Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: Gone With the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell

A grand historical romance, a sweeping Civil War epic, and a horrible apologetic for the slavery South.

Gone With the Wind

Macmillan, 1936, 1037 pages

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Literature, Margaret Mitchell's great novel of the South is one of the most popular books ever written. Within six months of its publication in 1936, Gone With the Wind had sold a million copies. To date, it has been translated into 25 languages, and more than 28 million copies have been sold.

Here are the characters that have become symbols of passion and desire: darkly handsome Rhett Butler and flirtatious Scarlett O'Hara. Behind them stand their gentler counterparts: Ashley Wilkes and Melanie Hamilton. As the lives and affairs of these absorbing characters play out against the tumult of the Civil War, Gone With the Wind reaches dramatic heights that have swept generations of fans off their feet.

Let's get this out of the way first: Gone With the Wind is a racist, revisionist Southern apologetic. Not just racist in a "Well, it was written in 1936 so what do you expect?" kind of way, but offensively, horribly racist even by the standards of the time in which it was written. Margaret Mitchell was a wealthy debutante in the post-war South, raised with the bitter taste of defeat still in the mouths of her Confederate grandparents, and her novel was, as novelist Pat Conroy (who wrote the preface to the 75th Anniversary Edition) says, "a clenched fist raised to the North, an anthem of defiance."

"Gawdlmighty, Miss Scarlett! Ah's sceered ter go runnin' roun' in de dahk by mahseff! Spose de Yankees gits me?"

Of course a writer can write from the viewpoint of Southern slave owners who of course would be racist and view black people with, at best, benevolent paternalism, without her characters' attitudes necessarily being her own. But it's very apparent that Mitchell was wholly and uncritically sympathetic to her antebellum ancestors. The Old South was a graceful, chivalrous land where slavery was not a horrible and oppressive institution creating generations of misery and oppression, but a divinely-ordained means of preserving racial harmony. And for all that Mitchell, like her characters, probably considered herself to be kind and affectionate to all the African-Americans she knew personally, there isn't a single black character in the book who isn't an ignorant, semi-human ape -- which is literally how they are described. Even beloved Mammy is repeatedly compared to a monkey. From Margaret Mitchell's version of history, one would get the impression that the only negative thing about slavery was that some slaves were unlucky enough to have mean owners - who were almost always of Yankee descent, since the only really evil people in the book, and the only white people who actually mistreat blacks, are Yankees.

In chapter thirty-seven, Mitchell steps outside of her characters' POV for lengthy passages to get up on a narrative soapbox. And boy howdy does she ever.

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.

This is not a character's POV, this is the author, Margaret Mitchell, describing the "horrors" of Reconstruction for us, and it goes on like this for many pages.

We are meant to feel sorry for the poor former slave owners who once lived in pretty mansions and are now subjected to the "insolence" of what Mammy (being a "good" negro who remains loyal to her white folks) contemptuously calls "free issue niggers." This is where we find out that Rhett Butler killed a negro for being insolent to a white woman, and the fact that he's been put in jail for it is a terrible injustice and evidence of Yankee hatred and lawlessness. And we learn that even milquetoasts like Ashley Wilkes and Frank Kennedy have joined the Ku Klux Klan.

Yes, the KKK, in Mitchell's world, was a brave band of Southern gentlemen reacting the only way they could to what those awful Yankees were doing to the poor, defeated South. Keep in mind that Mitchell wrote this at a time when the Klan was still powerful and ferocious.

So, Gone With the Wind does not merit even a "product of its time" defense; it's as deliberately and unselfconsciously racist as The Birth of a Nation.

Mitchell can't be said to have been completely unaware of social issues and unquestioning of the society she was writing about, because she is unsparing in describing the sexism of the antebellum South as well, but this both the author and her protagonist clearly recognize and rebel against. (Interestingly, Mitchell's mother was a suffragist.)

But other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?

So, assuming you can get past the racism that oozes out of practically every page, and the fact that we're supposed to sympathize with Scarlett O'Hara's Yankee-hating Irish father because he's such a kind and generous man that he's only ever had a slave whipped once, is this a book worth reading?

Yes, yes, it is.

Mitchell is a brilliant writer. Gone With the Wind wasn't given a Pulitzer Prize because the Pulitzer committee was made up of Confederate sympathizers. It's a thousand-page doorstopper of a novel that doesn't have a single slow moment, a single uninteresting chapter, or a single boring character. Viewed purely as a novel, it is brilliant - I would even say flawless - in its execution. Yes, even those long screeds about how horrible Reconstruction was, while largely revisionist bullshit, do perfectly represent the feeling of the times and set the tone for what follows.

Mitchell's book is Dickensian in its grandeur and ambition, as well as in its cast list, but I would say she is superior to Dickens in plotting and use of characters. 19th century writers relied an awful lot on coincidence and childhood associates returning out of the blue for no particular reason, and Dickens in particular would insert memorable but unnecessary characters right and left in his books; all of the recurring characters in Mitchell's novel have a perfectly believable reason for returning, and every character serves a purpose. Her characters are both believable and not; their behavior is head-bangingly obtuse at times, but it's conditioned by the rigid constraints of the society in which they live, and the main characters are as much archetypes as protagonists.

