**WARNING:: MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW**
So… some of you may have noticed that I have been largely absent from WordPress this past month. The reasons for this are threefold (i) Driving lessons in the lead up to hopefully being granted a provisional license (known as P plates in Australia). (ii) A baby who was sick multiple times this month. And… (iii) For most of July, I was reading Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell.
Gone with the Wind is an epic work of historical fiction that chronicles the American Civil War and its aftermath through the eyes of Scarlett O’Hara, a petulant, yet immeasurably strong-spirited southern belle who is forced to adapt as her world falls apart and is rebuilt anew. Scarlett’s journey mirrors that of the South itself as she is transformed throughout the course of the novel.
Let me be clear: I loved this book. It was beautifully written, easy to read and full of excitement. But I cannot review this book without first addressing the glaring, ever present racism throughout. Scarlett and those around her have an ignorant, patronizing attitude to the African Americans in their society. Many of them believed that the African American slaves were inferior in intelligence and integrity. That they were better off as slaves to white people who would guide them and keep them out of trouble. There were numerous instances where these views came to light and almost stopped reading the book because I felt so uncomfortable. It is difficult to stomach these views and the only redeeming aspect of race relations was the respect and admiration both Rhett and Scarlett had for Mammy, a slave and later a free woman who had cared for Scarlett since birth.
Also – this book is an American classic. I am an Australian so my background and circumstances may lead me to focus on different aspects of the story than an American reader would. I am distanced from the history so I bring a different perspective to this review. To American readers – I know this book is both a divisive work of literature and a national treasure. I can only do my best to be respectful of these differing views while bringing my own forth.
Gone with the Wind begins with Scarlett O’Hara, a beautiful and spoilt young lady, reveling in the admiration of almost every young man in the neighborhood – except the gentile and reserved Ashley Wilkes. Scarlett lives at Tara, a profitable, slave owning plantation in Georgia. Her life is sheltered and easy at the beginning of the story. There is only one thing she cannot have and that is the love of Ashley, who is engaged to his cousin Melanie.
(Images from the 1939 film)
Meanwhile, the United States is a political boiling pot, ready to explode over the contentious issue of slavery. However, Scarlett cares very little about war and seems to think of nothing else but her social calendar and her endless infatuation with Ashley.
But alas, after boldly revealing her feelings Scarlett is rejected by Ashley Wilkes. This should have been the end of it, but Scarlett is childish in many ways and refuses to part with her dream of being with the man she idolises.
Enter… Rhett Butler
Rhett is introduced as a scallywag, a dangerous man who defies convention and speaks frankly about the world. He isn’t the marrying kind, but it becomes very apparent early on that he is crazy about Scarlett. Rhett is a chameleon throughout the story, changing his political allegiance and career throughout to fit with his shifting ethics. As a character, he is multifaceted and intriguing.
This is one of the most frustrating aspects of the story. Rhett loves Scarlett, but Scarlett THINKS she is in love with Ashley (who loves Melanie). Rhett spends most of the book chasing Scarlett’s love and it destroys them both. I knew this was going to happen because I had watched the movie long before reading the book – but it was still difficult to read.
Scarlett is transformed by the Civil War, as she watches her childhood friends die or sink into miserable poverty. She is forced grow up and lead her household out of despair through tough decisions and back-breaking physical labor. She is hardened and transformed into a strong, but ruthless woman who will manipulate and step on others to get ahead. Amidst the worst time of her life, as the South is finally crushed by the Union she vows that she will never be hungry again.
I loved how incredibly strong and resilient Scarlett is in this part of the book. Although she is resented by many around her for her fiery spirit, Scarlett is the sole reason her family survive and do not lose their home.
As the story progresses Scarlett becomes a successful business woman, defying convention and earning the scorn of many of her former friends. Only Rhett seems to understand her and the two of them have excellent chemistry during this part of the book.
Scarlett has multiple marriages and bears two children before finally agreeing to marry Rhett. This is where things go downhill very fast. Scarlett relishes in the luxury she has not experienced since the days before the war and grows more selfish and greedy. She pays little attention to her children and seeks to gain the upper hand in her relationship with Rhett, not even beginning to understand how much he really loves her.
This part of the book is like watching a car crash in slow motion. Scarlett’s foolish obsession with Ashley ruins her chances of genuine happiness with the only man who understands and loves her.
For those of you who have seen the movie, you know that this story does not have a happy ending.
Even though it is difficult to read, the ending is impactful and suits the characters more than a happy ending would. By the end of the story, Scarlett has completely and utterly ruined her life in almost every way (she is still very wealthy at the end of the book). But on the last page, the reader is given a sliver of hope as Scarlett’s unbreakable spirit rises to the challenge of winning Rhett back.
I could say a lot more about this book, as it is incredibly detailed and complex. As a historical novel, it is fantastic – there is so much information about the Civil War, especially in regards to the Southern home front and the aftermath of the Union victory.
I can see why Gone with the Wind is an American classic and I can also see why many people find aspects of it offensive.
Have you read Gone with the Wind? If so, what did you think?