Review: Gone With The Wind

17 Jan

I’ve been languishing in the aftermath of Margaret Mitchell’s epic Civil War novel, Gone with the Wind, for a little less than a week now. Rarely does a book affect my reading habits for more than a day, but after finishing GWTW, I’ve been unable to really get into another book – and I’m currently trying to read Just Kids, the National Book Award winner by Patti Smith. If Mitchell can keep me from reading a stellar book like that one, you know I’ve got a lot of thoughts about it. I won’t even bother with a synopsis because I think GWTW is one of those American classics we all vaguely know the story of, and even if you’ve never read the book, you’re probably familiar with the movie version and it’s indelible final line, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn!”

I too was familiar enough with the story, but having gone probably 10 years since I’d last seen the movie, and never having read the book, I wanted to read this book with fresh eyes, with a sense of curiosity about the plot and the characters that I’d never really had before. I wanted to get to know Scarlett and her life the way Margaret Mitchell intended, not the cinematic version, which I’ve been told differed greatly. I will warn you now though, that there are SPOILERS in this review.

In pretty much every list you can think of for the Greatest Movie Characters ever, Scarlett O’Hara is not only on the list, but usually in the top five. NPR lists Scarlett at number 23 in its list of 100 Best Fictional Characters Since 1900. Scarlett O’Hara is certainly one of the most complicated and complex characters I’ve ever read, and in my mind, certainly deserves those rankings. But as much as I admire her techinical characterization – in the literary creative process – I haven’t totally decided how I feel about her as a person. Just as she is a conflicted character, I too am conflicted as to whether I actually like her. The trap of course as a reviewer is to decide that I don’t agree with her methods – marrying for revenge, for money,  and for spite, as an example – and conclude that I don’t like the book. But that’s a cop-out, so I won’t go there. Because I did love the book, when it was all said and done.

That’s not to say there weren’t moments when I was so angry at Scarlett, Ashley, Rhett and Melanie that I wanted to throw in the towel. And as many times as I blustered about each of them being idiots or blind or foolish or headstrong, I could not stop reading. I had to know if they would ever learn from their mistakes, or if they would wise up to the world as it was changing around them. To me, that’s what makes strong characters; if I’m invested in them (and I was invested in ALL of them) and want to see where they end up and how they change, despite not liking them for a large chunk of the book, that is a successful story. My copy of the book was 733 pages, and Scarlett becomes increasingly self-absorbed and selfish until nearly the very end (and even then, I’m not entirely convinced she’s changed- and nor are most of the people around her), and I was still utterly compelled to keep reading. Scarlett is not a likeable character; she is spoiled, greedy and narcisstic but I was rooting for her (almost) every step of the way. And even when she was at her most despicable, my heart still hurt for her, because she was more often than not driven to it by the world around her. She was ambitious, and in a time when being smart was unwomanly, being ambitious was downright scandalous. You could be wealthy, but you couldn’t give up honor and good manners to seek it out.

Often I laughed about the antiquated way in which women were treated and spoken about – at one point, India Wilkes, Ashley’s sister, is cast off as being past the marriable age because she is “twenty-five and looks it.” To be a woman at that time in that place was to be coddled and then largely ignored when it came to actual issues; the fact that Scarlett refused to give into that expectation and took her destiny into her own hands made me admire her. And admiration is difficult to admit to when she clearly was so outrightly ambitious as to lose all sense of propriety and manners. Her natual inclination to be stubborn and selfish is only exacerbated by the refusal to be poor and hungry when she doesn’t have to be. I hate to use the phrase, the ends justifies the means, because in this case, she did become hardened beyond the point of no return. But her methods are outweighed to a certain extent by her motivations. The feminist in me wants to cheer her for not letting the male-dominated society keep her down and for making a living in the face of poverty and destitution.

That being said, she was a fool about so many things: selfish to a fault about Ashley Wilkes (who is possibly now, my most hated fictional character ever) and in denial of her own goodness, for fear that it made her weak. In these things, my real critique of the book comes into play, because as much as I can discuss my love and hate of Scarlett O’Hara, the actual writing of her as a character was part of the reason my feelings about her are disjointed.

