“Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, though men seldom noticed when caught by her charm, as the Tarleton twins were.” – GONE WITH THE WIND GONE WITH THE WIND is the surprisingly compelling story of Scarlett O’Hara, a spoiled princess whose hands have never held any implement beyond an embroidery needle and whose bare skin has …
" /> Jason Holborn | Cybercarnet/Weblog - On GONE WITH THE WIND by Margaret Mitchell

On GONE WITH THE WIND by Margaret Mitchell

Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, though men seldom noticed when caught by her charm, as the Tarleton twins were.” – GONE WITH THE WIND

GONE WITH THE WIND is the surprisingly compelling story of Scarlett O’Hara, a spoiled princess whose hands have never held any implement beyond an embroidery needle and whose bare skin has never felt the sun’s direct rays; who is shallow, ignorant, despicably self-centered, vain, and cruel; but whom apocalyptic End Of World nightmares reveal to be the strongest survivor among her pampered social network.  In the horror movie of war and Southern Reconstruction, she is the Final Girl who stands strongest and toughest and who possesses more will to survive than any other.  More complex than it appears, GONE WITH THE WIND is often called (and criticized as) a falsely nostalgic dream of the Good Old Days of the antebellum South, yet Margaret Mitchell seems acutely aware that those Good Old Days were unsustainable, bred foolishness and idleness, and cut out gumption, reducing the white rich to boisterous children and easy pickings for the wolves of war to hunt down and devour.  Paradoxically GONE WITH THE WIND is both alluring to those who dream romantically of the Old South, yet also obviously holds that same Old South in absolute contempt, mercilessly depicting its prideful hypocrisies and foolish downfall.  The book barely skims the surface regarding slavery and human rights and racism; this mars it.  GONE WITH THE WIND is clearly a timeless classic, but addressing slavery and the innate natural rights of Africans might have elevated it to the category of masterpiece.

Ignorance and Stupidity

The novel is ironic; though almost all the characters are dreamy and moonstruck over the virtues of the Confederate South, the author clearly knows better.  The book is written 3rd person omniscient but is relayed through Scarlett O’Hara’s worldview (until page 739 she is on every single page, in every single scene; after that point, she is again in every scene, on each page).  The third person omniscient perspective details all of Scarlett’s secret inner thoughts about men and dresses and “darkies” and ethics and memories and teachings.  91% of the book is romantic depictions of genteel Southern aristocrats proudly displaying their patriotic joy in the customs and traditions of their beloved Old South, yet in that other 9%, Mitchell’s third person omniscient voice portrays that same southern aristocratic gentility as foolish, hypocritical, short-sighted, intemperate, childish, and above all else, stupid: lacking in education, shielded from having to explore alternate viewpoints, and woefully ignorant of harsh reality.  She portrays a Southern gentility which, in a Darwinian stroke, is reduced to ashes, and then, is gone with the wind.  Scarlett’s ideas and thoughts drive the novel, yet the reader can see clearly how “off” her thinking really is.

Literally every proud Southerner character who seeks war with the North over “freeing the darkies” and “state’s rights” is portrayed as scoffing at education, books, universities, and any need for travel beyond the comfortable, insulating borders of the Confederacy.  Literally every character (John Wilkes, Ashley Wilkes, and above all Rhett Butler) who possess any remote kind of appreciation for education and books (and travel) cautions these others to forgo their romantic dreams of war, knowing too well that the idle aristocratic Southern agricultural economy cannot possibly win against the industrial might of the North.  It is those same ignorant Southerners (and this includes Scarlett O’Hara) who blindly, without question, believe in the Confederacy’s might and infallibility, thereby hastening the inevitable fall of their known world.

