I might say Gone With the Wind is well-known by quite a lot of people around the world. Whether they have come across the novel or its famous film adaptation, Margaret Mitchell's characters are familiar to most and loved by many.
I read this book for the first time just after I finished high school. Back then, I felt enthralled by the characters and the detailed plot, but I did not pay that much attention to historical accuracy. Through this summer, I found some time for a more complete and conscious re-reading while preparing for exams. I am excited to share all my discoveries.
For the ones who are new to the story, I'll leave some basic facts about the novel.
Gone With the Wind revolves around the life of Scarlett O'Hara, daughter of a southern plantation owner, during the American Civil War.
The novel introduces us to Scarlett's perfect and peaceful life at her home, Tara, and her romance with Ashley Wilkes, son of a neighboring family.
Our protagonist's world crumbles when she learns that Ashley is getting married to his cousin, Melanie Hamilton.
At the same time, she catches the attention of Rhett Butler, a rich man of doubtful reputation.
Scarlett's struggles to keep close to the man she loves and the raging war around her will push her life in unexpected directions, turning the spoiled and superficial girl she once was, into an implacable woman ready to do what it takes to survive.
Hardships make or break people.
— Margaret Mitchell
Why Should You Be Reading It?
Given the length and level of detail of this novel, I have decided to analyze separately the points which are, at least for me, the most important.
I am aware the summary promised something brief, but I am afraid I failed to achieve that. I will only say in my defense, that the book has too many interesting topics to observe.
I had never learned about American history before, but this book has pushed me to make a little investigation on the subject. The author sets you in time and space, giving information about dates, battles, and relevant names of the time.
The main point of my research was not merely confirming that the events mentioned were real, but understanding something about the narrative: From early on, I realized that the book refers only to the Confederate side of the story, and their vision of how the war was.
I do not see this as a bad thing, considering that most of the characters are from the South, the storytelling made sense. And I believe that the way those characters experienced the situation was accurate to how the confederates at the time must have been feeling themselves.
The principal cause of the Civil War was the disagreement on whether the enslavement of black people should be prohibited. As the novel covers the beginning of the war, all the way through the Reconstruction era, slavery is a topic discussed in length.
Even though I did not know the first thing about American history, I could see that the objectivity in certain points was pretty questionable.
The first thing I noticed is the fact that it put slavery in a kinder light, contradicting all that I knew about the topic until that moment. Mitchell puts a lot of emphasis on the relationships among slaves and their owners, portraying those bonds as examples of loyalty and trust from both parts. Characters such as Mammie, Pork, or Uncle Peter are presented as fundamental pillars of the family's stability, even part of it.
There is no mention of any mental or physical mistreatments; I'd say it puts some effort in making it clear at every possible chance: We get to see Scarlet and other characters threatening some of the slaves with physical punishments, but there are no scenes in which it is explicitly shown to us. It was suggested that Ellen and Gerald were not prone to beat their slaves and that they were assisted as family members when they were sick or injured.
I remember one scene in particular when Big Sam tells Scarlet about the Northern women, who were morbidly curious about slaves' punishments. Sam seems horrified by it and repeatedly assures that Mr. O'Hara would never beat him.
This scene also wants to show that the Yankees did not care about "darkys," and they only wanted slavery to be abolished to ruin the south economically.
Not trust a darky! Scarlett trusted them far more than most white people, certainly more than she trusted any Yankee. There were qualities of loyalty and tirelessness and love in them that no strain could break, no money could buy [...] And even now, with the Freedmen’s Bureau promising all manner of wonders, they still stuck with their white folks and worked much harder than they ever worked in slave times. But the Yankees didn’t understand these things and would never understand them.
— Margaret Mitchell
Every source I have consulted makes clear that slaves were victims of constant physical abuse, and that the treatment from their owners could reach inhumane limits. Women were the target of rape and sexual abuse, and children were forced to work being very young. All things Gone With the Wind did not mention.
