Scarlett and Rhett: reanimated but bloodless

October 06, 1991|By Norrie Epstein




Alexandra Ripley.

Warner Books.

823 pages. $24.95. "Scarlett" calls to mind not so much "Gone With the Wind," to which it is the much-awaited sequel, but "The Invasion of the Body Snatchers." The reappearance of Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler 55 years after they were created is a ghoulish resurrection. The characters we remember as Scarlett and Rhett are here, but they have a soulless quality, as if they are inhabited by alien beings who parrot the voices and actions of their originals. Alexandra Ripley's characters don't engage us on their own merits; they serve as ghostly and sad reminders of the genuine articles. "Scarlett" is not a sequel but a violation.

A few automatic verbal tics survive just to remind us that this is a continuation of the earlier novel. Scarlett's slanting emerald eyes are referred to again and again, and her characteristic mantra, "I'll think about it tomorrow," recurs with numbing regularity. These tag phrases and gestures are Ms. Ripley's way of establishing character. Without them, her Scarlett easily could pass as the generic heroine of any drugstore romance. All the compelling intensity of "Gone With the Wind" is diluted into a formulaic tale calculated to exploit readers' affection for the real thing.

There's a finality about the ending of "Gone With the Wind" that fans and greedy publishers chose to ignore. Margaret Mitchell ends her novel with the death of the aristocratic Old South. Scarlett's desire for Ashley has gone the way of white-pillared plantations with wide green lawns and happy slaves. Ashley is a wraith of a man, unable to accommodate himself to the gaudy age of Reconstruction; Melanie, the citadel of Southern gentility and gentleness, is dead; Rhett is bilious and morose; and Scarlett finally realizes that she loves Rhett -- and loses him.

But Mitchell shrewdly added a twist that has kept readers brooding for half a century. At the very end, Scarlett vows to win back Rhett: "After all, tomorrow is another day." Of all the survivors only Scarlett refuses to acknowledge defeat -- not because Mitchell had her eye on a sequel but because it's not in her heroine's nature to give up.

"Scarlett" begins with Melanie's funeral and the heroine's return to Tara. A few old faces make a brief appearance, but the familiar cast and setting are quickly replaced with new characters and locations, none of which remain true to the spirit of the original. What made "Gone With the Wind" so moving was Mitchell's depiction of a vanished world. In "Scarlett," the main characters are wrenched from the context that defined them. Unlike Anna Karenina, say, Scarlett O'Hara doesn't have the human depth to survive outside her historical and geographical framework. Scarlett is "the South."

With Mammy's death, connections to the past are pretty much severed. The action swings from Tara to Charleston, Rhett's hometown, where Scarlett wins the affection of his mother, Miss Eleanor. She proceeds to Savannah, where she meets her father's family (a stereotypical Irish brood), then journeys to Ireland, where the novel starts to sound like the cliched "one woman's journey toward self-discovery."

Set against the backdrop of Irish rebellion, Scarlett finds her ancestral roots and rebuilds the ancient village of Ballyhara, where the uneducated belle becomes "The O'Hara" -- a quasi-mythical being who combines the wisdom of Solomon with the earthy beneficence of the White Goddess. As one character tells her, "They are calling you the O'Hara. . . . In the days of the High Kings, each family had its leader, representative, champion. Some distant ancestor of yours was the O'Hara who stood for all the valor and pride of all other O'Haras. Today that designation was been reborn for you." (Mitchell was not a subtle writer. Ms. Ripley makes her look like Tolstoy.)

As Ms. Ripley's Scarlett grows larger than life, Rhett is diminished. The exploits of the infamous blockader now consist of collecting his mother's knickknacks, which had been confiscated by the Yankees. The new Rhett is a social-climbing mama's boy who ingratiates his way into the society that rejected him.

Worse, he says things like this: "Winning my way back into Charleston's good graces is like climbing an ice-covered mountain in the dark. One slip and I'm dead. So far I've been very cautious and very slow, and I've made some small headway." The old Rhett wouldn't have given a damn. (But he still can send Scarlett into "swirling, swirling rapture.")

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