Gone with the Wind - Novel
Well…this is it. I made it through my very first doorstopper book! Yay! And trust me, it wasn't an easy task; I had to read it a few chapters at a time to digest it more, and I've been reading it since this past April. But it's about what the doorstopper that I read is that made the journey REALLY worth it. I'm talking about the epic masterpiece of the south that we all know as Margaret Mitchell's "Gone with the Wind".
Now I'll try to not go overboard on the story overview and keep it down to a CliffNotes level. Which reminds me, some of the key sections I’ll discuss here in the review has some spoilers abroad, so read it at your own risk unless you've read the book (or seen the movie, for that matter).
First, we are introduced to mid-19th century Georgia through the eyes of Scarlett O'Hara, a spoiled and ignored girl who worshiped her homeland of Tara, liked to bask herself in the luxuries of her family and that of the Confederate ideals, and ignore the chitchat from the townsfolk about the Civil War, as she thought it was a waste of time - or at least, it was a waste of her time. On a social level, she also liked to set her eyes on the local rich boy and her "knight in shining armor", Ashley Wilkes. However, being that this is a coming of age story, her journey into adulthood started when Ashley rejected her after she finally got a chance to speak with him about her feelings, and that he was betrothed to and was to marry his cousin, Melanie Wilkes, who ironically would later become Scarlett's best friend.
After this, she married a local gentleman and brother of Melanie, Charles Hamilton, with whom she would have eventually borne a son named Wade. However, Charles would eventually be killed in action not too long after in the Civil War, and Ashley, along with a good deal of Confederate men, would follow suit in fighting for the Confederacy. Next, after dealing with public humiliation relating to Ashley's rejection at Twelve Oaks, she was sent over to live with her late husband's sister and family in Atlanta, which Scarlett, at first, thought was her kind of town. There, she continued to thrive in the luxuries of the Confederacy, even though she had to struggle with the clashing ideals of the townsfolk and the traditional procedures of her own widowhood, as well as the impending fears of her beloveds’ safety in the war. Along the way Scarlett also went face-to-face on occasion with a handsome and suave man named Rhett Butler, who was locally infamous for, among other things, his association with the Yankees and his witty remarks against the Confederacy, especially at a time when it was in war with the United States. Rhett got on Scarlett's nerves, too, and yet she knew that there was something about him that just drew her closer to him with every encounter.
Eventually, however, Scarlett's and everyone else's fears of the war came to a boil when the Yankees invaded Atlanta, forcing her, Melanie, and many of the Atlantans to flee for safety. It also didn't help for Scarlett that Melanie was about to give birth to a son of her own at the same time Atlanta was being attacked. Once they finally escaped Atlanta with the help of Rhett, they made it back home to Tara where Scarlett was horrified to find out her father, Gerald, became senile, her mother, Ellen died early of an illness, and much of the county, including Tara, was nearly in the ruins from the war. Because of this, Scarlett, Melanie, and the O'Hara family had to battle against poverty in order to secure food for themselves. That included battling against any rogue Yankee armies and soldiers who came into Tara, one of whom Scarlett shot by herself and from whom she secured some money, both Confederate and American (much to their disgust, but every little bit helps). From there, everyone at the O'Hara household continued to climb their way out of poverty, while Scarlett, at one point, took a risky return to Atlanta, which she was shocked to learn was the first of the Confederate sections to follow that was plagued with the addition of Yankee citizens in the once-Confederate population. Thus, this started her journey of survival in the new American South during the Reconstruction, the tasks of which included adjusting to the conflicting matters over the welfare of Atlanta’s future, owning and operating a couple lumber mills from a local friend, and especially acknowledging and determining her feelings toward Rhett Butler once they continued to run into each other. And this was only the first half of the story!
As you can tell already, the story was so layered and so rich in detail, that every time I read it, I felt like I was transported back in time to experience the beauty of Georgia, the chaos of the Civil War, and the debates of the Reconstruction, all with Scarlett as she experienced it. I also found it very interesting to see the story set up as a before and after scenario, this being what happened to the Confederacy as a whole before and after the Civil War. This made for an interesting setup for how the characters would react to the changes of their hometown. How would they feel if their cherished traditions were wiped out forever? How would they feel if the new practices they originally thought were blasphemous suddenly became ingrained as part of the normal Southern standards? This all tested the characters and their abilities in more ways than one, and this was one of the things that kept me hooked about Gone with the Wind all this time.
