Petticoats and pettiness

As I’ve said before, sometimes our gift-giving practises can give us away.  Check out this passage from Gone With The Wind:

She recklessly bought gifts for the family.  A furry St. Bernard puppy for Wade, who had always longed for one, a Persian kitten for Beau, a coral bracelet for little Ella, a heavy necklace with moonstone pendants for Aunt Pitty, a complete set of Shakespeare for Melanie and Ashley, an elaborate livery for Uncle Peter, including a high silk coachman’s hat with a brush upon it, dress-lengths for Dilcey and Cookie, expensive gifts for everyone at Tara.

“But what have you bought for Mammy?” questioned Rhett, looking over the pile of gifts spread out on the the bed in their hotel room, and removing the puppy and kitten to the dressing-room.

“Not a thing.  She was hateful.  Why should I bring her a present when she called us mules?”

“Why should you so resent hearing the truth, my pet?  You must bring Mammy a present.  It would break her heart if you didn’t – and hearts like hers are too valuable to be broken.”

“I won’t take her a thing.  She doesn’t deserve it.”

“Then I’ll buy her one.  I remember my mammy always said that when she went to Heaven she wanted a taffeta petticoat so stiff that it would stand by itself and so rustly that the Lord God would think it was made of angels’ wings.  I’ll buy Mammy some red taffeta and have an elegant petticoat made.”

“She won’t take it from you.  She’d rather die than wear it.”

“I don’t doubt it.  But I’ll make the gesture just the same.”

The gifts in this passage are a device to reveal character: Scarlett shows herself as petty, sulking over Mammy’s insult despite her decades of devoted service.  Whereas Rhett, viewed by Southern society as a scoundrel, is perceptive and kind; unlike his bride, he is aware of the emotional and social harm that snubbing Mammy would do – after all, her colleagues Peter, Cookie and Dilcey will be receiving lavish gifts from Scarlett.  Yet Scarlett, lacking Rhett’s maturity, simply wishes to return Mammy’s slight and cannot see the ‘bigger picture’ of her intended actions.


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