At the Back Fence Issue #162Dabney2017-06-23T08:29:53-04:00
At the Back Fence Issue #162
June 15, 2003
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
When buying books last month for my daughter’s summer reading program for school, I picked up a new copy of Gone With the Wind. Later, Blythe, Linda, and Sandi decided to take a well-deserved month off from Pandora’s Box and the idea was hatched to devote this ATBF column to Margaret Mitchell’s Pulitzer-prize winning classic romantic novel.
When buying books last month for my daughter’s summer reading program for school, I picked up a new copy of Gone With the Wind. Later, Blythe, Linda, and Sandi decided to take a well-deserved month off from Pandora’s Box and the idea was hatched to devote this ATBF column to Margaret Mitchell’s Pulitzer-prize winning classic romantic novel.
Robin, who may be one of the few readers to have read the book more often than I, liked the idea, as did Anne, even though she shocked us by sharing she’d never read the book. Each of us brings a different perspective to the novel. GWTW turned reading from a pleasure into a passion for me. Robin, with her historical eye, views the book not only in a literary sense, but an historical one on the darkest period of American history. And for Anne, who’d only seen the movie, we gain a 21st-century perspective from someone unencumbered by past readings.
LLB: I was 9 1/2 and in the 5th grade when I read Gone With the Wind. It was my first “grown-up” book and I remember reading it very vividly. The 5th grade was my first ever with a male teacher, and we had been doing “individual reading.” I was mid-way through the book and some time later, I heard the teacher clearing his throat behind me. He was angry. Apparently he’d asked the class to put away their books about five minutes earlier, but I was so engrossed that I didn’t hear him! I think that was the first time I realized the power of the written word.
It was certainly the first time I’d read a story featuring a “heroine” who was so morally ambiguous. Scarlett behaved badly so often – she was selfish, she was mean, she was the first “bitch” I encountered in literature. She also did so many right things – but always for the wrong reasons, as when she stayed with Melanie during the siege. And while she was feminine, she often behaved as a man would behave; she was competent, she was brave in a very showy manner, and she ran a man’s business. This was at the very start of the women’s movement (circa 1970) and I paid attention to that. The only thing I never really understood was her attraction to Ashley, who paled in comparison to Scarlett. It wasn’t until later that I came to the conclusion that she clearly would have eaten him alive.
GWTW also seemed incredibly racy for this 9-year-old – not only did Rhett kiss Scarlett senseless, he moved his lips down her throat and kissed her on the taffeta covering her breasts “so hard and long that his breath burnt her skin.” What were your reactions to reading the book the first time?
Robin: I remember reading Gone With the Wind like it was yesterday. I am in the eighth grade again lying on the homemade bedspread in my little room. I stretch out on the bed and smell spring outside in the fields behind my house. My brother is mowing the lawn in twilight. I am supposed to be doing homework, washing the dishes, writing an essay. But I do not do any of those things. I pretend to be doing schoolwork but I am upstairs hiding and reading Gone With the Wind. The book itself is special. It smells like new ink. In my house we don’t buy new books, only used ones from the library book sale. Our house is filled with books but new books, my mother says, are a waste of money. In spite of this I have bought GWTW from Scholastic Book Club with my dishwashing money. 35 years later the same blue paperback stands on my basement bookshelf with its $1.75 cover. Having been through four or five readings it is probably the best $1.75 I ever spent.
I read GWTW in the spring of 1968 with no preconceived notions. I had never seen the movie, which was re-released every 10 years or so in theaters but never shown on TV. The only thing I knew about GWTW was that it was the “great American novel” that all amateur writers wanted to emulate. I knew this because Lucy Ricardo said it once when she decided to write a novel.
As an eight grader raised in Yankee Rhode Island I found the novel perplexing. I’d never read a book with such contradictory characters. Was Scarlett supposed to be a good person or a bad one? Was Rhett the hero or was Ashley? Did anyone really think that the South was right in the Civil War? Why did Southern women think that Northern ones were unfeminine? Did Ashley really love Scarlett? Did Melanie know that Scarlett loved her husband? It was all new and it was all fascinating.
