“The best novel to have ever come out of the South…it is unsurpassed in the whole of American writing.”
NO MAJOR SPOILERS
Scarlett O’Hara. What a name. Even if you’ve never read the book or seen the film, it is a name that conjures up Mint Julep, Magnolia blossom, slaves in the cotton fields, hooped dresses and plantation houses. The name reeks of the Deep South. Think Southern Belle, and you think Scarlett O’Hara.
Once the mind has conjured up images of a life long gone, another name is likely to have popped up. Rhett Butler. Dark, handsome, devil-may-care. How often have you heard the words “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”? Hollywood had to put more emphasis on the simpler version in the book.
Gone With the Wind is more than a classic, more than an epic, it is a legend. It became a legend from its beginning, but how could it not. Even today, the American Civil War has the power to divide opinion. The war, and it’s aftermath is, of course, the background to the book, but so powerful is the book, it is difficult to think about the war and not think of the book.
A powerful theme runs through the book, the importance of past, present and future. However, for much of the book, instead of being in the usual order, the three run parallel. The story follows the descent of the South into the madness of war, and then horrors of the Reconstruction when the Yankees take their revenge on the defeated South. It is during the latter period that past, present and future seem to follow separate paths.
The present is so painful for the Confederates who survived the war, that many of them revert to a happier past. Despite hunger and poverty, they live their lives in a past when everything was sunny, gentle and fun, a past when they had pride. The Old Guard of Atlanta, once proud and haughty in their finery, remain proud and haughty in their rags. Fiercesome women and weak men ignore the privations of the present and live with the faded glories of the past.
The present is not so frightening for others though. The Carpetbaggers who flooded into Atlanta, and the Scallawags, former Confederates who chose to join the new rulers, wanted to forget the past. The Carpetbaggers because they had a lot they wanted to hide. The Scallawags because they felt no pride in defeat or hunger. Together, Carpetbaggers and Scallawags, pick the bones of Georgia clean, becoming wealthy in the process, though still having what Rhett Butler calls pinchbeck taste. These people are so busy enjoying their ill gotten gains, they care little for the future. Rhett is one of them.
Along side these paths is the third. The future. This is Scarlett O’Hara’s path. The past holds no fascination for her. It is dead and gone. She pours scorn on the Old Guard who live in the past. She finds the present as galling as they do, but she focuses on escaping the
present, but not by living in a fantasy shadow of the past. Scarlett’s path is to the future. She looks to a time when she will be protected by wealth. The horrors and hunger of the present must be escaped by any means possible.
Scarlett and Rhett are the main characters, alike in many respects, despite following different paths. Yet there are differences. Scarlett is ruthless and self centred. She has no understanding of other people and no desire to understand them. Rhett is equally ruthless, but otherwise a strange anomaly, a self centred person who, not too deep down cares about others. He understands other people too well, and this leads to cynicism.
There is a large cast of supporting characters. Each plays a significant role at particular times in the story of Scarlett, but three stand out. The first is Mammy, the slave, formerly nurse to Scarlett’s mother, and then to Scarlett herself. Mammy weaves through the story like a guardian angel. Fiercesome in her independence, but tied at the same time to her ‘family’ with unbreakable bonds, her role is to try to rein in the worst excesses of Scarlett. Secondly, Ashley Wilkes, a man crushed by the breaking up of the old order. By nature an aesthete, forced by Georgian pride and a sense of honour into a war he doesn’t believe in, then returning to find he doesn’t belong any more. He is the epitome of the Old Guard, struggling to cope with the present, fearing the future, so reverting to the past. The third is Melanie, Miss Melly to all. Outwardly weak and vacuous, she is fiercely proud of the Confederacy, and this gives her strength. She sees the best in everyone, and instead of being perpetually disappointed when people let her down, her belief in them gives them strength to live up to that belief.
The story is considered by many to be the best depiction of life in the South before, during and after the war. Margaret Mitchell was proud of her Southern heritage, and her depiction of the Reconstruction period brings out a lot of sympathy in the readers for the plight of the Confederates.
This was my first time with the story, I’d not even seen the film, and I did not expect the book to be the page turner that it is. There were times when I couldn’t put it down, but at other times I needed to put it on one side and reflect on what I had read. Against the background of the war, this is a book that deals with the human psyche. Often it reveals a dark side that we would, perhaps, prefer to not to admit to, yet it faces us squarely and forces the reader to ask “What would I have done?” Few of the characters were, in my opinion, sympathetic, often showing human nature at its worst. Greedy, self centred, ruthless, arrogant, indifferent, weak, or just plain nasty. It is all there, and always the question lingers, “Would you be any better?” I also had to ask myself if I would have been as patient, as most were, to Aunt Pittypat, whose grasp of reality was tenuous at best!
A thoroughly good read. Interesting storyline, excellent characterisation, well written and very thought provoking. Well worth the effort required – it is not light reading, but very rewarding.
Added 22nd November 2016