on November 3, 2001
I'm a literary snob, I'll admit it. I've read all the classics, and I even know some Literary Theory. Gone With the Wind? Pul-lease, racist, sexist, revanchist trash, made popular by all the young woman dreaming of being Scarlett and having both their Rhett and Ashley. Cheerleader fare. Escapist. WRONG!
Gone with the Wind is an American War & Peace. This is serious literature, which won the Pulitzer prize, no less. Most people don't see past the epic plot (which isn't as cut and dried as you may think) or the love story, but this is no less than a successfull attempt to reclaim a discarded culture. It is not about crinoline and lace, it it about the Apocalypse and how losers of the counter-revolution must learn to live in a place where all their politics, personal or civil, are demolished. Scarlett O'Hara is popular because she is an American, driven, materialistic, sentimental and utterly ruthless. Rhett Bulter is the tragic character of this book; the way of life and ideals he disdained are killing him, and he suffers like no one else in this post-apocalyptic landscape. His departure at the end is an act of contrition as much as a romantic failure; he had tried to recreate the materialism of the ante-bellum world, but negeclected the spirituality (such as it is) of men like Ashley Wilkes. Both men, the dreamer and the realist end up alone in a very sterile place. This book is proto-feminist as well. Scarlett survives, even as everything around her dies, but in the end, she too is alone.
Don't dumb this masterpiece down. The movie fails to capture even a tenth of the depth here. And that awful sequel! Caused by the mistake that this book is some kind of romance novel. This is Art, and you can't stick a new ending on it, any more than you can a great painting or musical composition.
on July 12, 2000
I've read GWTW many times -once you get going you can't stop! I once gave a copy to a friend to read -she said it was 'too old fashioned' oh well her loss. I'm glad I'm in the company of true 'Windies' so I thought I'd share with you some interesting facts about the book: -Scarlett was originally named Pansy
-Scarlett was partly based on Mitchell herself and her grandmother
-Rhett was based on Mitchell's first husband Red Upshaw
-the initials JRM in her dedication refer to her second husband John Reginald Marsh
-Margaret Mitchell maintained the only character taken from real life was Prissy the maid
-When asked who she'd like to be in the movie version, Mitchell said 'Prissy'
-Like a detective novelist, Mitchell wrote the last chapter first and the first chapter last
-GWTW is the only book to sell more copies than the bible
-Mitchell nearly went blind just proofreading the manuscript!
-Mitchell scrupously researched every detail for GWTW, even going to the town register to ensure there was no Rhett Butler or Scarlett O'Hara alive during the Civil War
-The novel took ten years to complete, most of it was written in three
-For style, she endeavoured to make her prose so that a five-year old could read it
-If she were ever to write a sequel, it would be called 'Back With the Breeze' On that note,please avoid the Ripley penned sequel 'Scarlett', it is atrocious.
-Gone with the Wind is my favourite book of all time, and yours too, I hope. Enjoy!
I would give this 10 stars if I could. I haven't read this since I was a young girl in the early 70's and should never have waited so long to read it again. The characters were exceptionally well drawn, the dialogue was brilliant, particularly between Rhett (SIGH!) and Scarlett. I swear there was sparks flying off the pages. I am going to miss the people I will have to put behind me now that the book has come to an end, Rhett (SIGH), Scarlett, Mammy, Prissy and Aunt Pitty Pat (LOL).
The author's use of prose was beautiful, all the scenes and action came alive for me. Some people seem to be offended by the racism in the book, but that's how things were back then. Sugar coating it would have ruined the story reducing it to a Harlequin romance.
This is an incredibly well written book about the death of a civilization and the struggles to survive in the new era. This is a book that should not be missed, particulary those who enjoy historical fiction.
on March 17, 2004
It took this reviewer half a century to get around to reading this great novel for the first time! Appreciating it then, with 'fresh eyes' I share the view that "Gone With The Wind" is quite simply the most readable long novel of all time. With world-wide sales nudging 25 million, it's probably fair to say that most first-time readers (apart from the odd reviewer here at the world's biggest web site) have shared that opinion in the almost 70 years since Margaret Mitchell wrote her one-and-only book. At least one other, highly readable novelist of the past century, the late James A. Michener certainly felt that way.
I'm recalling an interview of thirty years ago in which Michener - a master storyteller in his own right - expressed awe at Mitchell's achievement. I remember Michener quoted a long-forgotten critic who greeted the book's release in 1936 with the perfect, one-sentence summing up: "It's the shortest long novel I have ever read!" Michener predicted at that time (1975) that "critics will forever have to grapple with the problem of why Margaret Mitchell's novel has remained so readable, and so important to so many people."
