Beware your attitude.
First Published: 1936
Date Reviewed: 28th August 2013
Scarlett O’Hara is vain, ignorant and arrogant, and is proud to be so. She steals other girls’ sweethearts and does whatever she pleases. Her rebellious nature suits her very much – until the north wages war against the slave-owning south. Suddenly she finds herself looking after people she does not like and being forced into roles she couldn’t care less about. She needs money, she needs food, but she most certainly does not need Rhett, the man in whom she met her match.
Gone With The Wind is the epic story of the early life of a woman ahead of her time, against the backdrop of the American Civil War. Comprising a great many pages, the book is just as much about society as it is Scarlett, and it provides information about the period in general.
It’s probably best to talk of Scarlett first, before anything else. Scarlett is selfish and always out for money, but it is difficult to say she is altogether bad. Going against the grain, she is a confident and intelligent woman (at least in some respects), and takes what she wants with little thought for others. She is hampered by her society’s views about women, and this, to the modern reader (and indeed likely Mitchell’s contemporaries, too), makes her easy to relate to, in that ahead-of-her-time way. Not so good is the way she views herself, beauty over everything, and how she steals the attention of men from every other girl. Of course there is a lot to be said about the fact the men could have been more faithful to their women, but there are nevertheless times when Scarlett manipulates a situation to the extent that the man can do nothing about it.
Undoubtedly Scarlett’s biggest issue is her lack of understanding for others. Intelligent in business matters, she is nevertheless ignorant when it comes to people’s feelings. She loves a bookish, academic man, but does not understand his nature and sees nothing foreboding in this. Even Rhett Butler, the hero, is a mystery to her.
As for Rhett, he is selfish and manipulative, too, but he possesses an element Scarlett does not that leads him to care when others are genuinely nice to him. And unlike Scarlett he learns from his mistakes. The two have near explosive chemistry, and for this it is a pity they do not share more episodes together than they do. The relationship provides much needed relief, via its modernity, to the stuffy historical society.
Mitchell’s writing of Scarlett enables the reader to see the bad side of society, and how people would act towards someone who didn’t fit the accepted mould. What is interesting here, however, is that ultimately dignity and goodness prevails. Yes, it’s bad that society washes its hands of Scarlett as Scarlett, for all her selfishness, does have a very hard time during the war and does offer to help others, but Mitchell shows that if her heroine would just be nice when she ought, she would be accepted. And she wouldn’t necessarily have to change her nature to do it. She would be accepted back into the fold – society values honesty and loyalty beyond all else – and whilst it may seem silly that it preferred ill health to ill-gotten wealth, the community was strong and helped one another. The reader can understand Scarlett’s desire for money, but it isn’t long before the reader equally understands society’s feelings towards her, too.
Inevitably one cannot think of the community without bringing Melanie into the picture. Melanie is the complete opposite of Scarlett. Quiet, supposedly and perhaps truly oblivious, but strong at heart, Melanie wins support that Scarlett can not understand. The good thing about Melanie is that the reader can always be assured that there is more than meets the eye – which is particularly interesting as Mitchell never really lets you into Melanie’s head.
A lot of the reason why Gone With The Wind is so long is due to the amount of history included in it. Truly there is a great deal and it may prove frustrating to the reader who is more interested in the characters. Not only does Mitchell place her characters in the south at the time of war, whole pages are filled with descriptions of what was going on. In a way it’s necessary, as Scarlett is not interested in the war and therefore you learn little about it when Mitchell focuses on her. The only issue is that the detailing slows the narrative down substantially.
Yet the information provided about the effects of war is worth its weight in gold. As the book is told from the southern perspective, all talk of evil slave ownership is confined to the northerners. This enables Mitchell to concentrate on those southerners we view as in the wrong. Mitchell’s characters are, in the main, good to their slaves, and Mitchell shows how true loyalty and affection between slaves and owners could arise. Of course this is idealistic and there were many more families that were cruel, but the light that shines on this other side of the story is somewhat revelatory, and it is always important to consider the other side.
And consider it Mitchell does. The author shows how many couldn’t understand the ‘problem’ the north had with slavery, and whilst the southern characters do see their slaves as childlike, there is a caring atmosphere surrounding them. In Mitchell’s story, house slaves are part of the family, the field hands are to be looked after.
It’s poignant that Mitchell explores the thoughts of the north. They wanted abolition, but when it comes down to it, the northern women Scarlett meets are incredibly prejudice of the ‘darkies’ and would never consider hiring them due to a lack of trust. This is contrasted by Scarlett’s stating that the darkies were good at their old jobs. What Mitchell infers is the lack of understanding both sides had of each other. And she puts the north under scrutiny, showing how they were all for blacks voting and setting them free – in many ways because they wanted to humiliate the southerners. It is interesting that despite abolition no true respect occurs and the darkies are manipulated still, if in a different way.
But perhaps the most interesting aspect about the book, from a historical perspective, is the exploration of the views of the slaves for one another. Mitchell demonstrates the hierarchy that existed between people who were, at heart, in the same situation. She shows how snobbishness grew in those who worked in houses towards the ‘field-niggers’. Her narrative of the field hands being those who joined the northerners supports the constant theme of loyalty amongst the house slaves. For example Scarlett’s servants remain with her, free but technically shunning freedom. They even show contempt for freed slaves, seeing themselves as more respectable and intelligent. And, to further comment on the north’s lack of care for the slaves, many freed people returned to their owners.