Though I had been brought up in the most Yankee of states (we sang Marching Though Georgia from our 1930s vintage elementary school song books) for one week I was completely brainwashed by the Southern argument for slavery. No, I did not think Southerners were right. But as an eighth grader who had literally never met an African American, I wondered if it had been as bad as I had been told.
This illusion only lasted a week. My parents, who were ardent admirers of Martin Luther King, had a guest over one night soon after I finished the book. We talked about the book. Mom and Dad were stunned when I announced that the Civil War had been one of the few wars without a “right” side. Both my parents jumped down my throat, and rightly so, pointing out that Margaret Mitchell had not only rationalized slavery, she had done so while living in a segregated South where there were as many as three hundred lynchings a year.
So in a very short time I went back to agreeing with my parents about the Civil War. Not about the book though. It remains a novel that fascinates me and I still ask myself the questions I asked the first time I read it. The movie is wonderful and less racist than the book. But the book is a more complicated, more flawed and yet a more brilliant creation than the movie. To this day I am so glad I read GWTW before anybody told me that Rhett and Scarlett were in love, before I knew that Rhett would leave Scarlett in the end and before I knew that Vivien Leigh, who was stunningly beautiful, was Scarlett O’Hara who was not beautiful, but made men think that she was.
Anne: I think the first thing I noticed was how Scarlett was portrayed. There’s a lot the movie could only hint at – or didn’t bother trying to include. Also, I saw the movie so long ago that I had forgotten what she could be like.
Although I usually like the third person limited point of view, I liked the way Mitchell used the omniscient viewpoint. In a novel with the sweep of GWTW, it was the only way to include the history and to let the reader know what different characters were thinking.
I had been warned about the racism, so I wasn’t as surprised as I might have been. However, I was startled to see the way she wrote about the poor white people. I think at times the slaves (the house slaves anyway) were portrayed with more respect than the poorest of the white people, the white trash family that Scarlett hated. I liked the dichotomy between the way the slaves were looked upon as childlike and yet the way some of the house slaves truly ran the households and the lives. (Aunt Pittypat’s “Uncle Peter, “for example.)
The slave dialect did still bug me, though. (argh)
LLB: This reminds me of my other most vivid memory of GWTW, from my freshman year of college. One of the networks was airing the movie on television and my friend Caroline, a southern beauty from a well-to-do old family in Tennessee, was all excited. Her roommate had a TV so we all gathered in their room to watch. Caroline could not understand why one of our friends down the hall, who happened to be African American, didn’t want to watch. Caroline was no dummy – and as a southern girl had been raised to be very aware of people’s feelings, but she was entirely caught up in the whole “glory of the South,” “the Civil War wasn’t really about slavery” thing, which I’d never experienced before… to this day I’m amazed at the state of denial with which many southerners live(d).
I was so young when I first read the book that much of the racism seemed like something from the bizarro universe. I too was raised in a very liberal household that worshipped RFK and MLK, and could not understand where Mitchell was coming from – at all. And when I got to that part of the book in Atlanta after the War and Scarlett is trying to convince a Yankee woman to hire a Black nanny and the woman doesn’t want someone like that around her children, I was astonished. How could somebody from the North be racist? That was a powerful scene, IMHO.
But getting back to the “glory of the South”… Robin, didn’t you say that the book helped, in a way, to raise the spirits of the South, which during the 1930’s was an incredibly depressing (both big “D” and little “d”) place?
Robin: Yes, GWTW, for many Southerners, was a way to get respect for the South and the Southern Cause. there were still a few Civil War veterans alive in the 1930s and many people had parents who had fought in the war, or been affected by it. Margaret Mitchell had heard stories of the war all her life. In fact she said once that she had been astonished as a child when she learned that the Civil War was not a recent occurrence.
Many Southerners felt that they were looked down upon by the rest of the country. Of course there is much more to it than that. The lynchings and segregation of the South, the stories that African Americans told when they came North, the lack of voting rights and quality of the schools were all things people thought about when they thought about the South.