Michener singled out a few of the "super-dramatic confrontations" so perfectly conjured up in Mitchell's lucid, timeless writing style: Mammy lacing Scarlett into her corset; the wounded at the railway station; Scarlett shooting the Union straggler; the girls making Scarlett a dress from the moss-green velvet draperies; Rhett carrying his wife upstairs to the long-unused bedroom.
Yet for all of its amazing drama, the novel does not ultimately depend upon major confrontations for its page-turning momentum: Michener I remember, zeroed in on two 'central' paragraphs which provide the reader with perfect glimpses into the way the two major characters have 'grown' before our eyes within these pages. One of these paragraphs captivates our imagination in about the middle of the book (chapter 29):
"Somewhere, on the long road that wound through those four years, the girl with her sachet and dancing slippers, had slipped away, and there was left a woman with sharp green eyes, who counted pennies and turned her hands to many menial tasks, a woman to whom nothing was left from the wreckage, except the indestructible red earth on which she stood."
And, in the final pages, that indelible portrait of Rhett, age forty-five:
"He was sunken in his chair, his suit wrinkling untidily against his thickening waist, every line of him proclaiming the ruin of a fine body and the coarsening of a strong face. Drink and dissipation had done their work on the coin-clean profile, and now it was no longer the head of a young pagan prince on newly minted gold, but a decadent, tired Caesar on copper debased by long usage."
It's true to say (again as Michener noted thirty years ago) that the weakness of "Gone With The Wind" is the almost exclusive focus on Atlanta, ignoring the rest of the South: When in fact, it was really the ENTIRE South that changed, "altered by war, and defeat, and social upheaval - and stark determination to re-establish itself." Michener astutely observed that GWTW "depicts with remarkable felicity, the spiritual history of a region."
Most everyone these days would concede that Margaret Mitchell's personal views on the "liberation of the former slaves" (as expressed in subsequent interviews) were less than compassionate. Nevertheless, it was NOT Mitchell who composed those words which make some of us wince when they're scrolling up the screen in the movie version - words quaintly poetic perhaps, but manifestly insulting to those Americans whose ancestors never mistook the days of slavery as part of some "pretty world" poignantly longed-for, or in some way better than America today. (This reviewer has a pretty good memory for well-cadenced English prose, and this is his memory of those opening words from some anonymous male screenwriter.)
"There was a land of cavaliers and cotton fields called the 'Old South.' Here, in this pretty world, gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of knights and their ladies fair, of master and slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a civilization gone with the wind."
So much better are the novelist's own words, distilled into so many sentences and paragraphs that positively 'sing' in our memory. Like this one:
"He swung her off her feet into his arms and started up the stairs. Her head was crushed against his chest and she heard the hard hammering of his heart beneath her ears. He hurt her and she cried out, muffled, frightened. Up the stairs, he went in the utter darkness, up, up, and she was wild with fear."
"Hunger gnawed at her empty stomach again, and she said aloud: "As God is my witness, as God is my witness, the Yankees aren't going to lick me. I'm going to live through this, and when it's over, I'm never going to be hungry again. No, nor any of my folks. If I have to steal or kill - as God is my witness, I'm never going to be hungry again."
I have often thought that "age twenty-six" is the single most important year of any long and healthy lifetime (for too many subjective reasons to list here; but think of the athletes or musicians we've admired when they were at the very summit of their game -- in their twenty-sixth year). So it comes as no surprise to learn that Margaret Mitchell was at that same magic age when she began work on this --- the book another great novelist of the last century would term "this long and powerful recollection of her home town - destined to become a titanic tale of human passions, loved around the world" . . . (its astonishing impact) "a mystery then, and remains one now."
on September 6, 2007
"Gone With the Wind," as a novel, has been mistakenly dismissed by literary critics as pulp fiction for the masses. This view is premature and biased, in my opinion. If one digs deeply into the fabric of this very complex novel, one is likely to find that this novel works on two very different levels: the external level, in which themes such as survival and romantic love figure prominently; and the internal level, in which themes such as division v. reunion and the child v. the adult figure prominently.
