This is the first time I’ve read Gone With the Wind or Margaret Mitchell. It is a postmodern, epic novel told in third-person narrative. The setting is Georgia, during and after the American Civil war.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Although this was the first time I've read Gone With the Wind, it is hardly possible to be unfamiliar with the story. I wish I could have read it without the preconceptions formed from watching the epic film. Preconceptions notwithstanding, the book is a masterpiece, breathtaking, heartbreaking, and thoroughly captivating.
I don't intend to constantly compare the book and film, as this review is about the book, but I must begin with one stark difference between book and film. According to the very first line of the book:
Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful...
But of course, the actress who so indelibly portrayed her, Vivien Leigh was.
The first line continues...
...but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm...
And many were caught.
Apart from this one point, the movie is quite faithful. However, the book evoked different feelings regarding the main character. In the film, I never liked Scarlett. I felt sorry for her at times and disgusted at others, but I certainly never found her admirable or heroic. In the novel, she was both.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. I have some international readers, and it is just possible that some are not familiar with the story. It is the story of Scarlett O'Hara, a vain and spoiled southern belle, the daughter of a rich plantation owner. The plantation, known as Tara is in Georgia and the story begins just before the start of America's Civil War. It recounts the slow destruction of the South and the southern way of life.
SPOILER ALERT: This review contains a spoiler.
Scarlett is a coquette and all the boys vie for her attention. She adores attention and she adores Ashley Wilkes, the son of another wealthy plantation owner. Scarlett is distressed to learn that Ashley will announce his engagement to plain but sweet Melanie Hamilton. Scarlett is sure she can dissuade Ashley, and she manages to get him alone at a party for that very purpose. Ashley is resolute, and rejects her, but unbeknown to either of them, they are not quite alone. The entire discourse, ending with Scarlett throwing a vase at Ashley, is witnessed by Rhett Butler, who was lying quietly and unnoticed on a couch. He makes himself known after Ashley leaves, and Scarlett is humiliated that her forward and unladylike display was witnessed by this stranger. Rhett is....well, it would take many pages to describe what Rhett is. He is a scoundrel by most accounts, and no gentleman. He is pragmatic, quick witted and sly, and he sets his sights on Scarlett. She finds him handsome and exciting, but also unnerving, as she cannot manipulate him for he is never beguiled by her feminine charms.
And news arrives that the South, to be known as the Confederacy, has seceded from union with the United States, and war is declared. All the brave young men rush to join the Army. Before Ashley leaves, he and Melanie are wed and Scarlett marries Melanie's brother out of spite. The rest of the story is the slow destruction and misery of the South, Scarlett's continual pining for Ashley while he's away in the war, and Rhett's continual pursuit of Scarlett. Rhett has many flaws and does not behave according to strict southern code. He is not accepted in good society, and he doesn't care. He has a deep sincere respect for Melanie...who has a heart of gold.
Scarlett despises Melanie out of jealousy, but strict upbringing forces her to behave courteously, especially since "Melly" is now her sister-in-law. Melly is oblivious to Scarlett's contempt and her infatuation with Ashley. Melly loves Scarlett, and defends her viciously to any detractors.
If you know American history, you know the South had the early victories in the Civil War. Scarlett and her friends are barely touched by it. But the tide turns at Gettysburg, and the Yankees begin pushing south. Still, the Georgians believe they have little to fear. The righteousness of their sacred cause, and the superiority of southern gentlemen would turn the tide again, and victory was certain. If Virginia was the seat of the Confederacy, Georgia was the heart of Dixie. In spite of their confidence, the tide does not turn again, and General Sherman drives his sword viciously into the heart of Dixie.
Scarlett and Melanie are living in Atlanta when the Yankees are coming, but they cannot evacuate because Melanie, is small, weak, and nine months pregnant. As Atlanta is falling around them, Scarlett stays with Melanie and helps deliver the baby. Rhett helps them begin their escape, but when he has them only partially safe, he leaves to join the army. Scarlett without food or rest for nearly two days leads the rest of the dangerous escape from Atlanta. She manages to see them all to Tara, but all is not well at home. The privations and hardships of the war have taken Scarlett's beloved mother, and left her father a broken and confused old man. The crops and livestock have been plundered by the Yankee army and winter is coming. Everyone looks to Scarlett for leadership.
Scarlett O'Hara, who
had never raised her hand even to pick up her discarded stocking from the floor or to tie the laces of her slippers...Scarlett, whose little headaches and tempers had been coddled and catered to all her life.
Was now mistress of Tara, responsible for her father, two sisters, Melanie and child, and a hand full of slaves. It was a terrible burden; she was only 19. My heart ached for her and I was filled with admiration.
I won't retell the entire tale. Things get worse, and then much worse, and then much much worse...and then slowly, very slowly better. Scarlett outlives two husbands she does not love, and eventually marries Rhett, whom she does not love. They are alike, and both enjoy luxury and comfort. Rhett suggests they marry for fun, and Scarlett accepts. It is a tumultuous marriage. At times they are happy, but most of the time they make each other miserable.