But Gone With the Wind captivated almost everyone who read it. The studio decision to premier the movie in Atlanta with the original cast made the event glamorous. Today we think of Atlanta as an important cosmopolitan city. But the Atlanta of the 1930s was not used international acclaim. If you read The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, or see the movie, you get a bit of that flavor.
And of course GWTW was an amazing propaganda vehicle for the South. As a Northerner I’ve always been sorry that the great Union novel has never been written because many people have read it over the years without really analyzing what it is saying. When Ken Burns decided to produce his great epic documentary The Civil War, he said that he did in part to open people’s minds to a Civil War that was dramatically different than the one described in Mitchell’s book.
LLB: I’m glad you mentioned Ya-Ya because the premiere for the Selznick movie played such a big part in it! Reading Ya-Ya really re-ignited my love of Southern Fiction, and nearly every contemporary Southern Fiction I’ve read deals with issues of race in one way or another. It’s kind of like the Holocaust, always – and necessarily so – in our memories.
Anne, you never read the book before, although you’d seen the movie. It was the opposite for Robin and me. My mother took my sister and me and a couple of our friends to see it when it was shown in the early 1970s. She’s a tremendous reader, but I think she actually loved the movie more than the book.
My sister asked what was going on when she watched Rhett carry Scarlett up the grand stairway in their mansion and I remember my mother, with a sort of awed, gushy voice, replying, “He’s going to make love to her!” I don’t think either of us knew what that meant. Which had more impact on you, the movie or the book? I know you were surprised, Anne, by how different Ashley was in the book than he was in the movie. How so?
Anne: The book had more impact, because of the level of detail. And maybe because I can sit back and say “Wow, she has some ova!” even as I want to throttle her.
I do remember being in high school when the movie was shown on TV for the first time. One of my classmates was a huge fan, so she was really looking forward to it. So were a lot of the other girls in my class. My parents watched it, too, of course. It must be hard for people who have grown up in today’s television environment to realize how one movie being shown on broadcast TV can have such an impact. But this was before the day when movies were shown over and over again until even big movies lost their impact.
As for Ashley, a lot of the internal and background aspects of the characters were lost in the filmed version. I don’t remember the movie emphasizing the way the Wilkes were into the arts and so much apart from the South even though they were a part of it at the same time.
Not just that – we also lost Scarlett’s confusion when she ran smack up against the parts of Ashley’s personality that she didn’t understand. For example, when she read his letter and then put it down, completely missing everything he’d said. That gave it an added poignancy.
Robin: The first time I saw the movie I had a terrible time accepting Vivien Leigh as Scarlett. Rhett Butler fit Clark Gable to a “T,” and Lesley Howard and Olivia DeHaviland seemed equally well cast. But Vivien Leigh? First off she was much too beautiful and too perfect looking. Leigh’s voice is soft and sweet. Her demeanor seemed to take the edge off some of her behavior. Part of the point of the book is to show how Scarlett, a moderately attractive young woman, bred to be a porcelain doll, manages to overcome enormous obstacles through sheer tenacity. Scarlett doesn’t want to be responsible. She wants somebody to take care of her. But when she learns that she must take care of herself she becomes ruthless, cunning and amazingly effective. In the movie, Scarlett goes overboard using prison gangs as workers. In the book she is brilliant, hard and successful.
Today however I see Vivien Leigh as the perfect casting choice. Her sweet voice is only a ploy to get her way. Her beauty, amazing though it is, is nothing compared to her ability to use her mind to get what she wants. The only one who sees through her is Rhett, who loves her for herself, not in spite of her faults, but, in a way, because of them.
The other thing that hit me about the movie was the characters who are left out. Uncle Peter and Scarlett’s children from her two first marriages are nowhere to be seen.
Lastly, as an adult it is clear to me that the book is far more racist than the movie. I have read a number of books about the making of the movie and it’s pretty clear they changed it on purpose. The KKK makes an appearance but without the horrible faux history of the Klan that Mitchell puts into the book.