An external analysis of the novel yields much that has been obvious to the reading and movie-going public for years. "Gone With the Wind" is, most obviously, a very powerful novel about a young woman's survival of two unique crises: the American Civil War and Reconstruction of the South that followed. The personal qualities of those who survive and prosper in this novel -- characters such as Scarlett O'Hara, Rhett Butler, Mammy, Will Benteen, old Mrs. Fontaine, even Mrs. Merriwether -- are contrasted sharply with those who do not survive and prosper: Ashley Wilkes, Ellen O'Hara, Gerald O'Hara, and Scarlett's first two husbands, Charles Hamilton and Frank Kennedy.
Melanie Hamilton presents an interesting study in the story of survival. Margaret Mitchell uses her to represent the dignified stateliness of the Old South matron. Rather than becoming a victim of the Old South's disintegration, she survives in a way that equals or even surpasses Scarlett's survival. Melanie, whom Mitchell originally intended as the novel's heroine, is the woman who saves Tara from burning to the ground; the woman who drags her father's Mexican War sword to the landing at Tara, helping Scarlett defend it from the Yankee invader; and the woman who stands against polite society in order to defend Scarlett, her beloved sister-in-law, from the town's gossip. Yes, she dies at the end of the novel, and Mitchell uses this to represent the passing of the Old South. However, even here, Melanie dies in her own bed, in her own home, with her own family about her, and she dies on her own terms: after conceiving a child she knew placed her own life at risk.
It is also about three interconnected love stories: the traditional, dignified courtship and marriage of Melanie Hamilton and Ashley Wilkes; the thwarted, unconsummated relationship between Ashley Wilkes and Scarlett O'Hara; and the temptuous, passionate courtship and marriage of Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler. The central theme of these love stories is summarized early in the novel by Scarlett's father, Gerald O'Hara: "Only when like marries like can there be any happiness."
These themes, while universal and very powerful, are only external to the novel, and I don't believe the novel's power or universality are derived from the themes of survival and love. I believe its power is much more subtle. Indeed, for years, it has been a mystery to literary critics why this novel was received equally well by 10-year olds as well as 95-year olds. Therein lies its secret: it is a novel with which both the 10-year old child and the 95-year old adult can identify strongly. It is a novel about children and it is a novel about adults.
Every one of the major characters has qualities of both children and adults in them. These are handled subtly, not obviously, and the language of the novel, which I believe Margaret Mitchell crafted deliberately along these lines, takes the reader in this direction. For example, listen to what Scarlett says about men: "All the men in Scarlett's life, the Tarleton twins, the Calvert boys, Charles, and Frank, she could dismiss with the phrase, 'What a child!' Not Rhett. He was an adult in everything he did. Only Rhett and Ashley ..."
Scarlett is portrayed as both child and adult. "I'm always your little girl," she says to her mother in the middle of the Civil War, when in fact she is a widow with a 2-year old son. The woman whose heroism saves Tara from oblivion is evaluated by Rhett at the end: "My pet, you're such a child." By the end of the novel, when Scarlett is only 28 years old, she has been married three times, widowed twice, given birth to three children, and buried one of them. Yet, in her dreams, she is still "a lost child." When asked if she thought Scarlett ever got Rhett back, Margaret Mitchell said: "I don't think so, but I do think she finally grew up."
Melanie is the adult who masquerades in child's clothing -- and has a child's figure. Mitchell takes pain to describe Melanie's physical appearance "as that of a 10-year old boy, with narrow hips and height barely coming up to Ashley's shoulders." Yet it is Melanie who has the wisdom to see Scarlett's finer qualities, her strength of character, her commitment to her promises, and her ability to survive -- wisdom that is ironically viewed by Scarlett (and others) as foolishness. She is portrayed as foolish to be so loyal and loving to Scarlett; yet it turns out, in the end, that Scarlett's attachment to Ashley was imaginary, and it turns out in the end that Scarlett loves Melanie deeply. She is portrayed as foolish for defending Rhett Butler so staunchly, yet her wisdom about his good qualities is thoroughly vindicated by the novel's end. Of all the principles, it is Melanie who is the most wise -- and the most adult. Yet her external appearance is very childlike.
Rhett is usually depicted as an adult, the black sheep of a prominent Charleston family who makes his own fortune as a blockade runner from just a $1,000 investment. He admits, at novel's end, that he wanted to care for Scarlett, as an adult would care for a child; yet he is relentlessly mothered by Melanie, especially toward the end: she straightens him up so that he can be presentable to Scarlett after her miscarriage; and only she can convince him to consent to Bonnie's funeral. Further, he enables Melanie's mothering throughout the novel. She is the only person that he truly respects because, I suspect, she is a reminder to him of his own mother, a character who is rather prominent in the novel, though largely absent. Interestingly, it is only Melanie who comes into contact with her, as she greets mourners for Bonnie in the parlor of Scarlett and Rhett's mansion.