Well, fiddle-dee-dee!

What Melanie did was no more than all Southern girls were taught to do: to make those about them feel at ease and pleased with themselves. It was this happy feminine conspiracy which made Southern society so pleasant. Women knew that a land in which men were contented, uncontradicted, and safe in possession of unpunctured vanity was likely to be a very pleasant place for women to live. So from the cradle to the grave, women strove to make men pleased with themselves, and the satisfied men repaid lavishly with gallantry and adoration. In fact, men willingly gave the ladies everything in the world, except credit for having intelligence.

Scarlett exercised the same charms as Melanie but with a studied artistry and consummate skill. The difference between the two girls lay in the fact that Melanie spoke kind and flattering words from a desire to make people happy, if only temporarily, and Scarlett never did it except to further her own aims.

Scarlett O'Hara is a bitch. If any literary character ever deserved to be called a bitch, it's Scarlett O'Hara. She is the queen of all bitches. She is magnificently, shamelessly, brilliantly, wonderfully, appallingly bitchy. She is selfish and self-centered, conniving, scheming, manipulative, pitiless, jealous, and greedy. She occasionally feels just enough of a twinge approximating affection or guilt to make her not completely inhuman, but she is almost sociopathic in her self-absorbtion. Until Sherman's army is actually marching on Atlanta, she regards the entire war as a big ol' inconvenience because it causes men to pay attention to something other than her. She puts on a flawless facade that fools everyone around her (except Rhett Butler), and somehow she always ends up doing the right thing for the wrong reason, but she's got a cold steel mercenary heart in which the only genuine feeling besides a desire not to be poor is an irrational passion for Ashley Wilkes. She is a survival machine with the instincts and remorselessness of a shark. God's Nightgown, what a woman! Scarlett O'Hara is fucking awesome in an evil "I would totally fall in love with her even though I know she'd break my heart and merrily dance dainty steps in pointy little shoes on its shattered pieces" kind of way. She goes from one "I can't believe she did that!" moment to the next "I can't believe she pulled that off!" incident all through the book, and no other character has ever been such a terrible person while making you admire the hell out of them 'cause as God is her witness, she will never be hungry again!

She's evil. She's a vampire queen forced to rely on her feminine charms because her civilization doesn't allow her to exercise anything else. Somewhere deep inside is a little girl who might have been good, if she didn't find it just so much easier and more practical to be bad. Contrasted with Melanie Wilkes, the too-good-to-be-true Southern lady who melts even Rhett Butler's scurrilous heart, they represent the New South and the Old, respectively: the Old South of impractical gallantry and doomed ideals and willful blindness to the world's harsh realities, and the New South of hard-scrabble survival and plenty of money and comfort to be had if you're willing to be ruthless and make compromises, something that comes as naturally to Scarlett as it is literally unthinkable to Melanie.

All the self-awareness that Mitchell lacked concerning white Southern society is present in the character of Scarlett. Everything Scarlett does is motivated by selfishness, and yet from the right point of view, she ends up looking noble, even heroic. Her sister-in-law, Melanie, loves her like a sister for years, all the while being as oblivious to Scarlett's infatuation with her husband as she is to the fact that Scarlett fucking hates her!

The only man who's a match for her

Rhett Butler and Ashley Wilkes, of course, are the male counterparts to Scarlett and Melanie. Rhett undergoes the most character growth throughout the book, while Scarlett remains almost unchanged until the very end, Melanie literally cannot survive in a world that requires her to change, and Ashley, like his civilization, is slowly diminished to a pale shadow of his former glory - one of his few redeeming qualities being that he, unlike most of his peers, has the self-awareness to realize it, though not enough strength to adapt to it.

Rhett is almost as awesome a character as Scarlett. He's first introduced to us as a scoundrel who is "not received" - meaning, no decent families will welcome him as a guest (except the Wilkeses, because they are infallibly gracious to everyone). It turns out later that the incident initially responsible for his scurrilous reputation was not entirely his fault, and it was his unwillingness to play along with rules he perceived to be stupid that resulted in his blackened reputation. Glorying in this, he becomes a speculator and a blockade runner during the war, his reputation rising and falling as the fortunes of the South do. All the while, his one weakness is his love for Scarlett.

It's Scarlett and Rhett's relationship that was one of the most brilliant and heart-wrenching aspects of the book. They're both such cold-hearted bastards, and yet they both have a soft spot deep inside, and each comes so close to touching the other's. And yet the armor they build up around themselves to ward off the other's barbs remains unbreached, until all the birds come home to roost. Readers who hate Scarlett (and it's easy to see how you might) may see the ending as her just come-uppance, when her "too little, too late" epiphany is met with a cold rebuff, but I was writhing inside at the climax of this Shakespearean tragedy, after the thousand page preamble and collapse of an entire civilization that led up to it.