Scarlett O’Hara has crushes on loud boisterous boys who whoop rebel yells impatiently, bursting for their lazy Secessionist state alliance, which they call ‘the Confederacy’, to get this war with the North started so they can go party on the battlefields and give the Negro-loving North the thumpin’ whuppin’ they deserve.  The pride they feel in their way of life excites and impresses Scarlett, though her own worldview and sheltered female education make her fiercely bored at their unending incessant talk of “politics and men’s topics”.  The boys are too ignorant and stupid to realize war is no formal ball with long guns; she’s too ignorant to even care about war at all.  Scarlett’s beaus include the Tarleton twins, who have been happily kicked out of four universities and can’t wait to mock a fifth from inside.  Not one single person in all of Scarlett’s world besides Ashley Wilkes reads a book or cares about education; Ashley Wilkes finds the idea of war to be unpleasant, unappealing, and unnecessary (though he agrees that he will fight if the war does come).

You can read pages and pages and pages and pages of the boys’ chattering patriotism extolling the virtues and beauties of their “way of life” (ie. lives of idle pleasure and partying while black, near-invisible “background stagehands” create wealth and food and functioning households and, above all else, barbecues and feasts and balls and picnics and other fun Whites Only events (as well as dresses and frocks)).  But after all these pages and pages and pages and pages, the encounters of Ashley Wilkes and Rhett Butler with Scarlett punctuate the heady war-fevered cheer with painfully ironic stabs of reality (which fly immediately over Scarlett’s shallow, uncomprehending head).  Addressing all of Scarlett’s entire social world, all her beaus, family, neighbors, and the other females she completely disregards and ignores, Rhett Butler spells out the South’s situation: they have no idea what war really is, and they have no idea that they live in a simple agricultural economy and that the North enjoys a mighty and diverse industrial economy.  They don’t stand a chance.  The countryside’s response is to write Rhett’s talk about the South’s inability for war off as a lack of appropriate and proper patriotism.  Ashley’s secret, painful letters home to wife Melanie from the battlefield gloomily predict total defeat, but Melanie must keep these seditious thoughts secret as long as possible, lest anyone find out that Ashley is not as blindly devoted to their “noble cause” as they.

Rhett is the smartest man in the story; he sees the bigger picture, he’s gifted in observing psychology and in formulating excellent, hastily improvised plans, and he has the better life education and one of the better cultural educations.  Ashley Wilkes is the second smartest man; he is the first character during war to truly realize that the South cannot win.  They are by far the strongest male presences in the book, moreso than Scarlett’s beloved father Gerald.  Each holds power and influence over Scarlett (who interests herself in men only, and never, ever in women at all).  Each view the Antebellum South differently; cast out from “decent” social circles, Rhett views gentle society as hypocritical, vain, dishonest (and dangerously sheltering).  Proudly embraced by those social circles, Ashley is wary and mindful of the coming dogs of war (though he agrees to fight with his friends if war must come), and after the war, forever misses the Antebellum world with its joyful parties and celebration of finer things, its happy times, though he “realizes now it was not so happy for all”.  That these two most intelligent characters in the book believe the War of Secession is/was not worthwhile, and foolish, quixotic, doomed to failure, blind, and led by the greed of dishonest politicians fomenting war for simple profit must say something about the author’s own ideas.

Scarlett O’Hara is a “physical” embodiment of the slave-holding Confederate States of America, in the way that Marianne embodies France, or Uncle Sam (or Lady Liberty) embodies the USA.  She feels like such an embodiment even before her Atlanta charity fundraiser appearance in tableau, portraying the role of  (you guessed it) The Spirit Of The South, in gilt with extended sword held out towards a Confederate soldier.  Who is Scarlett?  A slaveholder who needn’t work, wealthy from owning slaves, ignorant and book poor because of her easy, simple reliance on slave labor; sheltered and naive; not beautiful but blessed with charms and gentility; shallow, vindictive, petty, blindly patriotic towards a cause she obviously cannot fully grasp; unable to discern feelings of true love, insincere, contemptuous of lower classes of Negros and poor white trash, hateful of the North (the North she is revealed to know absolutely nothing realistic about); laughing off any concerns of war, over-confident of victory, caring only about men and heeding absolutely nothing of women whatsoever, working on a lower scale of intelligence than average, unaccustomed to real work, lacking in real skills; deeply and emotionally attached to the “land”; filled with rote learning of “proper manners and gentility” but utterly lacking in sincerity or real warmth; able to care only about her own needs and desires for luxury (“if I have to lie or cheat or steal or murder”).  In contrast to Scarlett’s representation of the Old South, Rhett Butler represents the very best of the Southern man, who sees through the facade of false gentility and respectability, who sees clearly the folly of making war on the North, who is not blinded by any patriotic fervor, who avoids the war scrupulously, who has left the South to travel, and made many friends and acquaintance and relationships in the North, and in Europe, who reads newspapers (and not simply those that reinforce his own views) and has a sense of the world’s attitude toward slavery in the South, and who prizes and loves Scarlett O’Hara, the Spirit of the South, because of her frank talk (in private), because she is “not a (true, respectable) lady, because of her fighting, if blind, spirit, and who tries desperately to woo and capture the heart of his love, only to finally accept heartache, abandoning and leaving because, “My dear, I don’t give a damn.”  He has given many damns and many tries but she will not change, yield, or respect his virtues, so he ultimately packs up and hits the road.  He is the best the Old South has to offer; she is the Confederate South incarnate.

