You know that quality in the stories you love, and love to read over and over – the quality that almost sends little electric shocks into the story-center of your brain? Ever wonder what that is?
And yes, there is a scientifically proven story-stimulus center in your brain called the corpus fabella, and it’s right at the center of the middle commissure –
Not really, but some day I’m sure such an area of the brain will be found.
Anyhow, let’s explore where those little shocks come from in narrative, and what it has to do with our lifelong love of certain stories.
I’m going to use Gone With The Wind here as an example, because it’s probably the most known story on the entire planet. Now, I’m not talking about the movie. The movie is just a surface treatment of the story, and excellent as it is, much has been lost of Mitchell’s detailed subtleties and meticulous character development.
For generations everyone has seen the story from the perspective of Scarlett the survivor. She’s got the gumption. She remakes herself into a civil-war phoenix. Since the Great depression, women everywhere have admired and emulated her moxie and strength. People used to break bookstore windows just to steal the display copy, touching nothing else in the store, nor any other book in the display.
When was the last time you heard anyone have that reaction to a book? Well, as much as literary snobs like to deride GWTW for various obvious reasons, there are also compelling reasons it has lasted as long as it has.
It’s not what it appears to be.
In fact, there’s something very dark going on under the surface. It’s hidden in full view, but its energy is part of what leaves the reader tingling in stories like these, without ever being able to identify what exactly delivers the electric shock.
Dig a little deeper and you’ll unearth a startlingly different story if you look at Rhett’s actions. Starting with the introductory rumor at the Twelve Oaks BBQ that as a youth Rhett took a girl riding without a chaperone, ruined her (whatever that means, but we’re assured no there was no baby), then refused to marry her. This introduces us to Rhett’s attitude toward women, social mores, and marriage, all in one anecdote. Oh, and plus he looks at Scarlett as though he sees her without her “shimmy” on, which suggests his raw sexual interest in her. This is the first moment that links Scarlett to “ruined women” through Rhett, and it’s Mitchell’s promise to the reader that Scarlett will be ruined. Besides war, Rhett is Scarlett’s most important apocalypse.
Contrast all that with Rhett’s deference and respect for Melanie, Scarlett’s polar opposite temperamentally (who also embodies the qualities Scarlett loves most in her own mother and wishes but fails to emulate), and the one woman in the world she hates most. Rhett has no respect for Scarlett, but he also has no sexual interest in “ladies” of his own social class whom he can respect. Neither can he seem to truly honour any “lady” with sexual qualities.
The next woman to whom we’re introduced through Rhett is Belle Watling, Scarlett’s polar opposite socially. Notice the subtle positioning of Scarlett’s social identity as a Southern Belle against the prostitute’s deliberate naming. Notice, further, the connection between Scarlett and “the scarlet woman” – the whore of Babylon or, in this case, Atlanta, who is destroyed by the beast with seven heads and ten horns. Rhett is continually described by the qualities of his head. The ten horns – well, you can figure that one out.
Mitchell drops these little literary squibs into the story to tell us something we hardly notice, yet their bursts together are far more important than the story we all think we know.
Rhett compares Scarlett to Belle. The problem is that Scarlett belongs to a social caste that makes her unattainable to him because of his “fallen” status. And the problem with Belle, whom he seems to love AND respect, is that she’s an illiterate white trash prostitute who’s no lady, and he’s still at his very core a Southern gentleman. As a partner she is completely unacceptable. All his social interactions with her are through her bordello and behind closed doors. They are never seen together in public, though continuously connected because it’s Rhett who owns the bordello, whose carriage she drives, whose handkerchiefs she uses, and to whom she has entrusted the care of her son – who may or may not be Rhett’s child as well.
No matter how hard Rhett rejects his caste and culture, it’s part of who he is. We see how deeply this is entrenched when he actually leaves Scarlett on the road to Tara to join the Confederates for their final suicidal push despite how he despises the Cause. We see this when he courts Melanie’s respect and loyalty then, after Bonnie is born, he works at regaining his reputation so she can have the very social position he has openly reviled all along. Even in the end, when he’s walking out on Scarlett for the last time, it’s to return to his people to try to find what he’s lost of the gentility and decency he himself has gone out of his way to destroy – in Scarlett as much as his own life. All without a single pang of conscience – or even awareness – of his own role in creating her to begin with.
None of this deep-running caste identity matters, though. Rhett is a social outcast, ruined. He can never truly be part of decent society again. Not in that world, anyhow.
In GWTW we are not watching the slow growth of a naive narcissist into a hard-headed business woman and survivor. Oh no. What we’re witnessing without really realizing it is Rhett’s deliberate, methodical breakdown of Scarlett into the kind of woman he can possess only by destroying her. He can’t have Belle – ever – because he can never lower himself enough as a Southern gentleman to legitimize her. Neither can he remove her from the society that has rejected them both – say, West where their reputations won’t follow them or won’t matter – because he’s too rooted. But what he can do is take a fool like Scarlett, who comes from his own caste or in fact one slightly lower, and remake her into a socially acceptable Belle – the scarlett woman and “counterfeit bride” he deserves.
This isn’t just subtle suggestion either. He says it over and over, and in fact warns her off at one point because he tells her he’s destroying her. But she’s such a vain, self-absorbed child that she – and we the readers – fail to notice. We’re too wrapped up in her scheming and electrifying personality to notice that even her scheming is being manipulated from the sidelines by Rhett to a large extent.
All this adds a dark energy to the story, which readers feel but can’t specifically identify. Nobody ever sees GWTW as the story of a woman’s slow ruin at the hands of a master manipulator, a predator, and, quite possibly, a sociopath. We’re too blinded by what’s going on at the surface to see it but it runs through the very depths of the story with a kind of self-sustaining power.
It’s a darkness and an energy that keeps the reader off balance enough to return to the story over and over in order to understand why, no matter how many times we’ve read it, we still question and doubt, we still can’t see it clearly enough, nor can we ever know for sure if we got it right.
We don’t know how we’ve come to care for these characters – the kinds of people most of us might not even want as friends or to date or marry. In fact, look deeply enough and you’ll find that they’re all pathetic, pathological fools.
Just like us.
We cheer for them, and despite how they’ve chipped away at and tortured each other through three inches of paper and binding, we insist on fantasizing that they’ll still get back together a few pages after the end not because they’re both horrible, disturbed people who deserve each other and shouldn’t be inflicted on anyone else, but because we’ve been unable to engage our critical thinking for a single moment since “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful” (a fact to which we also seem to blind ourselves exactly one sentence later and for the rest of the story – as indeed, we are caught by her charms), and have thus convinced ourselves that what has just happened is love – and one of the greatest romances ever.
It’s this dark center in the story that keeps GWTW from floating off into the ether of a pulp romance. It’s not what it seems to be. You can tear off layer after layer and find something more, but because we’re so enraptured by the surface energy of these tantalizing characters, we fail to notice another kind of shiver pulsing down our spines, and that’s the scary, mutually destructive risk of love.
After the initial read with stories like these, something tugs at us so we go back and find more, then the tugging happens again and we go back to find still more.
Within the powerful surface story of survival and love is layer upon layer of electrically charged deeper realities that tell us more and more about who we are. Mitchell was a powerful observer of family life and character, but she writes it all with such gusto that we develop a love and devotion to the very kinds of people we can’t tolerate when we run across them in our own lives, and in doing so she’s freeing us of our own resistance to the faults and failures of others to show us that we are all stories of love and survival.
But at what cost?
So we dig through these surface narratives to learn what those costs can be.
That’s the second glance.
That’s what great writers offer their readers.