Wednesday, February 10, 2016

#291 : Of O’Hara and O-Lan – Oh! Womankind by Vinay Kumaar

Disclaimer: SPOILERS AHEAD! 

There are few story templates that are as inspiring as the rags-to-riches one. This is one template that is universally accepted and well-received by human beings, irrespective of nationality, religion, race, or any other such artificial constructs of distinction. And it is not a bit surprising why we collectively gravitate towards stories that follow this template, for humanity’s very foundation hinges on survival—the first ever success mankind tasted.

In modern times, aspirants derive motivation from rags-to-riches stories, while achievers, especially those who fought all odds to reach great heights in life, use them as a route to memory lane. No matter on which self-identified rung of the success ladder one stands, a rags-to-riches story is heart-warming, enlightening, and most certainly, motivating.

Very recently, I had the pleasure of reading two glorious novels that poignantly depict what it takes and means to beat all odds, confront hardships, and successfully survive amidst chaos: Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell and The Good Earth by Pearl S Buck.

This article compares and contrasts the lead female characters of both novels—Scarlett O’Hara and O-Lan—and tries to convey how their portrayals reflect women’s pivotal role in the survival of families in reality.

The primary theme of Gone with the Wind might not be survival, but survival is very much integral to the plot—as is the case with The Good Earth too. Though the novels travel on seemingly parallel lines, they do become perpendicular at one point, and that is the intersection called survival.

At the very basic level, the similarities between both novels are stunning in themselves. Both were written by female authors. Both released in the same decade. The Good Earth came first, in 1931, whereas Gone with the Wind released in 1936. However, the latter was in the works for nearly a decade. Civil unrest plays a major role in changing the fortunes of the female protagonists.

On the other hand, the differences between the two novels are equally stunning. First and foremost, and most obviously, Gone with the Wind is set in the Occidental world, whereas The Good Earth is set in the Oriental world. Buck’s classic is a rags-to-riches tale, whereas Mitchell’s is technically a riches-to-rags-to-riches tale.

Coming to the comparison of the female protagonists, let’s look at the differences first because the similarities are more in number.

When it comes to personality and appearance, Scarlett and O-Lan are at diametrically opposite ends. Scarlett is a pretty belle who is the cynosure of men throughout the county. Almost all men of marriageable age earnestly try to woo her. She is the oldest daughter of a rich plantation owner. She belongs to a family that owns slaves.

On the other hand, O-Lan is a slave herself, and one who had seen nothing but abuse in her master’s house. If you create a checklist of parameters that define popular notions of physical beauty (that existed then), O-Lan probably wouldn’t be able to tick off even one check box. Scarlett has a mammy who ensures the corset and basque Scarlett wears on special occasions accentuate her beauty. On the contrary, O-Lan’s own mommy does not bother to tie her daughter’s feet, despite being fully aware that doing so was considered “beautiful” then (This practice is called foot binding and was practiced in China in the previous millennium). Basically, Scarlett is groomed as much as possible, while O-Lan is neglected all her life.

Scarlett could have married any man she wanted. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that men literally queued up to impress her and eventually marry her. No such admiration for O-Lan. However, she is fortunate in that at least a poor farmer was willing to take her hand in marriage. Scarlett is a heart-breaker, whereas O-Lan is, well, a broken heart.

Moving on to the similarities…

Both women possess an unwavering love for their land. Due to unavoidable circumstances—in Scarlett’s case, marriage; and in O-Lan’s case, famine—both women are displaced from the land on which they grew up. However, this love for land is not inherent in either women, but inherited—in Scarlett’s case, from her father, Gerald O’Hara; and in O-Lan’s case, from her husband, Wang Lung. Given their circumstances, both women could have chosen to live away from “home” for the rest of their lives, but neither of them does so. After the war ends, Scarlett decides to move back to Tara, the plantation on which she grew up. Similarly, O-Lan and family return to their village, from their place of refuge in the town, after the famine ends. And both women, in their respective settings, start from scratch, work tirelessly, and build an empire out of nothing.

Next, both Scarlett and O-Lan are street-smart. Shrewd to the core, both women do not let “petty things” such as ideals cloud their decisions. On one hand, O-Lan encourages her sons to beg for money, and even teaches them how to beg convincingly. Further, she steals jewels from the rich house when the entire town revolts against wealthy folks.

On the other hand, Scarlett goes a step ahead, and steals her own sister’s beau away from her. However, both women substantiate their actions, without displaying even an ounce of remorse. “It’s for the good,” they say, and true to their words, a hell lot of good arises due to those actions. No denying that.

Bravery is another trait these fictional soul sisters have in common. When Wang Lung’s neighbours come to plunder his house, acting on rumours that he has secretly horded grains and food, O-Lan is the one who stands up to them and makes them go away. Scarlett displays essential courage too; most importantly, at the hour of need. She doesn’t hesitate to pull the trigger on an enemy soldier who comes to loot her mansion. Time and again, both women keep proving that their families are their biggest priorities.

At this juncture, I’m reminded of two other strong, fictitious female characters. Both of them are closer to home this time. One is the mother of the two little boys in the Tamil movie Kaaka Muttai. The other is the lead female character from the Tamil novella Jannal Malar by Sujatha.

One common thread binding these two women is that their lives are impacted by the actions of their husbands. In Kaaka Muttai, the boys’ father is in prison for some unknown reason. The mother is forced to slog as much as possible to make ends meet and keep the family boat afloat.

Similarly, in Jannal Malar, the lead female character, the protagonist’s wife, takes up sex work in order to earn enough money to feed both herself and her kid. She takes up the profession as a last resort because she doesn’t make enough money trying to sell things such as soaps and agarbathis. Her husband too is in prison, serving time for burglary and such crimes.

We can find a similar thread binding Scarlett and O-Lan too. The inaction of close male characters pushes these women’s limits. Scarlett’s love interest, Ashley, isn’t good at lumber trade. He’s a man of refined interests, which, at times of crisis, are not worth a single penny. Therefore, Scarlett effectively is the head of the family. However, thanks to his keen intellect, Ashley recognizes the fact that it is because of Scarlett that he and his family have food to eat, clothes to wear, and a roof above their heads. He even expresses his gratitude for her kindness. And like I mentioned earlier, O-Lan steals jewels from the rich house, the source of their massive fortune later in the novel. Being the quintessential idealist, Wang Lung does not do the dirty job, but understands that his wife’s actions are necessary. Unlike Ashley, Wang Lung realizes the greatness of O-Lan only after she passes away. It’s too late by then.

In real life, we keep hearing of so many women combatting key issues, such as their husbands’ alcoholism, gambling, and overall acute irresponsibility. Not all women have the option of walking away from such irresponsible and/or abusive husbands. Sadly, in many such cases, women are left with just shattered dreams and broken hearts. More so, if they have children. Nevertheless, like Margaret Mitchell and Pearl S Buck show through Scarlett and O-Lan, survival instinct is inherent to women, regardless of where they’re born. And that’s exactly the reason we see so many families broken yet tight. In some rare cases, we also get to see children from such settings faring well in life overall. Thus, women, a lot like background applications in a computer, silently perform important functions and weave many a rags-to-riches story. 


The writer of this piece - Vinay, is my colleague from work who is Technical Editor with my company. A computer graduate by education, Vinay is stellar writer. A quirky man with an insane sense of humor - there is no better way to describe him! 

Thanks for the brilliant write up Vinay! 

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