There are things about Scarlett that are contradictory – so contradictory, that I wonder about Mitchell’s motivation for writing her the way she does. In several cases, Scarlett is bright and logical and in the next moment, just as ignorant as she’s expected to be. For example, when husband #2, Frank Kennedy and Ashley Wilkes take off with the Ku Klux Klan to clean out the shantytown where Scarlett was attacked, and Rhett brings Ashley back acting drunk to cover a wound from the Yankee soldiers, the amount of time it takes for Scarlett to catch on is completely frustrating. Part of me read a scene like that and wondered if she was too self-absorbed to think about anyone else being hurt besides herself, since she’d been focused entirely on her previous attack, or if she is just that clueless or headstrong  about the realities of the violent world of post-Civil War Atlanta, which is what led to her attack in the first place. It’s not clear, and while I would have liked to have been more sure of Mitchell’s motivations for Scarlett’s behavior in places like that, I don’t know if I would have ended the book feeling as I did about Scarlett.

Another aspect of Scarlett also bothered me while I was reading because it seemed entirely contradictory to her true spirit. Her habit of saying, “I’ll think about it tomorrow when I can bear it,” about nearly everything that was a hardship seemed at odds with her characterization of being headstrong and unwilling to let things get the best of her. But in analyzing her after finishing the book, I understand now, that by putting off any emotional reaction, she is actually staying true to Mitchell’s characterization. She’s unemotional by nature, and rarely bothers with sentimentality or morality so why would she give herself over to something silly like emotion?

The end of the book is, on the surface, unsatisfying – as is the end of the movie. There is no happy ending for Scarlett, which as a reader is disappointing, but as a critical reader, it is just as it should be. Throughout the book I was conflicted: about Scarlett, about Atlanta and Tara, about Rhett, about Ashley, about Melanie, about almost every aspect. I was compelled, but conflicted. For the book to end with a neat bow – as gratifying as it would have been at first – would have been entirely contradictory to the rest of the novel. And ultimately would have been even more unstatisfying.

It’s an interesting position to be in as a reader – to want to recommend that everyone read the book but to also not be completely decided how I feel about the characters. It doesn’t feel like it should be okay, but it absolutely is. In fact, I’m reminded of a piece of advice my grandfather once gave me about thinking about pieces of narrative art critically (we were discussing theater, and at the time I was probably 11 or 12). He said that we can call a story a success if the characters adapt and change over the course of the piece. You don’t have to like them at the end, but if they change, the story is a success. Otherwise, what was the point of telling the story in the first place?

In this way I can conceptualize Gone with the Wind as a successful story. I’m still haunted by it, I’m still wondering what happened to Scarlett and Rhett. It’s affected me well beyond the conclusion of the book.

[As a sort of epilogue to this review and to this reading, I watched the film version over the weekend, and I have to say that I love the book so much more. I know that’s not all that revolutionary to say, but even over the course of a four-hour film, so much of the book was discarded. And in the aftermath, I realized that I was much more content with being conflicted about Scarlett from the novel. Because I absolutely hated Scarlett from the film. Where Mitchell’s Scarlett is multi-dimensional, in contrast the film version of Scarlett is incredibly one-dimensional. She is just spoiled – there is no internal clash within the character.

Also, I ordered Alexandra Ripley’s follow-up to Mitchell’s story, Scarlett, from PaperbackSwap.com. I’m not entirely convinced that I’m going to read it though, because as much as I would like more of a conclusion to Scarlett and Rhett’s story and to know how Scarlett ended up, the fact that Margaret Mitchell didn’t write it makes me wary. Is it going to be some other writer’s fantasy of the story, instead of staying faithful to the character? Has anyone read it and can tell me whether it’s worth reading?]

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12 Responses to “Review: Gone With The Wind”

  1. Greg Zimmerman January 17, 2011 at 4:05 pm #

    I started reading your review, and was so engrossed, and I had to pull myself away before I got to any of the spoilers. Like you, I’m only vaguely familiar with the whole story, and want to continue reading with fresh eyes (still going slowly – on page 300 or so). But I’ve bookmarked this and can’t wait to read it when I finish the novel.

    (Best comment I heard when someone found out I was reading GWTW – isn’t Scarlett like a modern-day Kardashian sister? Simplistic, yeah – but also amusing.)

    • Rachel January 17, 2011 at 4:08 pm #

      There was no way I could discuss the book without spoilers, so I’m sorry about that. But please do come back when you’re done. Can’t wait to hear what you think.

      And that Kardashian thing is most likely from the movie version – Mitchell’s Scarlett is morally conflicted, whereas the movie Scarlett doesn’t seem to have any moral leanings whatsoever. 🙂

  2. Kathy (The Literary Amnesiac) January 17, 2011 at 4:22 pm #

    It’s been 13 years since I read this book, and I can still vividly remember the feeling I had throughout the entire book–What WILL that Scarlett do next?? I loved it.

