I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen Gone With the Wind over the years. In fact, it may be the film I’ve watched the most. Though it isn’t my favorite (that honor belongs to Bringing Up Baby), it never fails to entertain me with it’s drama, performances and costumes.
Gone With the Wind is clearly Scarlett O’Hara’s story. And though she’s a divisive character, I’ve always appreciated her more than Melanie Wilkes. Next to Scarlett, Melanie appeared to me to be bland, boring and weak. However, in my more recent viewings of this film, my opinion has changed dramatically. And that is why I chose her for my character crush for this year’s Reel Infatuation Blogathon hosted by Font and Frock and Silver Screenings.
Because of her forceful personality and “do what it takes regardless of the cost” attitude, I used to consider Scarlett the strongest character in Gone With the Wind. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that strength comes in many forms. It is for precisely this reason that I began to notice Melanie.
The thing about Melanie is that we are introduced to her through Scarlett’s perception of her. But as we all know Scarlett is selfish and utterly biased. When I put aside her pre-conceived notions, I started noticing Melanie’s quiet strength. To borrow a phrase, Melanie Wilkes may be a proper Southern lady, but she is also an Iron Butterfly.
One of the things that always bothered me about Melanie was her apparent blindness to Scarlett’s nature. At times, it seemed she willfully ignored the truth about her adopted sister and friend. This is now one of the things I admire about her. Melanie chooses to love Scarlett regardless of her flaws, not because Scarlett deserves it, but because it is in Melanie’s better nature to do so. She chooses to believe the best of others. Her kindness to Belle Watling proves that this is indeed in Melanie’s character and not just out of her ignorance of Scarlett’s personality. Some might call this weak, but I think it takes great courage to see the truth about another and still choose to believe in the best they can be. Melanie forgives the worst and looks for the best.
Another thing it took me a long time to notice about Melanie is her willingness to defy convention and stand up for what she believes is right. We first see this at the fundraising bazaar in Atlanta. The outrageous idea of allowing the men to bid for the lady they wish to dance with scandalizes all the city’s matrons. But Melanie speaks up and champions the idea, stating that the Cause is worth breaking with convention. And of course, she is so respected that it immediately is approved. That same night, she donates her wedding ring in to help raise more money for the Southern troops. Though Rhett admires her for it, it is certainly a gesture that goes against normal expectations.
Again and again, Melanie bucks conventional rules of right and wrong; when she is willing to kill the Yankee intruder at Tara to protect Scarlett and then helps her secretly bury the body. When she accepts Belle Watling’s “dirty” money for the hospital. When she stands up to her friends and family for Scarlett’s sake at Ashley’s birthday party after gossip about the two has spread all over town. These are not the actions of a bland, boring, ignorant woman, but one who sticks by her beliefs, no matter what anyone says.
It would be easy to label Melanie the moral center of this story, because she is the only one who never seems to exhibit any negative emotions or behavior. But I think she is more than that. Melanie Wilkes is the open, vulnerable heart of this film. Not only that, she is the foundation upon which everyone else rests. It is Melanie whom everyone leans on, even Scarlett, on rare occasion. Ashley clearly is a weak man who cannot function without his wife’s (or Scarlett’s) direction. Rhett respects Melanie so much that she is the only one he allows to see him cry after Scarlett’s miscarriage. She’s also the only one who can influence him after the death of Bonnie. Even Mammy depends on Melanie, calling her when she can no longer help Rhett and Scarlett. Just about every single character in the story looks to her as the arbiter of moral opinion. Even at her death, there are those still seeking Melanie’s good opinion (India Wilkes).
Next to Scarlett, Melanie’s quiet strength often goes unappreciated. These two women are opposite sides of the same coin. Scarlett is the perfect example of those who use their strength at the expense of others, while Melanie manages to retain her humanity and compassion. This is absolutely remarkable in a world full of chaos, conflict, uncertainty and change. Yet instead of allowing these things to change or distort her character, Melanie rises above it all, remaining consistent in her kindness, patient hope, and long-suffering.
Melanie is the type of person the world often overlooks, because she goes about her life without fanfare, living with integrity, with no expectations of praise or recognition. Many people can be good when others are watching, but it is a rare person who can maintain a lifestyle of goodness. She appreciates the simple but priceless things in life; love and family, unlike Scarlett who is never satisfied, always reaching for more.
And though her world is over a century in the past, it’s easy to find similarities with today’s headlines. War, violence, instability etc. still exist for us. Which is why more than ever, I believe we need people like Melanie Wilkes. Those who react with love instead of hate, who quietly see a need and fill it instead of selfishly looking out for themselves. We need those who will accept others without judgment while believing in the best they can be and those who choose to forgive when they are wronged instead of seeking retaliation. And we can always benefit from people who stand up for what is right regardless of what society or culture says. These are the people quietly changing the world one small kindness at a time, just like Melanie Wilkes.
(Photos used are in the public domain)