Note: If you haven’t read the book or seen the movie, be warned: spoilers ahead.
It’s not so much that I can’t think of anything to say about Gone with the Wind as that I have so much to say and I am unsure how to contain it. One could easily imagine that the phrase “sweeping saga” was coined specifically for this book, and not just as a clever play on its title. More than once in the last several weeks I have cornered hapless folks and given them the rundown on Scarlett and Melanie and Rhett and the state of Atlanta during and after the Civil War.
The first time I encountered Gone with the Wind, I was six years old, and we’d just had cable installed. A little black box sat upon the TV, with a knob one turned to flip over to cable. This also would have been my first encounter with a little channel called Home Box Office. Of course, I say “my” encounter, but really it was my mother who flipped the knob and made magic come out of the television. Most vivid to my six-year-old mind was of course Bonnie in her blue velvet riding habit, and her death as a result of jumping her pony over a fence that’s too high. Many an afternoon when I should have been napping I laid on my bed and pretended to be dead Bonnie, which at least gave the impression of sleep. But I also remember loving Scarlett, and being afraid of the fires raging behind her and Rhett as Atlanta burned and he tried to get her out of town. And the dresses. Oh, how I loved the dresses. Can’t expect much else from a girl who refused to wear pants much of the first decade of her life.
For some reason, also, Gone with the Wind is inextricably linked for me with the Boz Scaggs album Silk Degrees, most specifically with the song “Lowdown.” Memory tells me that on the day I saw this movie, after my father came home from work, my parents plopped me on the white leather backseat of our Buick and we headed to someone’s house for a party, while “Lowdown” played on the eight track. While I would love to claim that I was an especially precocious youngster, more likely the association is just a random accident, but check out these lyrics:
“Baby’s into running ’round/Hanging with the crowd/Putting your business in the street talking out loud/Saying you bought her this and that/And how much you done spent/I swear she must believe it’s all heaven sent/Hey boy you better bring the chick around/To the sad, sad truth, the dirty lowdown”
Forever and ever to me, this song will be about Rhett and Scarlett. That’s my story, anyway. Sometimes the story becomes what happened, instead of the other way around.
As I was growing up, Gone with the Wind was a yearly television movie event, the way The Sound of Music and The Wizard of Oz used to be, and I remember watching it pretty much every year up until my early teens. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve seen the movie since maybe the late 1980s sometime. Usually I would not harp on about the movie version of a book, but the movie in this case is quite faithful to the book. If anything, it has only one flaw, and that is that one could easily be fooled by the movie into believing (as I did, I admit) that Gone with the Wind is not much more than a love story. And I suppose overall it is a love story: love for the land, love for home, love for a way of life. But as faithful as the movie is to the book, the book is far, far better. Scarlett is a far worse tyrant on the page than she ever was on the screen (sorry Ms. Leigh), but her motives are also laid bare on the page, and that brings her great depth. In the first part of the novel, indeed, she comes across as a spoiled brat, but as war–and then Reconstruction–wages around her, we see her grow, and we come to understand why she makes certain choices that are, for her, inevitable, whether we agree with them or not. To me, that’s the mark of a finely wrought character.
On the “About the Author” page in the copy of the book I took out from the library (same edition as pictured above), it reports that Margaret Mitchell, when asked what the book was about, said, “‘if the novel has a theme it is that of survival. What makes some people come through catastrophes and others, apparently just as able, strong and brave go under? It happens in every upheaval. Some people survive; others don’t. What qualities are in those who fight their way through triumphantly that are lacking in those that go under? I only know that survivors used to call that quality ‘gumption.’ So I wrote about people who had gumption and people who didn’t.'” Indeed, I think just about every writing workshop in America could use Mitchell’s quote as a writing prompt and never run out of material, which might be why, in so many ways, this is such a universal story, one with which every person could identify in some way, even if only on the basic premise that to lose one’s home, one’s livelihood, and to face uncertainty and starvation, are terrifying prospects.