LLB: I have this subversive theory about the book, and it relates to why Rhett wasn’t “received,” going far beyond what he did to “that girl in Charleston.” The lifestyle of the southern aristocrats was built on slave labor and very hypocritical. People like Ashley Wilkes could sit around all day and read and philosophize because they owned human beings who did the actual work. Although not quite the same, the attitude reminds me of European aristocrats until shortly after the turn of the 20th century.
Remember when Scarlett and her sisters have to pick cotton when they return to Tara? The amount of suffering Mitchell had them endure was amazing and the reader is made to feel sorry for them. Hello… did these people never think of the work slaves did to keep them in their accustomed lifestyle? Granted, the few of them are doing the work of many more field slaves, but until the war none of these people had ever done any work in their lives beyond dressing for parties.
Rhett seems to me to be the antithesis of this hypocrisy. He’s like the wealthy Cit in a Regency except that he doesn’t try to fit in, and his unwillingness to play by the old rules, his brashness, outspokenness, and refusal to live by Southern etiquette were quite simply an affront to that genteel lifestyle. Forget the blockade – Rhett actually worked before the war. Without meaning to, Mitchell indicts the very way of life she glorifies, at least for me. Unfortunately, after Bonnie is born, my theory gets screwed up.
When I re-read the book for this column, I was surprised at how differently Rhett came across to me. In earlier readings, Scarlett was the one that took my breath away. She had such a life – three husbands, three babies (and you’re right, Robin, that two of these children were left out of the movie seemed odd to me given its length), Ashley, Melanie, her mother, her father, her beaux, her bad behavior…. But as I got older the book began to read entirely differently to me. Rhett was far more of a focus. I think perhaps I was too young to appreciate this man before. While I’ve always been attracted to men that look like men rather than boys, he may have been too threatening a character in terms of masculinity and cynicism for me. He’d nearly always managed to work things to his advantage, but now I’m struck by his honesty, his ability to see Scarlett for what she was – and to love her because of it – and his wisdom. What about you? Who stands out most in the book for you?
Anne: I was most impressed by Scarlett, partly because she can get away with so much. Also, it was refreshing to read about her because the few times romance writers try to write about shallow, spoiled heroines, they come across as ditzes who can’t do much. Or they go from spoiled heroine who cares only about clothes to champion of the chimney sweeps and/or rain forest in five easy lessons. Scarlett doesn’t do those things.
And I was interested in Scarlett because although she is a shallow heroine, she is very deeply drawn. Yes, she is a shallow heroine, but she is supposed to be. It’s obvious Mitchell knew what she was doing. You can’t write a book like this without knowing what you’re doing. (Mitchell would probably have made a good Wilkes cousin herself because of her literary skills.) I remember reading a quote from a critic written at the time the book came out. He came across as a high-falutin’ critic upset that a popular book won the Pulitzer. I think he said something like he would call the characters cardboard, but that would be an insult to cardboard! I wonder if he read the book at all.
Robin: I think all four of the main characters are brilliant in their way. To me, Rhett sets the standard for a strong, masculine and wise man. Rhett knows the Southern cause is doomed and as modern people we identify with that. He knows it from the start. He’s a cynical outsider who never feels comfortable in Ashley Wilkes’ Old South. But when it is doomed he suddenly realizes the bravery of the people who are fighting. Rhett is also interesting in other ways. He respects Mammy, and realizes her respect is something worth having. He’s ruthless in business but he admires Melanie and its pretty clear she could get anything she wanted from him.
Ashley of the book also interests me. He’s a mystery. Does he love Scarlett? Every time I read GWTW I have a different answer to that question. Scarlett comes to the conclusion that Ashley only lusts after her, but I’m not completely sure of that.
Melanie, who symbolizes the best of Southern aristocracy, is a great contrast to Scarlett. She’s no wimpette. Remember when she helps after Scarlett shot the Yankee? And in the end she dies because Ashley is not able to resist her when she begs him for children. To me, Melanie was a wonderful way for Margaret Mitchell to portray Southern values. She is a brave woman whose strength is mental not physical. Her kindness and unselfishness inspire all who know her, in the end that even includes Scarlett who is contemptuous of Melanie much of the time. My big question about Melanie is always, how much does she understand about Scarlett? Does she know Scarlett loves Ashley? Does she believe, in her heart of hearts, that Ashley might have feelings for Scarlett?