It’s hard to read 900 pages of an epic, breathless nostalgia for the past frequently punctuated by 100 pages of the cold hard realities of that same past’s irredeemable mistakes and unsustainable ways as praise for said past; it’s hard to even read it as a lecture to the past.  It reads more like a magician’s trick which fools nostalgia-sick souls into believing the author is on their side, and lets them believe so firmly in the pride and bravery and gumption and gentle manners and good breeding of “their boys” (and belles) that they can light over the harsh glaring truths Rhett and Ashley (and a select few others) point out.  Certainly Margaret Mitchell is aware that Rhett and Ashley are right, and, presumably, that the general Confederate population is cow-stupid and eager, like sheep, to be corralled for slaughter.   It’s easy to read between the lines and see a slave-holding aristocracy, overly prideful of their unearned wealth and its resulting idleness, whose economy is flawed and unsustainable because they care only about barbecues and fashionable appearance and affected manners.  Their unearned wealth is their Achilles Heel which blinds them to the importance and vitality of education; though Mitchell never says so explicitly, it is clear that in her view, learning and books would have clearly saved all of GONE WITH THE WIND’s very long list of characters from catastrophic loss.

Survival and Natural Selection by Gumption

The book is not a “love story” or “romance” and has more in common with Charles Darwin than with Jane Austen; GONE WITH THE WIND is above all else a Darwinian story of the will to survive.  Scarlett O’Hara is a spoiled 1% child of enormous privilege with no skills but when the fit hits the shan, she has more resolve and determination and selfishness than anyone else, and lives to tell the tale.  She is from real money and carries a prodigious family name, indulged in whims and caprices, showered with meaningless gifts of great cost, and sheltered from any real notion of what real life is like.  At 16, she has never felt the sun’s rays on her bare skin.  Beyond ladylike embroidery, she has never worked; she has never stirred a cooking pot, added sums, dusted a chandelier, or even dressed herself.  She is warned over and over and over that there is a war coming, yet is far too shallow to be concerned (preferring to talk about dresses and flirt) and too protected to recognize war as bad news.  (THE WOMEN OF GONE WITH THE WIND COULD HAVE PREVENTED THE WAR FROM HAPPENING BUT ARE TOO BUSY CATCHING UP ON THE LATEST FASHIONS AND GOSSIP TO BOTHER)  When the war comes, Scarlett’s genteel breeding is numbed by the pain and desperation into doing things she would never ordinarily do, yet it’s not the Civil War but rather Reconstruction which presses her ever further and even harder into acts she could never imagine herself capable of in the initial chapters.  She is neither educated, nor smart in the first place, but she has a will to get by, and will not accept defeat.