Ashley Wilkes is the real child of the four principles, but it takes Scarlett the entire duration of the novel, more than 12 years, to realize this. Ashley is the weakest character, the one who has failed to give up the "life that [he] loved," the one who depicts the charm and grace of the Old South to Scarlett -- the only time that she succumbs to the mistake of looking back. Mitchell is very deft with this scene. It is portrayed as a scene that exposes Ashley and Scarlett's illicit love for each other. However, what's really being exposed here is their common dependence on the past, Ashley's being overt and Scarlett's much more deeply repressed. By implication, it's also exposing the true nature of their attraction for each other, because they shared a common upbringing, growing up on neighboring plantations.
This scene is expertly crafted. While Ashley and Scarlett are reminiscing about the charm and grace of their common past -- an event which culminates in their hugging in a truly platonic manner, one in which they begin to understand each other -- they are exposed to the gossip and criticism of Atlanta society. What's being exposed here is not their unconsummated romance; it's their common reliance on living in the past. It's fitting that they should be exposed when they're reminiscing about their common past, because that is the real force of their attraction, the real reason for their love (an ultimately childish love, by the way). Mitchell uses this scene to expose them not to Atlanta society, but to the reader. They're not in love with each other; they're in love with a life that is (forgive the cliche) gone with the wind. At the end of the novel, when Scarlett realizes she truly loves Rhett, she sums up her relationship with Ashley: "I've lost my lover and I've gained another child."
Virtually every relationship in this novel can be evaluated as child v. adult; think, for example, of Mammy, the real mother figure of the novel. Look at Ellen and Gerald O'Hara; he was 43 when they married and she was 15; yet she mothers him, right up until her death. Consider one of their final episodes, recounted to Scarlett in Atlanta by John Wilkes, in which Gerald wanted to fight in the war. Ellen puts him to the test insofar as riding his horse is concerned, a test that "little Gerald, who barely came up to her shoulders" failed miserably. After Ellen dies, Gerald's life collapses and he is a broken man, right until his death.
Finally, there is the theme of division and reunion that appears on numerous occasions throughout the novel. Consider how the novel starts: Scarlett is seated on the front steps of Tara between the Tarleton twins -- a divisive force for two brothers who are otherwise as "alike as two bolls of cotton." The novel begins with internal and external symbols of division. The Civil War starts. We are introduced to Scarlett and Melanie, the two heroines who are complete opposites and, at least for Scarlett, adamantly opposed to one another. We are introduced to Ashley and Rhett, the two heroes who are also complete opposites, at least externally, and rather opposed to one another; Ashley dislikes Rhett's blackguardism, and Rhett has contempt for Ashley's weaknesses.
Mitchell deliberately tries to convince the reader, by cleverly contrasting their external characteristics, that these characters are hopelessly divided. Scarlett "hates" Melanie because she is a foolish simpleton and Ashley's wife; Rhett is a symbol of the New South, and Ashley is a symbol of the Old South; Rhett is a survivor, Ashley is a victim. Scarlett is a divisive figure in Melanie and Ashley's marriage. Scarlett is a divisive figure in the Hamilton-Wilkes families: toward the end, she is the indirect cause of a family feud that splits the family into two separate camps. Scarlett, herself, is a divided character - the result of an alliance between an Irish immigrant and an established aristocrat from the Savannah coast. "In her face were too sharply blended the sharp features of her father, an Irish immigrant, and the more delicate features of her mother, a French aristocrat from Savannah." Mitchell has even put division on Scarlett's face -- one reason that Vivien Leigh, who as an actress utilized divided eyebrows (one up, one down) for Scarlett, was such a perfect choice for the part. "She is my Scarlett," admitted Margaret Mitchell.