LLB: Ashley, to me, represents the “Old South” perhaps even better than Melanie. To me he’s always been an ethereal presence, and certainly not a man grounded the way Scarlett is. She is very much of the earth and he definitely is not. I know what Melanie represents, but even though I’ve come to respect her more as the years have gone by, she’s still too idealized for me. It takes so much for her strength to come out – it’s there, and while she’s more grounded than Ashley, that she never understands Scarlett (and I truly don’t think she did) is a problem for me. And yet, she does have that quiet strength, there’s that whole “steel Magnolia” aspect I think Mitchell captured brilliantly. In fact, I almost wonder whether Melanie was the stronger of the two women – she never compromised, even when she knew it would kill her.
Anyone who reads the book comes away with the impression that Margaret Mitchell’s view of the South before the war was seen through rose-colored glasses, and the insult Scarlett’s “old friends” have when she befriends the scalawags and carpetbaggers after the war is something I think Mitchell had strong views on. Then, of course, there’s that whole Klan episode. Robin, why don’t you give us the historical perspective on this, both post-War, and in 1930’s Georgia? But before you do, let me tell you about a recent event here in Dallas. The old county courthouse had a drinking fountain with a “whites only” sign next to it. Why it was still there I don’t know, but there was a major tumult about what to do with it. Get rid of it, or keep it and put a placard next to it as a reminder? We’re talking this year, not the 1950s or 1960s. They eventually decided to keep it but as a sort of “exhibit,” a reminder of how awful it once was in Dallas.
Robin: I think the best way to get the real flavor of the South during the Great Depression is to read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. To me, that book portrays the kindness and strength of the South as well as the barbarity that happened. Harper Lee was as much a Southerner as Margaret Mitchell, but her viewpoint was dramatically different.
Most of the American History school textbooks that I grew up with swallowed Margaret Mitchell’s version of Reconstruction whole – in part so they could be sold in the South. In this view the Reconstructed South was a dismal place where uneducated African Americans were allowed to take horrible “liberties.” They voted, were elected, became judges and Congressmen. There is a wonderful book called America Revised by Frances Fitzgerald which explains how these textbooks shaped the viewpoints of generations of white Americans including those who lived in the North.
The Jim Crow Laws ate away at the rights of African Americans and made it impossible for them to vote, resulting in an Apartheid-like situation. I have a very hard time reading romance novels set in the South after the Civil War but before 1960. Usually they delete blacks from the scene and pretend they did not exist. Others have black servants talking to their employers they way they would in the 21st Century. As awful as the racism in GWTW is, I will say this for Margaret Mitchell. She didn’t try to pretend that slavery did not exist or that it wasn’t important. It’s pretty clear that she thought slavery was essential to that life that was “gone with the wind.”
Of course the proof is in the pudding. The passage of the 1965 Civil Rights Act was in fact what raised the South to the wonderful place it is today. Its the reason so many African Americans now take their families and move back to the South from places like New York. Ironic, isn’t it?
Anne: I think the parts about Reconstruction are harder to take for a modern reader than the views about the pre-war South. It’s one thing to see the slaves being talked about in patronizing ways, another to read about the freed blacks as I can’t give the historical perspective, but I did go to college in the South in the 1980s. There was a professor who gave a walking tour of the town, and he referred to the War of Northern Aggression – but he did wink when he said that. What I remember most, though, was the story he told about a horrid railroad accident that happened after the war.
But the most touching story he told involved the Fifth Virginia band (later known as The Stonewall Brigade Band). Though it was a Confederate band, it had a special relationship with Grant. After the war was over, they were the only Confederate unit allowed to keep their instruments, thanks to an order issued by General Grant himself. Because of this kindness, the band would often play tributes to Grant. The band even serenaded Grant when his train stopped in Staunton in 1874. Today, this band starts each concert with a medley of “My Country Tis of Thee” and “Dixie” in tribute to this event.” This seems especially appropo because of the way songs (including Dixie) played such an important part in GWTW. For example, as the war came closer to home and the fall of Atlanta approached, I remember a scene where Scarlett tried to head off an argument between Rhett and Dr. Meade by singing songs, but the only songs she could think of were sad war songs.
