There’s something strange about Gone With The Wind. Published in 1936, it remains one of the biggest novels written in the 20th century, critically acclaimed by many people. It has won many awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and was adapted into a successful film in 1939. And yet...
Let’s begin with the core theme of the book. The novel, set in the American South during the Civil War, centres around the flirtatious southern belle Scarlett O’Hara and her lover Rhett Butler. The book opens in April 1861 on the Tara plantation in Atlanta, one day before the war starts with the attack of Fort Sumter. Young Scarlett, when she is introduced (in the book she ages from sixteen to twenty-eight) is not a desirable protagonist. She is selfish, egocentric, has no compassion whatsoever for other people, and is forever chasing after an engaged man, the deadly dull Ashley Wilkes, who is about to be married to his cousin, Melanie Hamilton. Scarlett leads an idyllic life of flirts, parties and gifts on the plantation. Until, of course, the war breaks out.
Rhett Butler, when he is introduced, shows himself as more likeable and interesting than Scarlett or Ashley, but only just so. He is the typical bad-guy, sometimes shunned by society for being a rogue, sometimes adored for his charm. We are left confused about his true feelings for Scarlett until the very last page of the book.
From a feminist point of view, this story is satisfying. Women in the American south had little to no power, but Scarlett manages to achieve things that were deemed impossible for women of that time. In the part where she marries Frank Kennedy (Scarlett has three marriages in the book) she takes control of his local store after finding out how much debt he has and it turns out to be extremely successful, to the horror of many people in the town. Critics have debated over the years whether Gone With The Wind is a feminist book though, because it has been pointed out that Scarlett relies on her feminine charm to get her way – which she does, admittedly. But that can also make you wonder – with women having so little to say in those days, did she have any choice? An interesting discussion point.
‘’Gawd’l mighty, miss Scarlett, I don't know nothin' 'bout birthin' babies!"
The other major theme of the book, and the one that I am most concerned about, is of course slavery. Well, technically it is not a central part of the story, but it becomes increasingly prominent as you read the novel. The attitude that Mitchell has towards black people in the novel is, to say the least, shocking. You can give certain older books about this subject some credit and say: ‘Well it’s not nice but that’s what it was like back then’ but most of these books are still decent. Gone With The Wind takes on an entirely different perspective. It’s the American Civil War from the point of view of the south, and more specifically, of Mitchell herself. The interesting thing about Margaret Mitchell is that she was an Atlanta woman like Scarlett, growing up during the chaotic Reconstruction era. (For more information about the Civil War click here). She was raised with the taste of defeat still in the mouths of her Confederate grandparents. Gone With The Wind is essentially, according to novelist Pat Conroy, ‘’a clenched fist raised to the North, an anthem of defiance.’’
The book is appallingly racist from every perspective. There is not a single black character in the book who has a story, a personality or indeed any human characteristics at all. They seem incapable of doing anything themselves. Indeed, slavery is described as justifiable, even romantic. It has passages that would make anyone wince and feel extremely uncomfortable, and wonder how this book ever got published.
Not to forget, in this book the Ku Klux Klan are the good guys.
Take this quote from chapter 37:
Aided by the unscrupulous adventurers who operated the Freedmen's Bureau and urged on by a fervor of Northern hatred almost religious in its fanaticism, the former field hands found themselves suddenly elevated to the seats of the mighty. There they conducted themselves as creatures of small intelligence might naturally be expected to do. Like monkeys or small children turned loose among treasured objects whose value is beyond their comprehension, they ran wild - either from perverse pleasure in destruction or simply because of their ignorance.
It goes like this for page after page.
For me this really was a barrier to liking the book. Which is a shame, because, despite all of the obvious trouble with it, it’s a very good story, both plot- and language wise. It’s easy to understand why it won a Pulitzer Prize. The whole book is filled to the brim with action. There is not a single boring moment, not a minute without something going on. Scarlett has you shaking your head at one point and smiling widely the next, but usually she makes you go ‘I can’t believe she pulled that off!’ She is not a feminist character. She doesn’t care if women get to vote or not, she couldn’t care less about the war or indeed any political issues. She is annoyed when the war breaks out, yes, but only because it interrupts her barbecue party and takes the men she flirts with away. But she is a survival machine who simply will not give up. Ashley Wilkes may not like her, and she may be stranded alone in a wood full of dangers, and she may lose all her pretty dresses, but as God is her witness, she will come out of this war alive!
Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn!
Rhett Butler’s and Scarlett’s relationship is a deeply sad and a unique one. They’re both such total cold-hearted bastards, yet they have a soft spot deep inside. They’re obviously right for each other, but they simply can’t put down their armour that they have built up around themselves. Sometimes they come so close to touching each other’s hearts, and every time it’s a near miss. And in the end it becomes fatal to their relationship. This is where, in the movie, (spoiler alert!) Rhett Butler says that famous line and leaves her. Scarlett being Scarlett, naturally decides she will not accept this and win him back whatever it takes, but the story leaves us at that point.
No more than a dream remembered, a civilization gone with the wind...
Opinions will, I believe, always be divided about this book. Some will hate it, some will love it, some will both. A book like this could only have been published in the early 19th century, now it would certainly not be accepted by any publishing house. And that’s a good thing. But when I start thinking more deeply about the issues with Gone With The Wind, I think that the book has its own value. Mitchell was very talented at painting a picture of a society that was obviously so wrong, yet she makes you understand the nostalgia for it. I have no sympathy for her revisionist southern perspective. As far as I’m concerned there wasn’t any world that deserved more to shrivel up and blow away. But when you try to imagine it and not think too hard of the slavery, it seems such a shiny, elegant, pretty world that you could almost miss that time. With this book, the opinions of those people stay on our shelves like a picture of their minds and remind us that there are always two sides to a story. They are worth remembering even if they’re horrible.
But this is just my opinion. It’s possible that there are people out there who hate the book, and that’s OK. But I’d advise anyone to try it. This is the perfect story if you’re able to look past the racism, and people who like fun (white) characters, a good storyline, in all just a nice novel, are in for a treat.
What do you think of Gone With The Wind? Do you love it, or can’t stand it? Please tell me in the comments.