Mitchell’s view of her tome is quite broad, but one wonders whether she was so close still to Reconstruction and the Southern experience if she herself could not see greater themes in her own work, the way we can see them today. Certainly she had some objectivity about the Civil War and the early years of Reconstruction that followed, but as it continued through her time (and on past her death), how could she have been objective as to how that shaped her narrative? That question is too big to answer here, and I’m hoping the biography I picked up lends some answers. There seems lately to be some revival of interest in Gone with the Wind (see a review of the book Frankly, My Dear here, and a NYT Paper Cuts blog post about Scarlett as heroine here), much of it centered on Scarlett as feminist hero. Oy. I say “oy” not because Scarlett isn’t a strong female character, but really, is she any stronger than, say, Melanie? If circumstances–and not politics–are what require action from any person, male or female, can we subscribe to them such titles? Is Mrs. Merriweather a feminist hero because she figured out how to make a business out of selling pies to the Yankees?
Gosh, I’m just rambling, and this is exactly what I feared would happen. The truth of the matter is, one cannot talk about this book and do it full justice without talking about history, war, racism, feminism, capitalism, and democracy. The story is entertaining, and Scarlett O’Hara is one of the best (in the sense of most real) characters ever to have graced a page, and I assure you, should you decide to read this book, you will not be able to stop thinking about it once you come to the end. Even people who say that it’s somehow a misrepresentation of the South and the history of Reconstruction (which I doubt, as there are many people here in the South who are still fighting the war, on many different levels)–to them, I say, aren’t our misrepresentations of our history just as much who we are as any “clear” representation? After all, Scarlett herself has the most difficult time seeing things clearly, as driven as she is by her need for wealth and security, as the following passage shows:
“In the nights of the late summer [Melanie’s] small, feebly lighted house was always full of guests. There were never enough chairs to go around and frequently ladies sat on the steps of the front porch with men grouped about them on banisters, on packing boxes or on the lawn below. Sometimes when Scarlett saw guests sitting on the grass, sipping tea, the only refreshment the Wilkeses could afford, she wondered how Melanie could bring herself to expose her poverty so shamelessly. Until Scarlett was able to furnish Aunt Pitty’s house as it had been before the war and serve her guests good wine and juleps and baked ham and cold haunches of venison, she had no intention of having guests in her house–especially prominent guests, such as Melanie had.”
That paragraph wrenched my heart, because Scarlett’s poverty is so much more exposed than Melanie’s, only she is unable to see it, until it’s much too late:
“Now in her loneliness, she would have liked to while away the afternoons with Maybelle or Fanny or Mrs. Elsing or Mrs. Whiting or even that redoubtable old warrior, Mrs. Merriweather. Or Mrs. Bonnell or–or any of her old friends and neighbors. For they knew. They had known war and terror and fire, had seen dear ones dead before their time; they had hungered and been ragged, had lived with the wolf at the door. And they had rebuilt fortune from ruin.
Yes, it would be pleasant. Now she understood why when two ex-Confederates met, they talked of the war with so much relish, with pride, with nostalgia. Those had been days that tried their hearts but they had come through them. They were veterans. She was a veteran, too, but she had no cronies with whom she could refight old battles. Oh, to be with her own kind of people again, those people who had been through the same things and knew how they hurt, and yet how great a part of you they were!
But somehow, these people had slipped away. She realized that it was her own fault. She had never cared until now–now that Bonnie was dead and she was lonely and afraid and she saw across her shining dinner table a swarthy stranger disintegrating under her eyes.”
The ending is tragic, the proud hero fallen, abandoned. “‘My dear, I don’t give a damn,'” Rhett says to Scarlett. But you will. You will wonder what will become of her. You will wish always that maybe, if she’d just done things a bit differently, she could have avoided so much tragedy. I think this is what makes me want to read more about the Civil War, for I have more empathy now with Southerners and their struggles (even if I don’t condone them), much as I have empathy for Scarlett, for all the ways she is unable to see.