In a contrast to Scarlett is Melanie Wilkes, who is certainly endowed with strength and fortitude, but who could not survive the war and Reconstruction without Scarlett.  In a smaller role but carrying more significant contrast is Cathleen Calvert.  Scarlett may, like any wild fox or tiger in hard times in the forest or jungle, be miserable, but she is her own master and the creator of her own destiny, so long as she stays on her feet and fighting.  Cathleen, who hasn’t Scarlett’s will to live, is no such master of her destiny and must marry unhappily to a Yankee she doesn’t like in order to survive, and so ends up tragically, and movingly, broken spirited and miserable.  The scene where she arrives at Tara to bluntly, perfunctorily inform Scarlett of her decision was one of the most moving of the book to me, though she was not an important or vital character.

Ultimately, only Scarlett is selfish and determined enough to make it out alive.  She may be a fool, she may be unblessed with great intelligence, she may lack general skills and education, but she refuses to say Die and forces survival from her soul and fingers again and again and again, creeping desperately and willfully towards the Finish Line.  She is naturally selected to live because of her will, or, as Mitchell would say, her gumption.

Rape and Sexual Oppression

Though oft criticized for its glamorous depiction of rape in its final third, GONE WITH THE WIND takes place (and was written) pre-Sexual Revolution, set in a very Victorian, aristocratic society with high moral standards of never having sex.  Even an embrace between Scarlett and her crush Ashley Wilkes is scandalous; even her (hopelessly confused) confession of “love” (in fact, misidentified lust) to Ashley is scandalous.  We may look today on Rhett Butler’s seizing of Scarlett as rape — yet we live post-Sexual Revolution.  Any city today has several sex shops in it, and often, even sex shops catering specifically to women.  Our movies have sex in them, and our magazines contain articles about achieving a better orgasm.  Scarlett O’Hara has no expression of her sexual identity, and very likely no idea what an orgasm even is.  Mitchell relays how confused Scarlett is about marriage’s nuptials, and the inability to comprehend the feeling she has for Ashley Wilkes, whom she believes firmly for over 950 pages that she loves, but in fact, feels only lust for.  Scarlett O’Hara lives in sexual repression and projects all of her sexual energy onto her Idealized Image of Ashley Wilkes to the point where she mistakes that projection for “love”.  Scarlett lives in a sexist and oppressive society in which a “lady” must scrupulously avoid even lustful thoughts to the point where she cannot identify lust at all.  She has a human sexuality which she is forbidden to even be conscious of: she can’t even NAME or IDENTIFY what she feels when Ashley or Rhett’s lips touch hers!   She spurns Rhett Butler, the only man who appreciates her qualities, because she can’t get Ashley out of her head.

Rhett points out over and over how sheltered, how naive, how over-protected, how blind Scarlett is, and how the mores and morals of the world she professes to love in fact repress her.  He doesn’t “rape” her, he shows her sex is really all about, giving her the hands on Sex Ed. class that so many Southerners (even today) would refuse her in a schoolroom setting.  Is the sex with Rhett forced?  Certainly.  Is Scarlett totally, absolutely, abjectly brainwashed from realizing that sexual passion and lust even exist?  Absolutely.  She feels lust but cannot identify, let alone tap into, it.  She does not know that lust can grow from love, can be healthy (or even normal), or even pleasurable until Rhett shows her.

Besides Scarlett’s mother Ellen, Mammy, and Melanie, all the women in GONE WITH THE WIND are all portrayed or outright described as petty, mean-spirited, cantankerous cats and screech owls.  They’re all unfulfilled sexually and are not able to even consciously realize it, and then take this unfulfillment out on other people, especially other women.

Written pre-Sexual Revolution, GONE WITH THE WIND depicts a scene of forced, eye-opening and world-opening passion and lust in which a Byronic hero sexually liberates, for one night only, an oppressed woman who cannot fathom her own yearnings and desires.  The contemporary definition of the word “rape” is not applicable to that scene; it is rape, but in another world and time with another definition of the word that we today barely understand.  “No” did not always mean “no”; the reason we are told that it does mean “no” post-Sexual Revolution is because it once meant (in the right company and under the right circumstances) “Yes!  Yes!  Yes!”.

Slavery and Racism

It is unfortunate that Mitchell (probably as a product of her time (and place)) never directly confronts the depicted racism in Scarlett’s world.