Even if we imagine that a plantation such as Tara, where slaves were comparatively well treated, was something normal, it does not erase the fact that those persons were still enslaved, that they belonged to Tara's owner.
I feel that maybe the close relationships can be somehow misleading when it comes to understanding the dynamics between slaves and owners.
There are also some parts in which slaves are referred to as "children that need to be educated," persons with limited intellectual capacity and that could not live apart from their owners. I don't think any person reading this book in 2021 would be comfortable with statements such as those. But being uncomfortable is good. It means that we are changing as a society, not as fast or as completely as we should, but changing nonetheless.
The southern characters believed that slaves were better off being enslaved. For the South, the moral side of slavery was not a reason for fighting. Their purposes were purely economical: Their economy depended on the plantations (Mostly cotton, as Tara) and without slaves who did the work, they could not exist. All their money came from there. This was how the world worked for them, and they did not want to change it.
I wonder what Margaret Mitchell thought of this. The author was from Georgia herself, so she possibly grew up listening to idyllic ideas about the South before the war. From the information I could gather, I understand she took her family's stories (Especially her grandmother's) as a base to write the novel.
I would like to know how much of what she wrote was based on those stories, and how much in other written sources. And above all, if the vision her book gives of the south is how she saw this historical period herself, or if she was merely trying to keep it accurate to the Southern perspective to make the story more believable.
I found the characters and their development throughout the story to be one of the greatest strengths of Gone With the Wind. This is a book that does not fall in the typical strategy of selling the reader "perfect" characters, or branding them as "heroes" and "villains."
If we think about it, most of our main characters show moral and emotional weaknesses, and their bad qualities receive as much attention (or even more) than the good ones.
Scarlett is the perfect example. She is not your regular heroine: She is vain, selfish, and superficial. She never shows interest in the feelings and troubles of the people around her, never tries to understand them or the world she lives in. Her total ignorance and disinterest in anything that has to do with culture, puts it quite plain that she only places value in material things.
Whenever she does a good deed, it is either because she can get some benefit out of it, or because for some reason she feels obligated.
All of this could make her disagreeable to the reader, but those qualities are balanced with courage and determination. She is a person capable of adapting to any circumstances and face any obstacle that appears in her way. She has the sharpest survival skills I've ever seen, and her intelligence in math and businesses put many of the male characters to shame, something unthinkable for a woman at that time.
It is her voice that is heard several times asking the why of things that no lady would have dared to question: Why can't she drink with freedom if men do it proudly all the time? Why does she have to pretend to be silly and physically weak to captivate men? Why should she stay home and let men tend to business when she can do it herself (And better than any of them)?
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.
— Margaret Mitchell
Scarlett experiences an enormous transformation as the story goes by. At the beginning of the novel, she is a child: Spoiled, coquettish, and careless. But the war leaves her no choice but to take responsibilities, and throughout the book she often finds herself being the protector of other people. The events following the siege of Atlanta, facing hunger, cold, and insecurity leave a permanent impression in Scarlett, and the fear of losing everything again torments her from that moment on.
Her biggest nightmare is being poor again, and that desperation is part of what drives her actions. I think her pain is relatable, and her strength is admirable, even if her means are not always honorable.
Rhett is another case very similar to Scarlett: Talented for business (especially if it is illegal), fond of money and luxury, and fundamentally dishonest. But the novel uncovers a different part of him, like his effortless kindness to children, and his capacity for change in the name of the people he cares about.
And of course, Rhett is the only one who sees Scarlett as she really is. This is important because Scarlett is not usually appreciated for who she is, but rather for what people believe of her. Rhett sees all her talents but is also aware of all her flaws, and loves her despite them.
Then we have Ashley, our protagonist's prince charming since the first chapter. He is truly the one who has more potential to be one, but as it is often said, not all that glitters is gold. I do not mean to say that Ashley is bad, for he is the most self-aware character in the story.
