I finished #21 Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell on the plane to Barcelona, after working on it for at least two weeks, on and off. I clearly considered it completely done, as I then promptly forgot about it, which is why this post is so late.
Written in the 1930s, Gone with the Wind is over a thousand pages long. Scarlett O’Hara, belle of the county, turns 16 as the rumblings of the American Civil War start. She lives on Tara, a cotton plantation in Georgia with at least a hundred slaves. As the old society she grew up in is smashed first by war and then by reconstruction, Scarlett must adapt to survive.
Yes, it’s racist
Race is a major theme throughout the novel, and there are several strands to this.There’s racism in both the 1930s text and the 1860s society. There’s racism in the portrayal of people of colour, both enslaved and freed, and the attitudes of white characters. There’s racism in the North/South divide and the stratification of white society, not solely based on wealth but also on family origin. It can all be summed up as ‘Blood Will Out’, and applies to both black and white families, although not with equal consequences. There’s enough in here to write a thesis or three, but I’ll try to be brief.
I believe that the text itself is racist, and on that basis that Margaret Mitchell was racist, and a supporter of institutional racism. At the start of the novel, I was noticing the difference in the descriptions of black and white characters. The descriptions of black characters are brutish and childish – pouting, rolling eyes, stupid, slow, childlike. They’re described only in relation to the white people, never as separate individuals with their own wills and agendas. They’re either devoted or disobedient (‘uppity’). The white characters get more detailed descriptions and more positive words, even for their faults. White characters are angry, black characters are sullen. White characters are quick or smart, black characters are sly. This, to me, indicates a racism in the author’s work as well as in the historical record. But if further proof were needed, Mitchell applauds the actions of the Klan lynch mobs after the war in a way that I feel shows a fundamental lack of respect for human life, when it’s housed in a black skin.
After the North has won the Civil War, there are ‘Yankee’ ladies in Atlanta, and here Mitchell’s views on race get more scope for expression. The characters and, it seems, the author, hates northerners with a passion. They’re represented perhaps even more negatively than the black characters – black characters can have positive traits if they’re good servants, Yankees are simply thieves. At this point, Mitchell uses the Yankees to showcase her views on race further. The northern women, whose husbands are largely soldiers who’ve fought for the north and freedom for the slaves, are shown as being either so ignorant (in Mitchell’s view) that they’ll either try to treat the black people like human adults (instead of unruly children) or be so disgusted they refuse to have them near them or their children at all. For me, this was particularly interesting as, although I’d expected both the novel and the society it depicts to be racist, I hadn’t expected Mitchell to single out one type of racism and hold it up as wrong.
The glamour of a bygone age
I think the attraction of this novel is the elegance, and the ways in which that life is preserved and broken. It’s much like the appeal of watching Downton Abbey (which I do). The film version, with Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable in the title roles and a number of the more complex plot lines stripped out emphasizes the glamour over the grimness even further. The antibellum society Scarlett lives in glitters because no one that ‘counts’ has to do any work. As the shine rubs off, Mitchell invites us to mourn what was lost, without ever discussing whether life had improved for people lower down the scale. Even the slaves are, if the book is to be believed, worse off.
The story itself has an immense amount of passion and fire. Scarlett is astonishingly self-centred, and right from the opening pages the book revolves around her like the planets around the sun. I couldn’t easily dislike her, as she had to go through so many troubles, but I couldn’t easily like her, either. She’s an odd character to have as the centrepiece of a novel celebrating the lost aristocratic age as she has none of the makings of a great lady, being, as Mitchell points out, fundamentally vulgar, selfish and money-hungry.
For me, one of the most shocking moments of the book for me was when Scarlett told someone her age and I realised just how much had happened to her in a short span of years, and remembered just how young she was (16) when she started out. Remembering myself at 16, I can’t say I would have made better decisions. Being suddenly able to calculate Scarlett’s age, and thus the age of her compatriots at various points, I did think they had all done well to survive at all.
I found myself reading the book as though it were an artifact of social history, rather than a novel I could lose myself in. It’s over a thousand pages, and they didn’t go past quickly. They didn’t drag as much as Great Expectations but neither did they flutter past in a breeze of scandals like The Shell Seekers. Gone with the Wind is a big book with one central story, and it takes an awfully long route to get to the end of that story. The ending, having slogged a thousand pages to reach it, is not particularly satisfying although perhaps more realistic than the alternatives. Overall, I’d say it’s a book of its time and one best let fade away.
I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.