It is uncomfortable to read moments of the book today, due not only to the demeaning use of terms such as “darkie” or “nigger” or even “Negro” and the patronizing attitude so many white characters display towards black (and one half-aboriginal) characters, and the institution of slavery itself, but also because Mitchell punctuates the sweeping romantic pining for the Old South’s glory days with such precise and cutting criticism yet fails to ever punctuate deeply racist attitudes with equal insight and criticism.  Rhett Butler’s respect for Mammy and his description of her as one of the few hearts in the South worth knowing goes some small distance towards addressing the ugly unsaid issue in the book, though clearly not far enough (and even he murders a freed black over a slight).

The book and characters give a broad target to these criticisms; Scarlett and her society appreciate slavery quite a bit!  Rhett sees the problems inherent in the slavery-based economy (though he sees it as unhealthy for the whites living off of it, without ever commenting on the tragedy of blacks living under it).

GONE WITH THE WIND’s racial angle and perspective remain useful.  Just as people wonder, “How could the Nazis have done such horrible things?”, many people today ask, “How could Euro-Americans have treated African slaves in this evil manner?”  Written from recollections of her seniors (Mitchell was not involved in the Civil War herself), the book is somewhat of a useful “guide” to parts of the slave-holding psyche.  Whether ancient Roman or “golden age” Confederate, Byzantine or English or African, slavery and slave-trading is wrong, and it is useful to humanity to understand the nature of evil.  GONE WITH THE WIND will not make one an expert in the mind and the thinking of slaveholders, but it will offer a partial view.

Many books are racist; many are far more so than GONE WITH THE WIND.  The tremendous literary strengths of GONE WITH THE WIND make it important, though, and that importance carries a heavier burden for excellence, and the book falls short.  It is a double shame, for not only is it marred, but those tremendous literary strengths which garnered it a Pulitzer Prize go lost to almost all readers and writers of any black heritage today, whom it is very difficult to imagine could possibly enjoy reading it.

The commissioned sequel SCARLETT might have confronted Scarlett O’Hara-Kennedy-Butler with a new, post-Reconstruction, pre-Martin Luther King world of race-based challenges which the character grows and changes from, building on the scraps of three-dimensional humanity glimpsed in Mammy and Pork and Prissy to create fuller characters whom Scarlett comes to view differently, as fully human but denied the privileges of education and awareness.

 

The final third might have been significantly cut without any narrative loss; however, it’s still quite readable.

Although I’d hesitate to urge most people to read this near-1000 page novel, I’d urge anyone interested in anti-heroes to try it.  The story of a hopelessly stupid, total b**** with no good or even humane qualities who ultimately saves the world for her friends and family is a strong and memorable one!  I rooted for her on almost every page!  Almost every reader does!  That alone makes GONE WITH THE WIND compelling reading!  If you love to hate an evil character like Hannibal Lecter or Darth Vader or Iago or Lucifer, wait till you read Scarlett O’Hara in GONE WITH THE WIND!  Its depiction of human natural selection choosing only the most selfish and determined for life is page-turning!  It’s a woman of obvious talent, writing about a woman of formidable will!   It’s about that willful woman’s social network in a matriarchy of fellow women, and the men those women know and live with!  It’s about women in a man’s world of men and man’s warfaring, all viewed from a woman’s perspective!
It’s about the kind of woman that men and women both hate!  Yes, it has enormous, elephantine problems with race – but then, so does America!  It would be better with a fairer representation of blacks, but then, so would America!  Its famous rape scene is passionate and affirming!  Han Solo is probably based on Rhett Butler!  Its Opening and Closing Lines are damned memorable!  It’s full of action!  Death!  Suffering!  Money!  War!  Misery!  Jewels!  Love!  Lust!  Hot girls!  Hot boys!  Sweeping vistas!  Magnificent horses!  The latest Parisian fashions!  Gold!  Fiery tunnels of death!  I pretty much couldn’t put it down.

A fine counter-balance to reading GONE WITH THE WIND is Alex Haley’s ROOTS!