Division is the premise of the novel. Reunion is its conclusion. Everything that was divided is ultimately united by novel's end. Melanie and Scarlett reach an understanding with each other; Scarlett comes to realize how much she loves and relies on Melanie, and comes to appreciate her strength, the "steel courage" that has sustained her through many crises. Indeed, the evolution of their relationship is one of the most touching and endearing aspects of the novel. Whereas we begin the novel with Ashley depicted as the war hero whose life is lived for "dignity and honor" and with Rhett depicted as the blackguard who is motivated only by crass selfishness, we end the novel with Ashley reduced to a helpless, purposeless victim and Rhett enhanced as a loving husband and father. Along the way, the stark contrasts that Mitchell draws early between Rhett and Ashley yield to sympathetic comparisons. "Did it ever occur to you, Scarlett, that Rhett and I are fundamentally alike?" Ashley inquires toward the end. Yet their similarities are evident -- though repressed -- from the beginning. In a surprising confrontation with Mrs. Merriwether, Melanie defends Rhett's criticisms of the war because they mirror things her husband has written to her. Ashley and Rhett begin the novel as divided and opposed to one another; they end united and unified as characters. Melanie and Scarlett, likewise, begin the novel as opposed opposites and end the novel united and unified. Division begets reunion.
This theme, division and reunion, is especially powerful when you consider the historical context of the novel. In my view, it is no accident, but rather a careful decision on Margaret Mitchell's part, to time the action of the novel from April 1861, the start of the Civil War, the ultimate symbol of division, to September 1873, the end of Reconstruction, the ultimate symbol of reunion. It is a breathtaking historical backdrop for a novel whose dramatic power is derived from characters experiencing division and reunion in their lives.
It is curious that Mitchell's novel has born the brunt of belittling and contemptuous literary criticism over the years. When it debuted, it sold millions and won the Pulitzer Prize; no film, before or since, has ever been so widely anticipated as the 1939 film was. Its massive popularity, I suspect, and Mitchell's melodramatic writing style have contributed to this contempt. However, when one considers the thematic breadth of the novel, its impeccable structure, and the awesome scope of its narrative force, "Gone With the Wind" is a singular and astonishing achievement. I believe its universality, its appeal from the 10-year old to the 95-year old, is best explained by the themes of child v. adult and division v. reunion. I also believe that it is these themes that explain why it captivates us after 71 years and will continue to captive generations to come.
on February 16, 2000
Margaret Mitchell wrote, for her first book (an earlier work, called "Lost Laysen" has since been published), an exhaustingly researched, wide-ranging, exciting and thrilling book set in the Civil War. This book - Gone With The Wind - was a runaway success; and ultimately made into the biggest movie of its day. Alright, let's admit it, by modern standards it's sexist, racist, overblown, and melodramatic. And it's pretty darned brilliant. I have read this book no less than ten times! In theory, one ought to detest that spoiled little brazen, Scarlett O'Hara, but Margaret Mitchell makes her into a vivid, strong human being, a woman with spirit and the will to survive, but who was essentially immature and spoilt. But she was fiercely protective, loyal, and someone who you were forced to admire, even as you disliked what she was doing. She also had a alarming propensity to fall in love with the wrong men - this was a woman doomed to claw her way anywhere to succeed, but at the same time, estranging herself in the eyes of her Society. But does she give up, does she make it a tragedy? No. She gets up and keeps going, she just doesn't let people see that she minds it very much. She is an inspiration, but she doesn't really deserve to be. Scarlett is flawed, hideously so, but none the less, we are forced to admire her. She IS the book. A weaker or less flawed heroine would be irritating or just TOO unsympathetic. Her unrequitted love is very believable, it's happened to most of us at one time in our youth, and we never really quite shake that first infatuation off without a rude or painful awakening.
The attitudes which feature in this book, although sexist and racist to us now, were perfectly normal for Civil War Southerners - Margaret Mitchell really understood the way people behaved at this time, and did not make them behave out of period or in anachronistic ways. Like Georgette Heyer and Regency England, she has a true understanding and insight into the period she is writing about - she LIVES it, and her people could have been alive then without unduly standing out as unusual or unremarkable.
Scarlett is a rebel, but she does not go as far as a modern author might make her heroine go. She loves her family and her land, though she may deny it, and she is very proud. She is an inspirational woman, a true forerunner of the power woman of the 1980s - a sensational concept, even for the 1930s! The clever thing is how, in such a huge and spreading book, everything comes together. It may seem trivial and unnecessary to discuss Aunt Pittypat's drawing room, or go into the minutae of Scarlett's wardrobe, or to discuss events that happened a long time ago, but believe me, it is all very important in building up a coherent and very accurate (scarily accurate, for 1930s historical fiction - Heyer and Mitchell, as far as I know, were the only authors at this time who really bothered to research in depth for their "lightweight" historical fiction writing.) Gone With The Wind is a masterpiece. It must not be read with modern eyes, but as an amazing study of how people behaved, lived, and survived throughout the Civil War in America on the losing side.