He is someone raised in a comfortable home, with a good family, with a deep love for art, music, and literature. He understands the world through them. He does not want a war, but life throws one in his way.
Ashley is not suited for the new world when the war is over. Different from Scarlett, he cannot adapt himself to the new lifestyle. He does not know the first thing about having his own business, or physical labor, and he recognizes his limitations. He thinks a lot, but never acts in consequence.
He is also aware of his attraction to Scarlett, that she is in love with him, and that their relationship cannot be. Despite that, he does not cut it short, and his inability to do it exposes Scarlett to the reproach of her acquaintances.
And finally, we have Melanie. I must admit she is one of my favorite characters. Childlike and innocent, Melanie is trusting and loving to a fault. Scarlett's hate towards her is patent during the novel, but she never notices it. After Scarlett marries her brother Carlos, she considers her as her sister.
Melanie refused to change, refused even to admit that there was any reason to change in a changing world. Under her roof the old days seemed to come back again and people took heart and felt even more contemptuous of the tide of wild life [...] When they looked into her young face and saw there the inflexible loyalty to the old days, they could forget, for a moment, the traitors within their own class who were causing fury, fear and heartbreak.
— Margaret Mitchell
She never suspects that her sister-in-law has a story with her husband, or that she dislikes her. For Melanie, Scarlett is a brave and disinterested person, uncomprehended by most. She loves her so much, that feels capable of defying society and even her own family members to defend her, even if Scarlett does not always deserve it.
I feel that most people underestimate Melanie because of her sweetness and fragility, but through the book, we see how brave and how determined this little person can be.
She is the woman around whom good society congregates, the model of a "Great lady," and Scarlett's constant reminder of the woman she should have been.
If we try to analyze this in a traditional way, we could tell that there two love triangles: Scarlett-Melanie-Ashley and Scarlett-Ashley-Rhett.
But the way I see it, the story is about a protagonist who does not really know what she wants. Despite her personality, Scarlett's ideas about love are childish and naive.
The tension between Scarlett and Ashley drives the novel. Let's not forget that Ashley is the main reason for the protagonist to make her choices. This forbidden love is also what brings her to Rhett's attention in the first place.
We cannot tell that Scarlett's relationships with these men are healthy.
The situation with Ashley is based on an idealized version she has of him, with little base in reality. Ashley is kind, smart, and good-looking, but he is also a person Scarlett can never understand, and who possesses qualities she despises in other people.
For example, his inability to provide for himself and his family without help, his little presence of mind when it comes to dealing with money, and his reflexive nature. But most importantly, Ashley lacks firmness. He is not the kind of person ready to make decisions and take action, but rather one who lets himself be pushed into situations created by others. As we read, we also realize the nature of his attraction to Scarlett resides more in her beauty than in her person.
My dear, she doesn't even know you've got a mind. If it was your mind that attracted him, he would not need to struggle against you [...] after all, a man can admire a woman's mind and soul and still be an honorable gentleman and true to his wife. But it must be difficult for him to reconcile the honor of the Wilkes with coveting your body as he does.
— Margaret Mitchell
Rhett is the opposite. He has made his way in the world all by himself, though not with honesty as a rule. Scarlett's manipulations do not work with him, he can see right through her and discover her intentions. He is someone she has to respect.
This makes Rhett irritating, but at the same time dangerously attractive in Scarlett's eyes. His ways, though far from being those of a gentleman are, in some way, comfortable and reliable to her. In Rhett's company, she can be herself. He admires her for who she is and accepts her with her most undesirable qualities and vices, her worst fears, and traumas.
Aside from his dishonesty, his personal life and particularly his relationship with Scarlett are quite turbulent, bordering on violence.
I understand her twisted relationships with both men, as a fight between Scarlett's romantic ideals on life and happiness, and the reality of who she is and what she wants. But at the moment she figures this out, she will realize that it is already too late.
