Last night I watched Gone With the Wind for what I later realized was the first time in at least six and a half years. I discerned this fact while trying to analyze why I bawled through virtually the whole thing. For a movie I’ve seen at least a dozen times, that struck me as a strange reaction…until I realized that I hadn’t seen it since (a) my brother died and (b) I got married. Why would these two events, which happened more than six and nearly five years ago, respectively, have sparked such a response? Well, I’ll tell you.
Why being married reduced me to a quivering ball of sobs throughout Gone With the Wind
Although I’ve read GWTW probably 10 times or more and seen the film even more than than, I never truly appreciated the heartbreaking dynamic of Rhett and Scarlett’s relationship. They were each so afraid of being hurt by the other that they never really allowed themselves to love fully — and thus hurt one another over and over again. The two parts that really got me were when Scarlett told him she didn’t want to have any more children (and, thus, never to have sex with her husband again, as she made abundantly clear immediately after that annoucement) and the morning after he sweeps her up the stairs and ravages her.
In the first, she’s being a petulant child. But the moment that wrenched something deep inside me was just after Rhett regained his composure following that statement. He told her he’d go elsewhere to meet his needs, sloshed some whiskey into a glass, and flung the tumbler at a life-size portrait of Scarlett after taking only a sip, clearly beside himself. And she simply didn’t care. I’m not sure which was harder to watch: her lack of real reaction to his obvious pain, or the extent to which that proclamation, that the woman he loved no longer wanted to make love to him, shook him to his core. I burst into tears.
In the second, Scarlett awakes in the best mood we’ve seen her in, reveling in the memory of the passionate night that preceded. She’s positively joyous, and is delighted to see Rhett when he approaches her bed after Mammy takes away the breakfast tray. Her adoration reads clearly on her face, but he, presumably expecting the venom he’s become accustomed to receiving, remains stoic and announces that he’s leaving and taking their daughter with him. Rather than declare her love for him, Scarlett, whose face has fallen, decides to put up a wall and acts like she doesn’t care. It’s clear, though, how much Rhett’s departure devastated her when he returns and her face lights up. “Mammy said you’d come back,” she tells him. But she is again devastated when he announces that he’s returned only to drop off their daughter and will be leaving again immediately. That, compounded with her tumbling down the majestic stairs only moments later, left me sobbing for the duration of the movie.
Following Scarlett’s accident, Rhett is bereft with guilt and regret. He longs for Scarlett to call him to her bedside so he can apologize and make things right, but she never does because she fears he won’t come — and he won’t go without her calling for him because he feels she must hate him and would reject him yet again. This was, for me, the ultimate tragedy of the story. Two people, desperately in love with one another, lock themselves into a lifetime of hurt because they’re too afraid of being hurt by the other to reach out for the happiness they could both have. It isn’t until the end of the film that Scarlett finally realizes what a fool she has been, but by that time she has hurt Rhett so deeply that he can’t even begin to forgive her, and leaves. As he disappears into the fog despite her pleas, she staggers to the monumental staircase and collapses in tears.
Watching this whole scenario unfold, I found myself wondering, Have I ever pushed my husband away like that for fear of his rejecting or disappointing me? Has he ever done the same? I think that self-protective, but ultimately self-destructive, action happens in most relationships to some extent. And like Scarlett and Rhett, those doing it don’t truly realize the affect they’re having on their spouse, themselves, and the marriage. The thought that I could have ever done that to someone I love, or that I may in the future, was so utterly awful, regretful, and earth shattering that I couldn’t contain myself. And the further thought that people around me every day are doing this foolish, foolish thing instead of simply embracing the one they love made me even more emotional.
How personal loss dramatically changed my reaction to a film I’ve seen over and over
Once the danger has passed and Scarlett is on the road to recovery, their young daughter dies in a horseback riding accident. (Sorry if I’m ruining this for anyone, but seriously, the movie is 70 years old. Get with the program.) Rather than cling to one another in their grief, they break apart even further. Mammy recounts the fight that ensued, wherein Scarlett called him a murderer and demanded that Rhett give her back her baby “what you killed.” That was emotional enough, but the part that got me, that left me in near hysterics for a good 45 minutes after the film ended, was what happened next. Rhett locked himself in the nursery with Bonnie’s body, refusing to allow the funeral to take place. His reason? He wouldn’t let anyone bury his child under the ground because she was so afraid of the dark.
Despite my familiarity with both the text and the screen versions of the story, I had forgotten that line. If I’m being honest, I think I may have blocked it out. Hearing it last night flashed me back to an afternoon six years and four months ago as I sat beside my father on the couch in the living room of the house where I grew up. He was holding a small flashlight in one hand a two AA batteries in the other, and he looked absolutely lost. My brother’s body was to be buried the next day, and the funeral home had informed us earlier that morning that although we could certainly put whatever we wanted in the casket, we couldn’t include any batteries because they would eventually release their acid into the soil.
Hours later, my father deteriorated into a much smaller person than I have ever seen him, before or since. His more than six-foot frame looked whisper-thin as he slid the batteries out of the flashlight body into his calloused palm. “Without the batteries,” he rasped, voice breaking, “how will he be able to see? He’ll be all alone in the dark.” He nearly fell to the floor as his body convulsed with grief. I felt helpless, and couldn’t shake the thought not of the dark, but of the eventual breakdown of the casket that held my brother’s body, the sound of the dirt first trickling and then collapsing onto what remained of him as it all turned back into dust. Because if that wasn’t inevitable, then batteries wouldn’t matter — they’d be contained by the satin and wood with no way to get out into the ground.
Although it has faded over time, made its appearance less frequent, that image of my father broken on the couch has never truly left me. It returned to my mind with such force last night that it knocked the wind out of me. When I heard that line about Bonnie being afraid of the dark and then saw Rhett Butler crouching beside his daughter’s lifeless body in the nursery, silhouetted in the candlelight, my visceral response was so strong that I nearly vomited. Previously, I’d had no point of reference. Now, it’s all too personal. I cried just as hard last night as I did on learning of my brother’s death, and I cry again now as I type this, so hard I can barely see the screen.
I’m not sure I’ll ever watch Gone With the Wind again, nor pick the volume off my shelf. I genuinely don’t know if I will be able to handle it. But I’m glad I watched it last night, glad I let myself cry and process rather than what Scarlett was so famous for: putting it off until tomorrow and burying difficult and unpleasant emotions. That doesn’t mean, though, that I’d ever want to go through it again.