While I'm still on the subject, I should talk about just how interesting the characters themselves were. Let’s start with Mammy. I can see why she was an icon among African-Americans in the early 20th century: even as a slave, she wasn't afraid to speak her mind about people or things, and her wisecracks have elevated the stress of some of her predicaments a bit. At the same time, however, she could be just as concerned about other people, especially Scarlett, as everyone else, and could even be a surrogate mother when she needed to be. This brings me to talk about the slaves in the story, and I mean people like Pork, Dilcey, her daughter, Prissy, Cookie, those guys. I was shocked to see just how much they were presented less as slaves tasked with workloads against their will and more like loyal comrades who felt like they still had a debt yet to be repaid unto those who helped them before. I think it had more to do with how much sympathy and care they have shown for others and how much respect they were given by people like Scarlett, Rhett, Ellen, Gerald, that sort of thing. In fact, that kind of treatment was probably why I noticed myself feeling sympathetic to the Confederate people…at least, the more innocent and well-meaning members of the Confederacy, like the O'Hara family, and that was saying something. Now, I know the Confederate States of America was not the easiest semi-country to get along with, and had a somewhat disorganized system in the form of worshiping slavery, but Gone with the Wind really outdid itself in making me express pity for those whose ideals I would normally have protested against. Next up, Ashley Wilkes. He was almost like the before-and-after Confederate barrier personified, although he as a character was equally as interesting and sympathetic. I love how Ashley went from being a strong, rich young man with a high sense of honor and nobility (hence the object of Scarlett's fantasies) into a broken man who was equally as vulnerable as everyone else around him. This added to the tragedy of those who fought for the Confederacy and failed, and he demonstrated how even soldiers who survived wars don't always come back in one piece. His wife, Melanie, while not as complex as the other characters, was an absolute sweetheart. She felt like one of those people you'd not hesitate to spend some time with when given the opportunity, because she demonstrated what a true friend would do when she stood by Scarlett through thick and thin. Plus, she did at least acknowledge Scarlett’s flaws whenever they arose, while still feeling that her virtuous acts towards her and Ashley in chaotic times where enough to outweigh them.
Now here's the best that I saved for last: Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler. Frankly, I didn't find Rhett quite as complex or interesting at first. His associations with the Yankees and his snarky remarks were enough to inspire some interesting character interpretations, but he just felt like a know-it-all guy in fancy clothes. Fortunately, two things in the story changed that for me. One was when he kept all the Confederate money and bonds stored away in Britain and kept it that way when the Confederacy needed them most during the war. I don't remember what he locked them up for, but I do know that this made him just as flawed as Scarlett, even though he did admit to have served in the war. And two was his relationship with his firstborn and Scarlett’s thirdborn, Bonnie. To see Rhett so happy with her, even in public, made him feel a lot more human, and far more than just an unpredictable source of common sense. And just like Ashley, he was also subject to tragedy, like when Bonnie died in a riding accident. His pain over her death was very noticeable and it really made me feel sorry for him when he had to deal with all this heavy grief.
Last, but not least, Scarlett O'Hara. She was one of the strongest female characters I ever encountered in literature, and that is just amazing given the time of the book's publication. It's almost like she set a bar in terms of how strong female characters were supposed to be represented, before that was cool. Of course, with all that strength in Scarlett’s character came plenty of questionable motives, and like I stated several times by now, she really was a flawed character. For example, I remember when she stabbed her own sister, Suellen, in the back by lying to her betrothed, Frank Kennedy, about her and married him for his money. Technically, she needed the money so she could firmly secure Tara when it was in jeopardy and provide for her family, but I remember taking offense at that action. In further retrospect, however, that just added to the complexity and strength of Scarlett. Even though she was prissy, and had some beef with people like Melanie, she knew that desperate times called for desperate measures, and she was willing to do anything to thrive in the war-torn and later remodeled South, even if her motives mounted up and landed her the same local infamy that Rhett did earlier. I even noticed from the Internet how much people liked to complain about and despise Scarlett for her flaws, but I'm on the same boat as Melanie when I say I don't believe she's that bad. The bad things she did do, like lying to and marrying Frank Kennedy, would later come back to haunt her conscience when it was too late. So yes, even Scarlett acknowledged her misdeeds whenever they arose.
One last thing I will comment on is the ending, where Rhett left Scarlett. I should point out, first, that except for the word ‘frankly’, the classic line “Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn” was borrowed DIRECTLY from the book. And author Margaret Mitchell had no definitive answers for the outcome of Scarlett and Rhett; she left the ending open-ended so we, as readers, can make the conclusions on our own. When asked about the outcome, the only way she answered it was “For all I know, Rhett may have found someone else who was less…difficult.” Of course, that answer was more interpretive then it was definitive, but intentionally so, I think. Of course, and correct me if I'm wrong, pop culture made a big deal out of it and one-sidedly jumped to the conclusion that they would not get back together. I personally prefer the ambiguous route to the allegedly inevitable route. And please, feel free to tell me about your ending preferences if you want.
With all that said, I acknowledge that Margaret Mitchell wrote this as a love letter to the Confederacy. What emerged from it was a massive 12-year odyssey of survival in uncertain times, and through the eyes and perception of both Scarlett and even Rhett, we got a taste of Margaret's personal and nostalgic fondness of the land as well as the controversy and uncertainty that came with the land's semi-destruction, with a generous helping of heated love on the side. Long story short, I have only one word to sum up the entirety of the story and my experiences with it in a nutshell: ENCAPSULATING.
Originally published on Facebook, August 26, 2017