When he climbed into the buggy and took the reins from her and threw her some impertinent remark, she felt young and gay and attractive again [...] She could talk to him about almost everything with no care for concealing her motives or her real opinions and she never ran out of things to say [...]
— Margaret Mitchell
Strong Female Protagonists
Our female protagonists deserve some words on their own.
From the first pages of the novel, we can identify Scarlett as a strong female character, based on the many qualities we have already described in this article.
But later on, the story begins to place a lot of importance on Melanie as a moral figure, and as a model of kindness and good intentions; leaving aside Scarlett's unflattering opinion on her person.
This is interesting because it establishes a comparison between both women, their attitudes, and their actions. It allows the readers to appreciate two very different ways of perceiving the world, each with her strong suits and their misses.
Scarlett is smarter than Melanie in a practical way as well as physically stronger. She is also very conscious of her appearance and charms and knows how to use all that to manipulate people. She is usually disdainful concerning social rules and customs, which does not give her a good reputation or makes her particularly amenable company. Despite her charms, she is a misfit.
Yes, Melanie had been there that day with a sword in her small hand, ready to do battle for her. And now, as Scarlett looked sadly back, she realized that Melanie had always been there beside her with a sword in her hand, unobtrusive as her own shadow, loving her, fighting for her with blind passionate loyalty, fighting Yankees, fire, hunger, poverty, public opinion and even her beloved blood kin.
— Margaret Mitchell
Melanie lacks Scarlett's beauty and confidence, but her kindness and loving manners make people feel drawn to her and give her influence over them, a power she does not seem to recognize.
She is naturally respectful of the elders and fond of traditions, shy and reserved, but she is capable of fighting those traits and face other people's oppositions when she thinks she is acting justly. Seeming skittish and incompetent for hard work, Melanie surprises with her bravery, and fiery protection of her loved ones.
Even though she does accept and enjoys her "traditional" female role (marriage, motherhood, housekeeping) she earns her place in the readers' memory as a strong character, one that everyone (Even Scarlett) respects and looks up to.
Nowadays the importance of a female character has more to do with how rebellious and career-oriented she is, and not if the character is a good one in itself. That is why I like to point out cases in which, despite not being uncomfortable with a more traditional female role, the character is intelligent, charismatic, brave, and with a mind of her own, managing to make a big difference in the story from her "modest" place.
People and War
In the last place, Gone With the Wind explores life in times of war, and people's reactions to it.
We get to see their fears and losses, but also the consumed fanatism and lack of realism. How the enemy becomes monstrous and dangerous in our minds, and hate towards it is fed. How the fight takes out our most ruthless impulses and devoid us of our humanity.
War is questioned by many of the characters from different perspectives, wondering if it was necessary, if it could have been avoided somehow, and most importantly, if it was worth it.
The love for the land, for the place we call home, is one of the most powerful constants in the story. For Gerald O'Hara, the land is the only reason men fought wars, and for her daughter, it is what gives her the strength and the courage to go on.
In a modern world full of conflict, this is something that calls for reflection. We are expected to be wiser, and that is where knowledge of our history becomes a powerful tool to build our future.
Gone With the Wind is a real work of art, not for being a flawless depiction of the past, but because it forces us to question ourselves.
We spend so much time speaking against discrimination and violence. This book explores one of our darkest sides and faces us with what we have been as humans. But it also proves that we can be better, that we can learn from our mistakes.
Mitchell's writing is compelling, she seems to make the characters come to life on their own. The story is complex, problematic, and powerful, uniquely catching the reader's attention.
All these qualities, make this novel one of those every book lover needs to read at least once in his/her life. I recommend it.
© 2021 Literarycreature
MG Singh emge from Singapore on April 05, 2021:
One of the finest books I have read and made into a lovely motion picture. Read the book twice and seen the movie so many times now on the net. Truly an immortal classic.