LLB: As always, it’s the relationships in the book that strike me, and the relative strength and weakness of the various characters. Let’s talk about the influence on Scarlett of her mother and father, her relationships with Melanie and Ashley, and with Rhett.
Scarlett’s adoration of her mother always made her seem more real to me – the only person she ever wanted to be a “good person” for was her mother, with her scent of lemon verbena. Her behavior toward the overseer and his white-trash wife after their illness killed her mother really stands out for me, and the fact that any of Scarlett’s “good” impulses are relatable either to her mother or to Ashley seemed real. And yet, while the person Scarlett most wanted to please was her mother, Melanie, whom she considered so mealy-mouthed, was so much like her mother that I wonder what their relationship might have been like without Ashley.
Anne: I liked the contrast between Scarlett’s relationship with her mother and her father. On the one hand, she worshipped her mother – yet hated other people who were similar to her mother. On the other hand, she was so much like her father and loved him in a different way, an earthier way that was easier to relate to. In a way, those two relationships could be seen as similar to her love for Ashley (the wrong wrong wrong person for her) and Rhett.
Her relationship with Ashley was another thing altogether. I think he was more than the crush she never got over. Maybe she fell for him because he was the one man at that time who didn’t respond to her like a besotted boy, and maybe over time, she wanted him even more because she couldn’t have him. Yet he was so obviously wrong for her, someone who lived in another plane, an idol she didn’t understand and didn’t really want to. If they had married, she would’ve made him miserable, tried to change him, and he knew that. She didn’t really want the man, she wanted the dream – the angel she saw him as.
Melanie is a character I’ve noticed a lot of people don’t like or don’t get, or both. Someone on AARList recently referred to her as “mealymouthed.” But when Scarlett shoots the Union solider and Mellie acts decisively and with bravery, it’s clear that there’s a lot Scarlett chose not to see about Melanie because she was so jealous. I still haven’t decided how much Melanie knew. More than she let on, I’m sure. She’s a tough nut to crack.
To me, Scarlett and Melanie symbolize the dichotomy between a lot of romance readers. Many readers want to read about heroines who are bastions of quiet strength, never selfish, always kind. This is the heroine who would work her fingers to the bone to save a ne’er-do-well brother or an impoverished village. Yet a growing number of readers are sick of that type of heroine. They would rather read about a heroine who looks the ne’er-do-well brother in the face and says, “Get. A. Job.” Does this mean they want more heroines like Scarlett? Or is there a happy medium between Melanie and Scarlett?
Rhett is, of course, fascinating. He says the things a lot of people were either too blind or too scared to say. He makes the rogues of most romance novels look like pale imitations. He does the bad things they only dream of (or in some cases, only pretend to have done). He really is more suited to Scarlett than anyone else in the book. Even people who hate the characters often say “They deserve each other.”
LLB: I have so many favorite moments from the book! I’ll get to them, but after you two as my list is incredibly long.
Anne: I think the fall of Atlanta was memorable because it was horrific and wrenching. Also, as I read the flight from Atlanta, I couldn’t remember what had happened in the movie, so I didn’t even remember if Melanie had survived this far! That added to the suspense. However, I also liked the charity ball where Scarlett shocked the townspeople because that was such a turning point.
LLB: I guess I can’t wait. Here’s my lengthy list – and Anne, some of the scenes you mentioned are among the most memorable to me, which is frankly not much of a surprise. I hope we can talk further about some of them, particularly if any of these snippets are ones you thought about:
The opening line, of course: “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.” There really is something about how southerners are raised that’s different than anywhere else in the country. I noticed it at college (and while watching Designing Women). There’s a graciousness and gracefulness to southern women – even modern southern women – I’ve never found in other women. I was in awe watching Caroline work a frat mixer.
