosmos” (3), thanks to her mother who raised her with the teachings of Christianity and demonstrated these practices often. Third, Scarlett’s parents, sisters, aunt, Mammy and Melanie Wilkes, constantly reminded her of what was proper and what was not. This could possibly to be construed as the story teaching society’s moral order, although Scarlett surely had a tough time with this lesson. It is unclear whether or not she would hold to morals of her society any more after her journey than she did before and during it’s duration. Fourth, she did come through a state of crisis with integrity, experiencing herself, her culture, her universe and the tremendous mystery beyond herself. When she realized that Melanie was her best friend, when she previously saw her as the enemy who had stolen Ashley away, this required insight beyond her own desires. This story has elements of myth embedded within it even if the story is not necessarily sacred.
Gone with the Wind has an impact much in the way a myth is intended to. It carries with it the message that women can be strong in the face of adversity. While Scarlett’s character is not the type of person that I would wholly aspire to be, she does embody aspects that appeal to me. It is Scarlett who offers hope and the belief that one can overcome any misfortune.