But I'll stop with the tale, and tell you what I think. Scarlett and Melanie...are THE SOUTH.
Melanie was the South that was, that will never be again. She was all that was good about the South: Gentle as a rule, fierce when need be; genteel as a rule, sensible when need be.
Scarlett was the South that was nearly destroyed, that would rise again drastically and permanently changed. Scarlett was mercilessly beaten down; she never gave up, never despaired. She survived, never the same again...like the South.
Melanie, if you did not know, and cannot guess...does not survive. In the end, Scarlett realizes how much she loves Melly and what a true and great friend she always was. She realized that
the sword which had flashed between her and the world was sheathed forever.
I think to some extent, Rhett and Ashley are the South as well, but their representations are a bit more indistinct. Ashley was fine and elegant...and impotent. Rhett was coarse and common...and strong. Whatever it's worth.
Mitchell paints such a charming and glorious picture of the antebellum South, it is easy to forget a few things: like the evil of slavery. For this, there was judgment. That way of life had to die, it deserved to die. It is also easy to forget that the vast majority of southerners never owned slaves, but all of the south would be judged. I think Mitchell is no apologist for slavery, but I believe she loved the South and lamented the beauty that was lost. She reminded me, a Yankee by birth, that there was something gracious and beautiful in the old South, that regrettably, though perhaps necessarily, perished in the reckoning.
Narrative about Scarlett:
all women, including her two sisters, were natural enemies in pursuit of the same prey...man.
Scarlett's thoughts of her mother:
When Ellen intervened with Heaven, Scarlett felt certain that Heaven heard.
A pretty dress and a clear complexion are weapons to vanquish fate.
Women knew that a land where men were contented, uncontradicted and safe in possession of unpunctured vanity was likely to be a very pleasant place for women to live.
We should have paid heed to cynics like Butler who knew, instead of statesmen who felt...and talked.
If I am nicer to Mrs. Wilkes, it is because she deserves it. She is one of the very few kind, sincere, and unselfish persons I have ever known. But perhaps you have failed to note these qualities. And moreover, for all her youth, she is one of the few great ladies I have ever been privileged to know.
It had been her experience that the liar was the hottest to defend his veracity, the coward his courage, the ill-bred his gentlemanliness, and the cad his honor. But not Rhett. He admitted everything and laughed and dared her to say more.
Rhett upon his decision to join the Army:
I am annoyed at myself to find that so much quixoticism still lingers in me. But our fair Southland needs every brave man.
Narrative regarding Scarlett and the flight from Atlanta:
She was seeing things with new eyes for, somewhere along the long road to Tara, she had left her girlhood behind her. She was no longer plastic clay, yielding imprint to each new experience. The clay had hardened some time in this indeterminate day which had lasted a thousand years. Tonight was the last time she would ever be ministered to as a child. She was a woman now and youth was gone.
As God is my witness, as God is my witness, the Yankees aren't going to lick me. I'm going to live through this, and when it's over, I'm never going to be hungry again. No nor any of my folks. If I have to steal or kill...as God is my witness, I'm never going to be hungry again.
Scarlett, before the war, life was beautiful. There was a glamor to it, a perfection and a completeness and a symmetry to it like Grecian art. Maybe it wasn't so to everyone. I know that now. But to me, living at Twelve Oaks, there was a real beauty to living. I belonged in that life. I was a part of it. And now it is gone and I am out of place in this new life, and I am afraid.
Scarlett's thoughts about Ashley and Melly:
Melly and he were always talking such foolishness, poetry and books and dreams and moonrays and star dust.
Scarlett appealing to Ashley to run away with her:
There's nothing to keep us here.
Ashley: Nothing, he said quietly, nothing except honor.
Narrative about Scarlett:
In the grayness of the parlor she fought a quick decisive battle with the three most binding ties of her soul...the memory of Ellen, the teachings of her religion and her love for Ashley.
Tommy (minor character):
It's a poor person and a poor nation that sits down and cries because life isn't precisely what they expected it to be.
Narrative about Scarlett:
Sometimes she thought that all the people she had ever known were strangers except Rhett.
What earthly good was a sacrifice if no one knew about it?
Take my handkerchief, Scarlett. Never, at any crisis of your life, have I known you to have a handkerchief.
Scarlett to Rhett:
But I love you.
Rhett: That's your misfortune.
Scarlett after Rhett leaves her:
I'll think of it all tomorrow, at Tara. I can stand it then. Tomorrow, I'll think of some way to get him back. After all, tomorrow is another day.
Film Rendition: The 1939 film starring Vivien Leigh as Scarlett, Clark Gable as Rhett, and Olivia de Havilland as Melanie, won 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and Best Actress for Leigh. It was nominated for three more. And like the book, it is a masterpiece. The casting is perfect....oh, maybe they should have found a way to make Vivien Leigh less beautiful, but otherwise perfect.