  3. Jillian January 17, 2011 at 4:58 pm #

    Here’s what I wrote briefly after reading Scarlett:

    I didn’t care for this sequel to ‘Gone With the Wind’ because Scarlett was nothing like the original Scarlett O’Hara. Kudos to Ripley for giving it a try, but Margaret Mitchell wanted no sequel to her novel. It ended where it ended and should have been left alone.

    Rhett in this novel was a caricature of a romance hero, just as Scarlett was a caricature of a romance novel heroine.

    Appalling. The whole thing was terrible and cheap–a poor reflection on a classic masterpiece.

    It actually wasn’t that terrible a book, if you take the comparison to GWTW out of the equation. But — it’s no GWTW. Ripley took the surface of Scarlett and left out all the nuance. Scarlett comes off trivial and bitchy, which isn’t at all who she was.

    GWTW is my favorite novel. I LOVE all the contradictions in character. Aren’t we all like that? ‘I’ll think about it tomorrow’ is clearly an auto-response, learned in childhood. Her youthful vivacity hasn’t caught up with the steely reserve that became her only way to survive during the war.

    The ending? It couldn’t have ended any other way. Mitchell wrote the last chapter first; everything else was written to get to that point when Rhett has tried everything and finally gives up. The novel was a study in psychology. Mitchell saw hard women all around her in the 1920s — leftovers from the Civil War years. What had happened to them? She answers the question in GWTW. And the final scene is tragic — because what Mitchell saw around her was tragic. Women weren’t happy, the South wasn’t happy. They were ghosts from another era — clinging to that hope that ‘tomorrow’ it would all be better.

    A masterpiece.

    • Rachel January 17, 2011 at 5:10 pm #

      Thanks for your comment. This is exactly what I’m afraid of if I read Scarlett! I want Mitchell’s rendition of her to stand on it’s own, and if I do read it, it’ll be much farther in the future. I love the complexities of character, but I had no idea about how and why Mitchell wrote what she did. It feels so purposeful, even though I felt conflicted the whole way through. Thanks for your insight – I feel much better about how I was left at the end. Truly a masterpiece 🙂

      • Jillian January 18, 2011 at 3:10 am #

        No problem. I’ve read a lot of biographies about Mitchell, and visited her home in Atlanta a couple times (to take an in-depth tour.) That’s the only reason I know about her intentions with the ending.

        But –

        I always liked the ending. It left me thinking, or as you say, uncomfortable. To me, that’s literature.

        (And I agree 100% with your grandfather.)

        🙂

        Did you know Doc Holliday (the gunfighter) was Margaret Mitchell’s cousin? He’s believed to be the inspiration for Ashley Wilkes – in part.

  4. Kerry January 17, 2011 at 5:26 pm #

    Ok, I admit I stopped reading your review after I got to the bit about SPOILERS (because I just bought this and am dying to read it with fresh eyes, having never even seen the movie), but any book that resonates that powerfully must be pretty damn good. Can’t wait to get started.

  5. Greg Zimmerman February 8, 2011 at 2:04 pm #

    Okay, having finished, I’m back. No structure to what follows – just gonna type some thoughts/reactions to your post. Clearly, the strength of the book is the characters – there are no heroes and villains. Everyone is flawed. They are just real people trying to get by in a ridiculous tough world. My favorite character is Rhett – he’s the only one I liked and rooted for all the way through – even when he goes insane and won’t let Bonnie be buried. Scarlett is vindictive, manipulative and egotistical – and her “catharsis” at the end isn’t natural. She realizes she’s on her own again – that her backbone (Melanie) has just died – and only then does she think she’s convinced herself she really loves Rhett. I don’t think she really does. And agree with you about her “defense against the world” of “I’ll think about it tomorrow” being a bit contradictory to everything we know about her willfulness and head-strongness. It’s amazing though how she’s only willing to bend the rules of polite society when they meet her needs – she’s certainly not progressive in the traditional sense (she’s still a product of her time and location, especially in respect to slaves, etc.) Anyway, regarding the other characters, Ashley a wuss and Melanie’s naive, and so both of those characters were hard to root for as well, even though Melanie is, as Rhett said, the only kind human being he’s ever met.

    So, like you, I loved the book without having to be behind (or even really know how I feel about) every character. But the characters are certainly the strength of the book – an idea I’m trying to write about right now, but not having much luck.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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  2. Gone With The Wind vs. Scarlett | A Room of One's Own - January 18, 2011

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