The scene during which Scarlett is being fit into her dress (with the 17″ waist!) for the Twelve Oaks BBQ and Mammy feeds her, reminding her that it’s not lady-like to eat in front of men. Mammy’s relationship with Scarlett (and her relationship later with Rhett – ie, the rustly red silk petticoat) is quite telling.
The eavesdropping scene, which is incredibly vivid in the movie as well as the book:
“Sir,” she said, “you are not a gentleman!”
“An apt observation,” he answered airily. “And you, Miss, are no lady.”
Here’s that scene Anne mentioned, the ball where Scarlett defies convention and dances even though she’s in mourning. She also donates her ring “to the Cause,” prompting Melanie to do the same, although Melanie’s gesture comes from the heart while for Scarlett it’s a symbolic way for her to begin the process of throwing off her widow’s weeds. We see that earlier when she taps her feet to the music – and so does Rhett. Re-reading the book after Ellen wrote her Cheat Sheet article on mourning made all these scenes richer for me.
Robin: One thing I absolutely love about Rhett Butler and GWTW in general is the stand it takes against bending to the will of gossip. As in romance novels about the Regency period in England, Society in GWTW is obsessed with gossip. The conventions they live by are as rigid and prudish as those in Regency England, and the punishment for those people, especially those for those women who do not conform is isolation and shunning. Remember when Scarlett is chastised for waving good-bye to the soldiers from her bedroom window?
But, in contrast to many romance novels, the good people in GWTW will not compromise their principles to avoid gossip. Melanie, when confronted by Mrs. Meade, angrily refuses to stop speaking to Rhett Butler as she is grateful to him for returning her wedding ring. Ellen always presses Scarlett to do the right thing, but because it is right not because of gossip. The silly Aunt Pittypat, by contrast, worries constantly that Scarlett will attract gossip. Mrs. Meade, the nasty, small minded wife of Dr. Meade, is a terrible gossip and because of this people are terrified of her. Mrs. Meade seems to symbolize the worst of the Old South and people who could not adjust to the changes that were necessary when the War ended.
Rhett Butler flaunts convention not just because he finds the rules confining but because he sees doing so as a symbol of his own freedom. His behavior at the ball is a good example. By offering an outrageous amount of money to be donated to the Cause, for the privilege of dancing with Scarlett, he sets up a moral dilemma – not just for Scarlett but for everyone who takes a side. What’s more important, $150 for the Cause, or the convention of mourning? Scarlett is happy to have any excuse to dance but Melanie sees dancing as a sacrifice, thus exonerating Scarlett and making those who chastise her appear small minded. When Scarlett asks Rhett if he minds being gossiped about he tells her:
“When you have been gossiped about as much as I have you’ll realize how little it matters. Just think, there’s not a home in Charleston where I am received. Not even my contribution to our just and holy cause lifts the ban.”
“Not at all. Until you have lost your reputation you never realize what a burden it was, or what freedom really is.”
Much later in the book Rhett modifies his views because he worries about his daughter, Bonnie. Rhett wants only the best for Bonnie and he is a brilliant at winning over the old guard as he was at alienating them before the war. But at this point in the book Rhett is doing all he can to make Scarlett become herself and join him in his dangerous life.
Anne: One thing I noticed from the start was that though they were definitely Southerners, Scarlett and her family and neighbors weren’t like the other Southerners. They didn’t come from the old cities, such as Charleston, or from the established areas. They came from a part of Georgia that was newer and brasher. In a way, it reminded me of reading a Regency novel about the contrasts between life in London and life on a country manor, where while certain rules The country is different enough, but even the cities are different. Margaret Mitchell knew that cities are not clones. Scarlett hated Charleston with its the strict, hidebound society. After Charlie’s death, she spent as little time there as possible. On the other hand, she couldn’t have been separated from Atlanta with a crowbar. Bustling Atlanta was a marvelous contrast to this world, and Scarlett took to it like a fish to water. This was a kind of city made for people like Rhett and Scarlett.
