Cue Scarlett O’Hara shambling beaten and ravenous into what’s left of Tara’s gardens. She roots in the dirt for anything, anything to eat. The music swells. Scarlett digs up a radish and tries to devour it raw. She wretches, gathers herself, and declares to a fiery sky that she’ll never go hungry again.
Like other movies turned pop culture shorthand, Gone with the Wind makes common language to talk story mechanics, thank you Margaret Mitchell and Victor Fleming. We all know Scarlett and her arc, how this moment cues her shift in motivations come Act Two. We remember her Big Declaration as alive with viscerals: aglow sky, stripped-bare tree, fingers in dirt, rock-hard radish on the teeth. It’s so vivid in showing Scarlett as character and Tara as place that one might overlook another star of the scene. Why it works. The setting.
Reader and writer lingo often uses place and setting interchangeably. Nope. One is story fact, and the other is literary element. Not a problem, so long as the writer does their job and has both work in concert. And to make sure of that, sometimes it pays to get down to brass tacks–or last radishes.
Place, in fiction, is Scarlett’s physical location. Tara, the vegetable garden. Setting is place in its emotional and cultural context. Tara, in 1864 Georgia, in ruins. And plot has set the setting ablaze. Typhoid has claimed Scarlett’s mother, madness her father, and looters have hauled off everything the family owned–except some green curtains and the odd radish. Down-But-Not-Out Scarlett vows to lie, cheat and kill to overcome her epic reversal of fortune.
Setting frames plot and place, even a story world in a sci-fi or speculative piece. What traditions and politics are in play? How all this help or hinder the characters? What’s the worst thing that can happen in such a world? Take Scarlett, for example. She had life all figured out, never mind any silly old war. Enter that silly old war, the restraints of smart-match marriage traditions, so forth. Before you know it, her heart’s desire Ashley is unattainable (mostly), Atlanta is on fire, Tara is a wreck, and Scarlett is railing to the heavens. In Act One.
Setting even discovers the right place for a scene, on a writer’s good day. Fleming and Mitchell had good days each with the Radish Declaration: have Scarlett change in the plantation fields. In her wrecked world–and broader self-wrecked society–the garden, with its view out over the wrecked plantation, forces with ironic overtones this spoiled O’Hara girl to dig in the dirt like so many there were forced before her. Life was never so fiddle-de-de in the fields, was it? The garden is where she can be reborn, where she can regrow the place, her way.
Nearly a century later, Gone with the Wind is part of the American lexicon. This remains true even with so much injustice to Scarlett’s plantation culture. Scarlett is a legendarily-memorable character, sure, but she’s memorable for how Mitchell and Fleming used her setting to forge a character tested to her dig-in-the-dirt limits. We remember Scarlett because we see where she comes from. When she raises her fist and vows to the sky, we’re damn sure she means business.