Margaret Mitchell was born in 1900 in Atlanta, Georgia. Throughout her childhood she heard stories of life before, during, and after the Civil War. In the 1920s she suffered a broken ankle. In order to pass the time, and inspired by the stories of her childhood, Mitchell began to write a book. She did not consider herself a novelist and did not think about publication--until 1935, when she impulsively gave the ragged manuscript to a visiting publisher's representative. The rest, as they say, is history: GONE WITH THE WIND was a phenomena. The reading public loved it; even the critics hailed it; and a celebrated film version merely added fuel to the fire. It has been translated into a host of languages, it has never been out of print, and to this day it remains among the most widely-read novels ever written.
In hindsight, it is obvious that Mitchell was somewhat overpraised as an artist. She is not a writer who can complete with the likes of Jane Austen or Mark Twain, and she has a distinct tendency to write "on the surface" rather than in depth. But she has two great strengths, and the first of these is narrative power. If nothing else, Mitchell was a born story teller with an instinctive grasp of what it took to make you turn the next page; at one thousand pages, GONE WITH THE WIND is a long book--but it never seems long when you are actually reading it. Mitchell's second great strength is ability to create archetypical characters that seem to embody everything you know as well as everything you feel you should have known, and Scarlett O'Hara joins the ranks of Austen's Elizabeth Bennett, Thackery's Becky Sharp, and Tolstoi's Anna Karenina as one of the most memorable female characters in the history of literature. As art, the novel does have faults, but it is vividly, sharply alive. You believe in the world and the events and people that Mitchell presents.
Social critics presently accuse Mitchell and GONE WITH THE WIND of racism. I find it difficult to criticize a writer and a work from the past for failing to adopt the attitudes of the present; all writers bring their own day and age to the table, and Mitchell's attitudes and ideas about black people and slavery were in the American mainstream of her day. In this sense, the book is perhaps best considered as a marker of where we once were and how far we have come since its original publication. It is also worth noting that while GONE WITH THE WIND is set before, during, and after the Civil War, and while many of its characters are slaves or freed slaves, it is not a novel about the Civil War or about slavery. It is about a self-centered woman of that era who is clever without being intellectual, who is remarkably hypocritical, and who can in many ways be described as morally bankrupt. We see this world through her eyes, and since she is utterly uninterested in the causes of the war, and even less so in the myriad of moral and ethical issues that swirl around slavery, we learn very little about either in any real sense--and to further complicate matter Mitchell never implies that Scarlett, those who swirl around her, and their attitudes and actions are to admired or accepted; they simply are.
This said, social critics do have a significant point when they note that the popularity of GONE WITH THE WIND had the effect of perpetuating the idea that slavery was "not all that bad" long after such ideas should have been no longer tolerated. I do indeed recommend the book--it is extremely memorable, so much so that it virtually created the genre of romantic historical fiction without every being bested by the host of novels that followed it--but I do not recommend that any one come to it without a fairly good idea of what the Old South was like in actual fact. It is all very well to see that world through the eyes of Scarlett O'Hara for a time, but we need the ability to pull away from her point of view, and to compare it to reality, once the novel is set aside.
GFT, Amazon Reviewer
on July 18, 2007
Growing up in Georgia, I've had a first hand look at the American South. After reading Gone with the Wind, I realized the South hasn't changed that much. We don't have slavery anymore but the lifestyle and traditions remain much the same. THAT is what makes Mitchell's work so enlightening. She relates the Southern Culture better than any other writer barring Pat Conroy. She shows the strength, the loyalty, the compassion, and the gumption of a good southern woman. She also relates the frustration and rebellion at being expected to take a backseat service-oriented role in society and especially in the family. But it doesn't stop there. Mitchell also weaves one heck of a story scattered with some of the most unique and memorable characters in fiction. Characters such as Scarlett O'Hara's love interest Ashley, her bestfriend/worst enemy Melanie (Ashley's wife), and of course the sly Rhett Butler. The book is timeless, the story compelling.
A romantic at heart, I appreciate the subtleties of the struggle for love unattained and love unreturned, both of which give this story a personal touch. If you are curious to see why this novel is the 2nd best selling book in the world next to the Bible, pick it up and expect a long, complex story with unforgettable characters, a glimpse of a fleeting culture, and prose that tastes like an expensive red wine.
on April 26, 2011
Does anybody not already know the story? Well just in case, be warned there are spoilers ahead.
