Widely considered The Great American Novel, and often remembered for its epic film version, Gone With the Wind explores the depth of human passions with an intensity as bold as its setting in the red hills of Georgia. A superb piece of storytelling, it vividly depicts the drama of the Civil War and Reconstruction.
This is the tale of Scarlett O’Hara, the spoiled, manipulative daughter of a wealthy plantation owner, who arrives at young womanhood just in time to see the Civil War forever change her way of life. A sweeping story of tangled passion and courage, in the pages of Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell brings to life the unforgettable characters that have captured readers for over seventy years.
I’ll just start right off the bat by saying that I don’t like Scarlett O’Hara. Not really at all. I get that she’s a strong, independent, progressive woman who was pushing the boundaries of the societal norms within the time period of the novel, but she’s also just a terrible person. And though I enjoyed the book, and the history behind it, I had a hard time really getting into it because of my vehement dislike of the protagonist. She is insensitive and uncaring, and has the emotional maturity of a child long after she should have grown out of it. And she doesn’t ever grow past it. But I’ll come back to that.
I managed to make it my whole life without reading Gone with the Wind or seeing the movie. Pretty much the only thing I knew about the story was that it was set during the Civil War and that at the end of the movie, Rhett Butler says, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn,” although I would have been rather hard-pressed to tell you what exactly it was he didn’t give a damn about. So I approached the novel with a bit of skepticism (because there’s no reason to take immense popularity at face value), and a bit of interest, not only in the story, but in the time period and the subject matter. Having read Striblings, The Forge and The Store last year, I was set to encounter a book that hit upon racial and societal tensions during and after the Civil War and everything that might entail.
And to be fair, Gone With the Wind did have all those things, but that wasn’t what the novel was at its heart. It’s a story about gender and gender roles in a time period in which many things were in flux and chaos, and so those gender roles begin to morph and change, as well. And I found that aspect of the novel fascinating. And Scarlett O’Hara makes decisions and acts in ways that are completely revolutionary for her time, and there’s something admirable about that, and about her, but I had such a hard time with her motivations behind those actions.
I can certainly understand the motivations behind her desire for money and work in the aftermath of the Civil War, especially in light of the destitution and near loss of her family land both during the war, and during the Reconstruction that followed. I can understand the hard veneer that is created in that sort of crucible. But I had the hardest time understanding her interactions with Rhett Butler and even her claims of love. By the end of the novel, I could see how life and marriage and children and loss had shaped and molded Rhett and turned him into a more conscious, sympathetic, caring, and approachable person, but I could not say the same for Scarlett.
She remains completely oblivious to the feeling and emotions and experiences of the people around her, and instead measures all of her interactions with others on how they affect her personally. Even by the end of the novel, when she decides that she actually “loves” Rhett (long after it’s been painfully obvious to the reader that he has loved her and been hurt by her far too many times), she describes her desire to regain Rhett’s love in terms of a challenge, as something to be gained for her own personal benefit, and even admits that “There had never been a man she couldn’t get.” It has nothing to do with relationship and communion and partnership, and everything to do with her being slighted and wanting to gain the upper hand once again.
And I can freely acknowledge that these are gender tropes and stereotypes that are often presented from the perspective of the opposite gender, that it is often the man, selfishly seeking conquest over the woman, and working to “win her” or “woo her” regardless of who she is as a person and what private and individual motivations she might have. But that doesn’t mean I like those male characters who exhibit those over the top stereotypes. And while it means I have a greater appreciation for the exploration of gender roles within the novel, it doesn’t mean I like Scarlett O’Hara. She may be an excellent example of gender role reversal, but she’s also just a terrible human being.
That being said, Gone With the Wind is a cultural phenomenon. It’s something that exists beyond and outside itself, and something that has a lot of fascinating things to say about personal desire, life during war and hardship. gender roles in a situation (the loss of the Civil War by the Confederacy) that is both metaphorically and literally emasculating, and the varied social interactions in the midst of slavery and an unsustainable way of life, that is nonetheless an ingrained way of life, being stripped away, leaving people scrambling to discover who they are and how to interact in a vastly different world. It’s a book that holds a lot of themes (and maintains and number of pages to support the large variety of themes and ideas) and a book that is inevitably a part of American culture, especially in the South. Regardless of any flaws or unsympathetic characters, it’s something that must be experienced, and hopefully appreciated for what it is: a complicated, difficult look at the wide variety of human endurance and response, for better or worse, to a startling variety of hardships and joys.
“Make up your mind to this. If you are different, you are isolated, not only from people of your own age but from those of your parents’ generation and from your children’s generation too. They’ll never understand you and they’ll be shocked no matter what you do. But your grandparents would probably be proud of you and say: ‘There’s a chip off the old block,’ and your grandchildren will sigh enviously and say: ‘What an old rip grandma must have been!’ and they’ll try to be like you.”
Why you should read it:
It’s a daunting book (my copy is over 700 pages), but it’s a classic, and gives a fascinating look at the South during the Civil War and Reconstruction. There’s a love story too, if you’re into that sort of thing. If you absolutely can’t be convinced to read the book, at least watch the movie, since the story remains a part of American culture to this day.
Currently reading: The Late George Apley by John P. Marquand