Though it may seem an odd choice for me (the decidedly unromantic, slightly cynical grinch that I am) I decided to read Gone With the Wind over the holidays. I chose the holidays for this tome because this sucker is long. The 2007 paperback edition clocks in at 960 pages, the hardcover edition around 1050. Yeah, you have to want this one.
I’ve been meaning to read this ever since I moved to Louisiana, not because Louisiana figures prominently in the book, because it doesn’t, but because I’ve never been more aware of the legacies of the Civil War, slavery, and Reconstruction than since I’ve been living here.
I’d never seen the film, either, so I actually had no idea what the story was like, other than the frequently-quoted, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” (Which, by the way, is not how the phrase appears in the novel, so now you can win at Trivial Pursuit sometime).
The novel itself is sweeping, epic, tragic, romantic, overblown, and everything you’d imagine that a 1930s romance novel about the Civil War would be. That said, the actual reading went pretty quickly for a couple of reasons. First, Mitchell repeats herself. A lot. You start to pick this up in the first third of the book, and by the middle part, you mostly don’t have to read all of the long passages about Scarlett O’Hara’s internal conflicts, or the passages about the romantic folly and bravery of the Confederate soldiers. It also goes quickly because, even though the novel spans twenty years and a lot of major events, those events move along quickly.
My overriding impression of this story is that it’s just terribly sad, and more than a little frustrating. Unlike in the film (which I saw after reading the book), there’s a lot of exploration of Scarlett’s interior, many insights into her character, that leave me wanting to grab her by the shoulders and shake her. In the film, she’s mostly an impetuous, selfish girl, but in the book she’s really fleshed out into an unpleasant, unlikeable person. On the other hand, you have to sympathize with her a little bit, since most of her unpleasant or irritating actions result from simply trying to do what’s best for her.
Scarlett is also annoying for her absolute resistance to change. Throughout the novel, there are multiple times in which she conveniently overhears some kind of criticism about herself, or otherwise learns how she’s seen by others. Rather than taking this criticism to heart, however, she manages to ignore almost everything that everyone says, except for her insipid Ashley Wilkes.
Speaking of Ashley Wilkes and the story’s central love triangle (Scarlett, Rhett Butler, and Ashley Wilkes), I was never quite sure which of the two men the reader is supposed to want to win. I infinitely prefer Butler’s sarcastic, cynical, and often funny bad boy to the sappy, watery, yawn-fest that is Wilkes. I suppose that was the author’s plan, but the bad-boy sympathy sort of surprised me in a romance novel written in the 1930s.
My main motivation for reading this book was for its contribution to modern conceptions of the South as a mythical place and time. I think that I had mixed results on this front. First, I was really surprised to find that the novel seems to condemn both the North and the South in its discussion of the Civil War. The author paints the Southern “Cause” as being foolish, brave but stupid. Seen through the eyes of the two main characters, the South is not an all-encompassing passion: Scarlett is bored and irritated by the starry-eyed patriotism in her friends and family, and Rhett Butler likewise works with both the Union and the Confederacy, depending on which earns him more money.
The Union army doesn’t appear in a very complimentary light either, though. Union soldiers are feared for their savagery, brutality, bad manners, poor taste, and ugly accents. Even Scarlett is moved beyond her contempt for the war by Sherman’s ill-treatment of Atlanta and the surrounding countryside.
While the Civil War years paint both armies as nearly equally foolish (though for different reasons), the tone of the early years of Reconstruction has a much clearer bias. The residents of Atlanta clearly hate the Carpetbaggers, the Scalawags, and the free Negroes. The language of the novel is clear: Southerners were victims of the martial law imposed by the federal government. In those early days, blacks were allowed to vote, Carpetbaggers took advantage of the loose laws, and Confederacy supporters were denied the right to vote, all of which chafed the newly defeated, and sometimes-impoverished white, former landowners.
The treatment of the “Negroes” in this novel was also interesting. If I were more familiar with portrayals of African Americans in early-twentieth century American novels, I could probably make some better points here, but I’ll just say that it was very interesting reading. To see African Americans drawn by a Southern writer in the 1930s, while writing about the 1860s, was fascinating to watch. If you’ve seen the film, you’ll know, more or less, how it worked out, but it seems that there is probably more subtlety than I picked up on.
There are the kind, parental, submissive, family slaves like Mammy, Pork, Big Sam, Prissy, and Dilcey. These slaves were “properly ashamed” of being freed, refused to leave their masters, and seemed to have boundless ability to nurture and care for their owners. Then there were the slaves who fled their bondage when the Union marched through Georgia. During Reconstruction, these former slaves, who had no employment, were supported by the federal government. These people, as you might imagine, drew a lot of criticism from the characters in the novel. The white characters were alternately terrified and dismissive of these former slaves. The “loyal” slaves despised these freedmen.
In all, I’m glad I read this book, though the extreme romanticism is not something I usually seek out. It was very interesting to see these historical events from the perspective of white Southerners feeling first like heroes, then like martyrs, then like victims. I’m tempted to re-attempt reading Eric Foner’s history of Reconstruction, but it’s a pretty dense book and it may be next year before I get to it.
Recommended if you like swooning Southern belles, Southern history, or have an interest in Southern history or cultural institutions, AND have a high tolerance for romanticism.