Gone with the Wind
© 1936 Margaret Mitchell
It’s been nearly twenty years since I visited the joined worlds of antebellum Tara and postwar Atlanta, tied together through the life of a ruined plantation belle turned business magnate, Scarlett O’Hara. I loved the movie in high school, being then in the middle of a Civil War obsession; Vivien Leigh’s beauty and acting chops certainly didn’t hurt. Gone with the Wind is much abused these days, as are the people it makes its heart – southerners – for now our ancestors are dismissed as cornpone nazis unworthy of any regard. Well, as Miss O’Hara would say – fiddle dee dee. There’s no arguing with political zealotry, and anyone who can’t see the honor in men like Lee is too partisan to take seriously. I came to Gone with the Wind not as a southern romantic or a modern troll, notebook in hand to list all of the things the naughty things I find herein, but to encounter its story – and I find it all the more improved from high school, because now instead of cooing over Tara I find myself impressed by Mitchell’s gift for description, unforgettable characters, and storied retelling of the war and the ruin it brought.
I don’t know how known Gone with the Wind is outside the South, but down here everyone knows the basic gist: it’s a romance set during the Civil War. This is altogether too simplistic, however, for while it’s largely driven by romance – by Scarlett’s obsession with Mr. Ashley Wilkes, her cold-blooded habit of marrying men purely to manipulate other beaus or come to material gain, and her long, complicated relationship with Rhett Butler — there’s far more drama here than just one flawed woman’s lovelife. There’s the background drama, of course, the opening of the Civil War and the slow ruin of the South as it progresses: we open on scenes of the plantation gentry enjoying daylong barbeques on the lawn, and halfway through find the same characters – at least, those who have survived — getting by on hominy, their world destroyed by war and their families buried under the lawn instead of striding upon it, taken by war and disease. Reconstruction brings no relief, for taxes begin to consume what death left alone, and anyone with any faint connection to the Confederate government is barred from not only office, but voting — leaving Georgia in the hands of military occupiers, outsiders, and ex-slaves. We see the history happening, but Mitchell also weaves it in directly, especially before Scarlett begins paying attention to the war. There’s also incredibly rich character interplay, as four central characters respond to events in unique ways, sometimes taking similar actions for opposing reasons. Scarlett and her romantic rival turned sister-in-law, the saintly Melanie, bounce off one another, as do Mr. Ashley Wilkes and Rhett Butler: Scarlett is scandalized to realize Ashley and Rhett have similar ideas about the war, but Ashley is a man of duty and Rhett a man of appetite. The complex relations between Scarlett and her three peers dominate the novel.
Scarlett is the central figure of the book, and on her shoulders lays the story’s success. Gone with the Wind is her transformation’s as well as the South’s: we open on a child, an incredibly vain and selfish one who regards her mother as a saint and all other women as the devil, and men are her prey who exist to dote on her and ply her with favors for the pure gift of her company. She’s incredibly unlikable, but – having experienced her growth so many times – I can only laugh at her with Rhett Butler, amused by her vanity and hypocrisy because she’s delightfully real in her flaws. But more important than her flaws is her growth, because instead of being ruined by the war, by the loss of all she loves – -the deaths of her friends and family, the sacking of her home, the loss of her adolescent love — Scarlett rises like a phoenix. The war and reconstruction strip everything from her but her will, her determination not to be destroyed or beaten, and we soon see the spoiled but ruthlessly pragmatic belle working hard to turn ruin into rising fortune. A reader doesn’t have to like Scarlett, but by god he has to admire her. Still, Gone with the Wind is a tragedy — not because it concerns the fall of the antebellum South, but because Scarlett’s cold determination not to be beaten alienates those around her and destroys her chances for a lasting happiness apart from transient pleasure and passing ambition.
Published in 1936, I can imagine what immediate appeal this had for readers stuck in a seemingly endless depression — a reminder that the South has survived worse. For women particularly, having recently realized the right to vote, Scarlett must have seemed a troubled inspiration from another age: a woman who took life by the horns and twisted it to her will, sometimes to excess. Gone with the Wind succeeds brilliantly at bringing the horrors, stresses, and moral dilemmas of the War and Reconstruction to life: it’s easy to read about the casualties at Gettysburg, and not realize the weight of death, but a novel like this draws the reader into a world of personalities and then makes us feel the losses when people we ‘know’ are destroyed. Although moderns like to scoff at Gone with the Wind as a romantic defense of the Old South, they betray their having not read it: both Rhett and Ashley are skeptics of The Glorious Cause, Rhett and other characters continually past against traditionalist prescriptivism, and when Ashley confronts Scarlett about using convict labor, she in turn challenges his and her family’s past reliance on slavery. The thorniest element of Gone with the Wind is its treatment of Reconstruction, particularly the thread in which male members of Scarlett’s class create a certain clannish committee to defend their women against the criminal actions of the now-empowered white trash and “free issue” blacks. As I understand the history of the Klan, it was marked by violence with far less noble motives, but presumably Mitchell was relying on memories of the period’s chaos, upheaval, and terror that she’d heard growing up. Mitchell employs them here not to celebrate them, a la Birth of a Nation, but to cast condemnation on Scarlett — for it is her recklessness that forces several characters to come to her defense through vigilantism.
Gone with the Wind is not without its flaws, but most have only been acquired through the accident of time — period language having become offensive, for instance. The heart of the book is as strong as ever, and the reader who can’t be swept away by the ensembled drama here, particularly Scarlett’s part, because of politics has done themselves a great disservice.