First, let's get this out of the way: Margaret Mitchell's "Gone With the Wind," a story of the Civil War and Reconstruction in Georgia, is racist, and it paints a falsely idyllic portrait of slavery. There's no getting around it. Blacks are depicted as the functional equivalent of small children or draft animals who are best off under the loving care and protection of their white masters. They fulfill a narrative role similar to that of the dog Enzo in "The Art of Racing In the Rain," devoted servants who are sometimes loyal to the point of heroism, and occasionally wise observers of their owners. Slave owners are kindly taskmasters, willing to spend thousands of dollars to buy slaves they don't need from other plantations to keep families together, loath to use harsh words or inflict discipline, and generously concerned with their slaves' physical and spiritual welfare. Slaves laugh in their cozy cabins and have comfortable clothes, plentiful food and attentive medical care. The "better class" of slaves recognize how good they have it and stay with their masters after the Emancipation Proclamation. Abolitionists are ignorant outsiders who don't want anything to do with black people and who can't even imagine the family feeling masters share with their slaves. You can make all the excuses you want about where Margaret Mitchell was from, the stories she heard as a child, and prevailing attitudes when this book was published in the 1930s. I know of no other American novel of comparable "classic" status that contains such a sustained portrayal of slave owner benevolence and black inferiority.
That said, and I don't think these concerns are small matters, "Gone With the Wind" works brilliantly as a popular novel. To be sure, it has its flaws. If you like minimalism, you will find much of the prose overripe. There are more characters and scenes than are strictly necessary, even allowing for the vast historic scope of the story. I could do with a bit less wallowing in the red clay soil of north Georgia. The operatically star-crossed romance of Rhett Butler and Scarlett O'Hara does not bear too close inspection.
GWTW works so well nonetheless because Margaret Mitchell is touched with genius when it comes to structure, pacing, and characterization. As another reviewer put it, she has incisive insight into the human heart. She also has the good sense to leave her readers guessing all the way to the end. We can each draw our own conclusions as to whether Scarlett will get Rhett back. Aspiring novelists and novelists who want to write better novels would do well to study GWTW regularly.
Reading this book again for the first time in decades, after many heart-fluttering trips through as a dreamy, lonely adolescent girl, I was floored by Mitchell's skill at setting scene after scene that grabs the reader's attention, drives the story forward, and tempts you to read "just one more" until the clock is ticking into the small hours of the morning and the sky through the crack in the window blind slips from black to gray. Mitchell's prose flows (sorry, cliche ahead) like a clear, swift-moving stream. It's not the highest art, but it's miles above most popular fiction.
The characters, archetypes though they may be, are as vividly alive as any I can remember. Even before I re-read GWTW, I could, from memory, have told you all about Scarlett's childish willfulness, shrewd business acumen, lack of insight, fierce love of the land and insane commitment to keeping her word. I'd forgotten her occasionally touching acts of kindness, such as when, after her father dies in a riding accident, she gives his gold watch to his body servant, Pork, with no visible ulterior motive. I could have told you about Melanie's steely gentility, Ashley's dreamy weakness, Mammy's wisdom, Gerald O'Hara's sweet madness, and Ellen O'Hara's suicidal devotion to duty as she saw it. Rhett Butler is a wonderfully complex, infuriating character whose conflicts and sorrows come from his being a gentleman (at least by the standards of his culture) in spite of his own better judgment. The fact that people react so strongly to Scarlett, Rhett and the rest, favorably or not, is testament to Mitchell's having made them so real that we believe in them even when our rational minds suggest we do otherwise.
Mitchell does a remarkable job capturing universal human emotions and frailties: the fearful, loving relationship a small child has with his mercurial mother, the wisdom that there can be happiness only when like marries like, the stubborn folly of romantic regret, the pain and blame that come to a couple when a beloved child dies, or the inability to see others as they really are, whether it's the strength of steel under a genteel, innocent exterior or a vulnerable, devoted heart lurking behind a sardonic facade.
Every tragedy needs its comic relief. A seldom-noted feature of GWTW is Mitchell's humor. She directs a sharp wit at the hypocrisy of Old Guard Atlanta and affectionate humor at the child characters she, a childless woman herself, handles with such insight and aplomb.