Camelot on a plantation

I have little sympathy for the Old South or Southern apologetics. Gone with the wind, indeed - it's a society that fully deserved to dry up and blow away, and in my opinion, Reconstruction didn't go far enough in crushing the will of the defeated Confederacy. For a short time after the war, African-Americans sat in the legislature and had a real shot at assuming positions of importance throughout the South. Of course without experience in governance, few of them educated, and insufficient institutional support, they weren't likely to be effective initially, and they did indeed fall prey to unscrupulous Yankee "carpetbaggers," but Mitchell's depiction of them as a pack of monkeys let loose in a gallery is something to make white people feel better about the backlash and hundred years of oppression that followed.

For all that, even to my cynical eye Mitchell was remarkably skilled at painting a picture of a civilization that one cannot help but admire and understand the nostalgia for. Like Rome or feudal Japan or any another civilization that is easily glorified in fiction but which would not bear scrutiny from a modern civil rights perspective, the Old South in Gone With the Wind is such a pretty, shining, elegant, courtly world that if you close your eyes and don't think too hard about all the slaves, you could almost mourn its passing. And looking back from the end of GWTW to the beginning, reflecting on the gaudy, jaded, worldly Scarlett who has survived the war and prospered in its aftermath, comparing her to the silly girl flirting at a barbecue before the fighting started and Tara and Twelve Oaks burned, I can appreciate the beauty and magnificence of this romance wrapped in a war story wrapped in the fall of a civilization.

This novel really is a thing of tarnished beauty, and I encourage anyone to read it, especially if you enjoyed the movie, even if the movie also sets your teeth on edge.

Gone With the Wind (1939)

Gone With the Wind

I've seen the movie before, of course, but it had been many years, so I had to watch it again after reading the book. Gawdlmighty, it really is a fantastic movie. And, like the book, so whitewashed and rosy-hued a version of history, starting with the scrolling marquee at the beginning:

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 of

Look for it only in books,
for it is no more than a
dream remembered.

A Civilization gone with
the wind...

Everything I said about the book applies to the movie. It's a glorified paean to the Old South as a land of grace and plenty and noble cavaliers, cruelly crushed by evil Yankees in the War of Northern Aggression.

But as a movie, and a work of art, it is glorious, and most of the changes from the book are made to condense the far more complex character development of a novel into what can be depicted in a few lines of dialog. The way Vivien Leigh's Scarlett O'Hara works the room at the Twelve Oaks barbecue is fantastic acting - in a few seconds the audience understands just how easily Scarlett wraps around her finger any male who comes within range of her personality -- and just what an insincere, manipulative vixen she is.

Scarlett at Twelve Oaks

As an adaptation, the movie is arguably as good as the book - some people think it's better. It's definitely enjoyable as hell, and considerably less offensive than the book (though still pretty demeaning to the characters of Mammy and Prissy). Of course, some of the offense was lessened by completely omitting the Ku Klux Klan. The movie also leaves out the children Scarlett had with her first two husbands.

I also noticed a sly shout-out from producer David Selznick: in the novel, the book Melanie reads while the women are waiting for the men to return from their raid on the shantytown is Les Misérables, but in the movie, it's David Copperfield (which happened to be another book for which Selznick produced a big budget film the year before).

Then there is the infamous scene that is considered most objectionable to modern viewers on feminist grounds:

Rhett and Scarlett
The next morning

This isn't a message that plays well today. I will observe that while in the book, this entire scene is still kinda rapey, I'm actually going to play the "product of its time" card here: one of the running themes throughout the book was that Scarlett, for all her seductiveness and coquetry, did not like sex. Reared with a "Lie back and think of Georgia" attitude towards sex by a mother who herself had married Scarlett's father for reasons other than love, Scarlett's only previous experiences had been with a teenage boy and an old man (as Rhett pointed out), neither of them exactly prime male specimens. Unsurprisingly, nothing had changed her opinion that sex was something for women to endure, not enjoy. While there are no explicit sex scenes in the book, Mitchell writes pretty plainly about Scarlett's attitude, so the scene where Rhett takes her unwillingly to bed and fucks her into a state of shameful bliss, while still problematic as hell, was pretty daring for its time. You can probably blame GWTW in part for the pervasiveness of this trope today and how "hot" it's still considered to be, but there is no denying that in the book, it is a powerful and convincing scene.

Like the book, this is a movie that deserves to be viewed with a highly critical lens, but it deserves to be viewed.

Verdict: Gone With the Wind is glorious. It's brilliant and powerful and epic. It's also epically full of race!fail and sexism!fail and history!fail, even more than most books from previous generations. If you don't like "problematic" fiction then GWTW will probably be a hard book to get through, because it's problematic on every page. But it would be daft to deny that it's a monumental work of literature, and frankly, I enjoyed the hell out of it when I wasn't wishing that Margaret Mitchell was around for me to hit her over the head with it. Yeah, this joins James Bond in my collection of guilty pleasures, but at least I can defend Gone With the Wind on literary grounds.

Gone With the Wind is on the list of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, though I did not read it for the books1001 challenge.

My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: books, books1001, highly recommended, history, literary, reviews

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