Gone With the Wind
As young girl watching the Million Dollar Movie with my sisters, I met Scarlett O’Hara and fell in love. Her dark curls and green eyes, her swishing hoop dress--determined and strong and brave, Scarlett did as she pleased, both good and bad. My sisters and I rooted for her as she stole boyfriends, married men she didn’t love, helped Melanie birth her baby, escaped a burning Atlanta, tore curtains from windows to make a gown so she could look like a queen for Rhett, kneeled in Tara’s garden and vowed, “If I have to lie, cheat, or kill, as God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again.” She did kill, she did cheat, she did lie, and she was never hungry again. My sisters and I were good girls who already understood that girls were expected to behave well and be quiet. Scarlett struck us with awe. In tough times, my sisters and I would say to each other, “Pretend you’re Scarlett and push through.” I watched the movie many times until I was old enough to read the book. I learned through Scarlett that characters could be as real as living people. She infused me with courage and taught me what a freedom it would be to live life as she did, by her own rules, unburdened by the opinions of others.
I had not yet understood that characters like Scarlett were rare. That, generally speaking, our iconic female characters don’t survive as well as she did. With my best friend, Kate, I traveled Europe by train. We read Anna Karenina, sharing the copy, ripping pages out to give to each other, depending on who was reading faster. I can still remember Anna screwing up her eyes, high on morphine, desperate for Vronsky, for her son, caught in the horror of the consequences of her desire. It wasn’t fair. Anna’s brother, Oblonsky, had countless affairs and paid no price. We were hoping that Vronsky would somehow save Anna, or that her husband would let her go. We refused to believe in the power of social mores to crush her. Kate and I were somewhere in Austria when we finished the novel, sobbing, asking why, deciding that life was different now, hoping, worrying deep inside, on the threshold of womanhood, if really it was. One hundred and fifty years later, was the world a fair and just place for women?
I read Thackeray’s masterpiece in my twenties, and through Becky Sharp discovered satire. She led me into Victorian England and then dismantled its values as she clawed her way from servitude to the life of a lady and then sank back to squalor –exhilarated, yet also bored by her achievements. She would stop at nothing to get what she wanted: social standing in a world that tried mightily to keep the likes of her where they belonged. She schemed to secure her husband’s inheritance, to be invited to court, to have status and wealth. She had ambition. She wanted pretty things and to be like all those above her on the social ladder because these symbols of grandeur reflected her back to herself as the pretty, valued woman she aspired to be. She was comical in her quest, intriguing to watch because Thackeray was having fun with her, knowing her sordid desires weren’t far from those the rest of us share.
The House of Mirth
There is a moment when Lily Bart, a guest at a wealthy friend’s country estate, slips away from the evening of cards to go to bed. She’s in the hall surrounded by luxury, maids in attendance, and overhears her rich friends reveling in their winnings. She is broke, counting her money, calculating how she’ll pay those she owes. The women downstairs, giddy with champagne, arms wrapped with serpentine bracelets, have no idea of the ocean that separates them from Lily. But Lily knows. She lives fully inside of it, caught, trapped. Raised to live alongside the upper crust, her only option is to marry a bore for money. In my twenties, I urged her to marry for money. In my forties, I understood why she couldn’t do that to herself. Caught like Lily in a sea of wealth that was the second gilded age, surrounded by people for whom money was easy and everything, I understood Lily’s desperation as I hadn’t before: her desperation to remain true to herself while also partaking of the dessert tray. I pondered who she might be today. She would not kill herself. Rather she’d get a job, become a CFO, marry Selden, renovate a brownstone, take care of herself.
The first time I read this novel, I did not like Emma Bovary. I thought she was a brat. The second time I read it, just a month ago, I understood her, recognized a side of myself in her. Flaubert understood that, of course: “Madame Bovary c’est moi.” Flaubert digs into the heart of venal desire. Emma is pure, raw want, and Flaubert makes no apology for her. She, with her schemes to get and have, to sell her husband’s land without telling him so that she can have more bobbles and trinkets and dresses and shoes, to have lovers and fantasies of grand passions without concern for her husband’s heart or her child’s, is what we make of ourselves when we fall prey to bourgeois desire, when we allow it to eat us alive – which is quite literally what Emma chooses for her end, when she swallows poison, and it slowly and violently and permanently quenches her hunger. This is emptiness personified. And having just lived through the mortgage/housing crisis in which so many spent what they did not have in order to satisfy that gnawing desire for more, I see Emma Bovary everywhere.
Scarlet, Anna, Lily, Becky, Emma:
Three take their lives; one is sent back to the gutter, one loses her child and discovers true love too late. I am drawn to them because they won’t be stopped by their sex. They will not obey the rules of society. They are driven to get what they desire while society uses norms and expectations and also the power of money to hold them hostage. All five are uniquely poised to reveal hypocrisy; it is theirs to take on and define – even if they must be punished. Life is different for them simply because they are women who desire. If they were men, their stories would not be stories.
As I wrote my fourth novel, Dear Money, about a cash-strapped novelist who is transformed into a mortgage-backed securities trader, Pygmalion-like, by a Wall Street tycoon – about a woman who casts aside her family and her art for the pursuit of cold, hard cash – I thought a lot about my five heroines. In the first decade of the 21st century, could a female character seek and get exactly what she pleases (earn a substantial living in order to provide for her family), which is, of course, nothing more than so many men do every day of their lives? Can she do that without be labeled bad? I wondered, Are we there yet?
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