Pat Conroy's introduction does a nice job as far as it goes in explaining how GWTW shaped the inner lives of generations of women, especially Southern women and how it will always be popular in countries that lost a war. Beyond that, I think GWTW's popularity endures in spite of its cringe-inducing attitudes for a couple of reasons. First, it's an early story of female self-sufficiency. Driven by fear of poverty, aided by a sharp mind, a solid work ethic and scruples that are none too fine, Scarlett makes her own money. Not for her the ladylike impoverished widow's pursuits of millinery, baking, or boardinghouse operation, or the unladylike pursuit of a brothel. Instead, she goes into the building trades, buying and running lumber mills, competing as sharply as any man in the business. Second, it's a quintessentially American story of, as Mitchell herself put it, "gumption." In the world of GWTW, anyone with enough gumption can triumph over any adversity. GWTW reflects something so deeply ingrained in the American psyche that it will have an audience as long as anybody anywhere believes in the American archetype of the self-made person.
In spite of its flaws, GWTW deserves its place in the top rank of popular fiction.
I saw the movie before I read the book, and I thought it would be too much to read a book that was so long. But I was enthralled by the 2nd page, by the descriptions and the dialogue. The rest of the novel kept me enthralled because of the unconventionality of Scarlett and Rhett, and the messages about war, the finished past and the unavoidable future of the South in the mid-1800's. I loved the richness of the descriptions of the Old South, which made me feel so nostalgic even though I'm not even from the South! Also, I found the many characters to be well-developed and each major character had a distinct and sympathizable personality.
My favorite parts are the ones with Scarlett and Rhett at each others' throats, before and during their "courtship" and even after they were married. Their dialogue is hilarious and clever, though admittedly the wit is all from Rhett and the amusement comes from seeing Scarlett brought down a few notches. Though it hurts to know that even though Scarlett FINALLY matures enough to dump Ashley and realize she needed to change, Rhett is no longer willing to give her another chance. It seems whenever Scarlett is actually sincere about something nobody believes her or is willing to give her the benefit of the doubt (except Melanie of course). What's great about the novel is that if one was one of the characters, he would just see Scarlett on the surface: selfish, conniving and coy, but with the narration, one can see where Scarlett is coming from, and actually sympathize with her actions. She was definitely a woman born in the wrong era. She would do just fine in the 21st Century.
Scarlett is very much my favorite character, because even with her insensitivity, selfishness, and materialism, she is oftentimes the strongest person in the passel of main characters. She worked to the bone when she returned to Tara, knowing that her hands would have to be ruined in order to eat and live and provide for the family that looked to her for leadership. Sometimes it seemed she was the only practical, level-headed person in the whole book (excepting Rhett), especially since people like Suellen were just refusing to work because it was "beneath" them, refusing to admit things have changed and work had to be done. Scarlett knows what she wants and has the sense to go ahead and try to get it.
Although, many times Scarlett's selfishness comes up so unexpectedly I burst out laughing at the outrageousness of her personality. For example there would be a long conversation or narrative about how the past was so beautiful and peaceful or about a nice thing a person has done, and the book has Scarlett completely overturn the comments with her contemptous thoughts on the contrary of what was just described. Her problem is that though she sees what's in front of her, she doesn't get the POINT of what she's seeing. Hence the character of Rhett. He is so much like her, but he is able to see what she misses. He points them out to her plainly, and in Rhett Scarlett meets her match. He has what she's missing. As a result, another piece of the novel comes together: through Rhett, Scarlett is able to mature and bridge, to an extent, the gap between the ideals of people living in the past and those living in the present. Unfortunately, this maturation is not without consequences.
Because of Scarlett's headstrong personality, I found GWTW endlessy amusing, and I think it was meant to be - in showing the huge gap between the over-the-top, in-the-moment practicality of Scarlett and the immaterial dreams of yesterday held so tightly by Old Southerners like Ashley, Melanie, and the rest, Mitchell tells us that both ways of thinking have their benefits and faults. It's not good to hold on to the past without moving forward, but only worrying about current physical security without holding tight to family and identity will cause pain and loneliness in the future. The messages are many in GWTW, and none of the 1000+ pages are superfluous. It was a pleasure to read, to laugh at the witty dialogue, sigh with sadness or nostalgia, scoff with annoyance at characters' actions, and feel the pain of the bitter ironies that define the lives of characters like Scarlett and Rhett.
GWTW is not just a love story to me; it's so much more than that. It makes you think about what's past, but warns you not to dwell on the memories. Also, issues about war, race, and gender are definitely touched upon, oftentimes subtly, and it makes for great analysis. I can see why this novel won the Pulitzer Prize. Many issues are laid out all at once in front of you, forcing you to acknowledge their presence, whether it's painful to do so or not. "Gone With the Wind" made it to my "favorite books" list by page 150. It's an amazing literary work; a real masterpiece.