Now this is interesting, because the context supports the idea that uneducated and poor, a slave would rather be looked after and owned than have to learn to fend for themselves. But what it shines a light on is the way the northerners let people go without really thinking about them. Because whilst those first Africans who landed in America knew another way of life, working for white masters was all these newer generations knew. Of course it inevitably transpires that those who owned slaves look like the ‘good guys’ in this book, but in a way it is hard not to see Mitchell’s point that abolition could have been conducted in a far better manner.
Mitchell puts her black characters in a fine light. In fact the only negativity is stereotypical of the role no matter the person’s colour, for example Scarlett’s Mammy’s strictness towards children. Talking of Mammy, the reader should be aware that dialogue is written in accents that, due to issues in transliterating, can sometimes be hard to decipher.
So to the war. Due to Scarlett’s choice to remain ignorant, a lot is glossed over, even if Mitchell does spend sections telling you what was happening ‘abroad’ at the time. The book is both rose-tinted and horrific, and Mitchell has no qualms in discussing uncomfortable subjects.
Gone With The Wind is a book that deals with many themes, least not the ignorance and misunderstanding that accompany vanity and selfishness. It is often poignant, often humorous, and certainly very long. And as much as it could be said that it could have been shorter, it can’t be said that Mitchell was careless – there is real reasoning behind the length of the text, and Mitchell wants her reader educated.
Gone With The Wind presents a heroine who is hard to like but is far from being an anti-heroine. It presents a woman who is aptly detailed and criticised by her author when required, and lauded when expected. Its classic nature whilst being historical fiction in itself creates ample opportunity for discussion, as you’re getting the 1936 perspective of the 1860s war. And its lessons about love and the self are eternal.
Scarlett O’Hara is as memorable as they say, and Mitchell’s work a masterpiece.
September 9, 2013, 12:01 pm
Wonderful review Charlie! I have only watched the film as so far I have not been brave enough to even consider reading this mighty tome. Reading your thoughts though does sound like I would enjoy this.
September 9, 2013, 1:51 pm
There is no actual “history” in GWTW – historians have long bemoaned that so many people take Margaret Mitchell’s version of reality as “true.” It is incorrect, for example, to suggest in any way that masters were “kind” to people who were not free to live their own lives or even stay with their own families, often having spouses and children sold from under their feet, and having to work from sun up to sun down to wait on their “masters.” Nor were woman in a good position in any way; they either were obliged to raise a white woman’s children instead of their own, or were raped repeatedly by white masters who found this a lovely way to create more slaves as well as satisfy their own physical needs. (We don’t like to think of Thomas Jefferson as a rapist, but certainly when he started impregnating Sally Hemmings when she was 14, and then using their children as slaves (some of whom looked so much like their father that visitors at first mistook them for Jefferson himself) one can see that even the declarer that all men are created equal did not deem it necessary for all men to live equally.) As for free slaves sometimes returning to their former masters, a big part of the problem was that there were plenty of greedy traffickers in humans around who did not respect the “alleged” status of any black person, and would take any and all they could to sell south to pick sugar cane, which was a sure route to a very early death. Sometimes the evil you know was safer than the evil you didn’t know. Loyalty and affection had very little to do with it for hardly anyone. Wouldn’t you rather be free to live your own life and feed your own family (and even to stay with your own family) if you could, than be subject to the whims and tempers and sexual desires of a “master” race?
September 9, 2013, 5:22 pm
I sort of skim read, just because I want to read the book and don’t want to potentially spoil the book, but woah what a review! Marvellous, my dear!
September 9, 2013, 7:40 pm
Jessica: Thanks :) Hehe, I think you’re just as brave for having watched the film – finding four hours and knowing your entire evening will be gone isn’t to be sniffed at! If you liked the film I would expect you’d like to book, too.
Rhapsody: I’m under no illusion that what Mitchell wrote is what happened everywhere or all the time :) My own knowledge and research prior to posting showed that it was debated.
Alice: Thanks! Hope you enjoy it when you read it, I’d say you will.
September 9, 2013, 8:30 pm
Interesting review. I’ve seen the movie but have never read the book. I’m more curious than anything to see the differences between the two.
September 10, 2013, 12:37 am
Love your thoughtful review of this one. I have never read it OR seen the movie, though a copy of the book has been staring at me from my bookshelf for many years. I really hope to get to it soon (and eventually see the film afterwards–I’m curious how it compares).
September 10, 2013, 12:26 pm
Wow Charlie–this is a fantastic write up of the novel. I read it several years ago and really struggled with the reading. I’m not really sure why but I remember having to force myself through it and then eventually making it a study in my grad school class just to finish it.
The Civil War is such a fascinating study and also a complicated subject. Mitchell is sometimes accused of romanticizing slavery but I absolutely agree that seeing the discussion from the south definitely adds complex layers to the topic. M
You’ve actually made me want to re-read the book…though I think I’ll resist. ;)
September 10, 2013, 9:36 pm
Great review! I love Gone With the Wind and am so pleased to hear you enjoyed it too. I first read it when I was a teenager and was really only interested in the story and the characters, but when I re-read it a few years later I became more aware of how many other fascinating issues the book raises.
September 11, 2013, 5:59 am
I liked very much your review, Charlie!
This is a book I want to read since always, but I’m a little afraid of, specially for the historical part, that seems to be just like the historical part of Les Miserables, right?
I know I will read it. I also have thought about reading it in English (there’s a copy in the public library), but I don’t know if I’m going to understand it, so well, I think it would be better to read it in Spanish.
By the way, I have never read any novel about the American civil war.
So well, this is the typical book that scares me but I want to read anyway! Thanks to your review, I’m less scared ;)