Also, let’s not forget that many of the Southerners had rogues in their family tree, not in the distant past, but often a couple of generations in the past. Sure, those “bad behaviors” were covered up somehow – Rhett’s pirate ancestor was magically transformed to a respectable sea captain. But everyone knew that their families were only a few generations from completely unrespectable ancestors. In a way, these families were like the earliest nouveau riche families, trying so hard to be like the “old money” families that they often became slaves to rules and standards of behaviors. Or they could even be compared to the upper middle class families of Victorian England, said to be stricter about Victorian rules of behavior than the upper-class families they were imitating. While their parents were often staunch and strict, their grandparents had been different altogether. We often think of the old generation as being staid and the new generation as being brash and outspoken, but this wasn’t always the case. Maybe in Scarlett’s time, the people of her father’s generation were trying so hard to be respectable because they knew how close they were to their less-than-respectable elders. Not everyone went along with this. Rhett was closer to his grandparents than to his father, and Scarlett is compared to her grandparents (as well as her brash father).
Scarlett’s parents themselves are a study in contrasts. Gerald O’Hara started out a poor immigrant and worked to become wealthy. Gerald would not have been an acceptable suitor in Charleston, but up-country Georgia had no one suitable. He had to search for a wife in Savannah, and even there, he would have had a hard time, had Ellen Robillard not lost the man she really loved. Ellen is part of a proud, old Savannah family. Their marriage was sad because while she was the perfect Southern wife and mother, she never loved him. I thought it was especially poignant when Scarlett learned that at the end of her life, her mother had called another man’s name. It was fitting that Scarlett put that out of her head.
LLB: Anne, I’m so glad you mentioned that because until you did, I never really thought about it beyond the fact that Gerald married up (in terms of status). I know he loved Ellen and put her on a pedestal, but I never really took Gerald all that seriously. Their marriage gave him status; without it and he’d have been the southern equivalent of a “mushroom.”
While I remember so much about the book that I can literally open it to any page and know exactly where I am, I didn’t remember Ellen calling the name of another man. Instead, I remember that the house was dark and that everyone in it seemed lifeless, but more on that later. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves in the chronology.
Rhett returns from Paris and visits Scarlett, bringing her a beautiful green bonnet to match her eyes. Rhett says he will bet a box of bon-bons against a kiss that the Yankees will be in Atlanta within a month. Ever the coquette, Scarlett tells him she’d rather kiss a pig (even though she purses up her lips in anticipation).
Rhett points that all of her beaux have respected her too much, and have been so afraid of her to “really do right by her.” He adds, “You need kissing badly. That’s what’s wrong with you. You should be kissed, and often, by someone who knows how.” (Christina Dodd paid homage wonderfully to this scene in My Favorite Bride, which I granted DIK status last year. I offered a prize if anyone but me made the connection, but nobody did!)
“For ‘kissed,’ substitute the word you’re thinking of. Dialogue like that reaches something deep and fundamental in most people; it stirs their fantasies about being brought to sexual pleasure despite themselves. (‘Know why women love the horse whisperer?’ I was asked by a woman friend not long ago. ‘They figure, if that’s what he can do with a horse, think what he could do with me.’) Scarlett’s confusion is between her sentimental fixation on a tepid ‘Southern gentleman’ (Ashley Wilkes) and her unladylike lust for a bold man (Rhett Butler). The most thrilling struggle is not between North and South, but between Scarlett’s lust and her vanity.”
The scenes surrounding the burning of Atlanta. There’s that amazing sense of urgency when Scarlett goes to the depot to try and convince Dr. Meade to deliver Mellie’s baby. While the book describes it wonderfully, the scope of it in the movie really reminds us how deadly the war was for the U.S.
And later, when Rhett deserts them to join “the Cause,” his honesty is something I only picked up on subsequent readings. It used to be “the kiss” only I remembered, but even though he’s ever the cynic, his honesty and bravery about joining a losing cause shines through, particularly when he jokes, “Heaven help the Yankees if they capture you.”
After returning home to her beloved Tara, Scarlett learns her mother has died, her father has lost his mind, and the plantation is ruined. She goes out into the fields and digs up a radish (my husband, his brother and his wife lost a bet with me in college – they thought it was a carrot!), eats it, vows never to be hungry again, then throws up. Say what you will about her, but she had an indomitable spirit and the ability to reinvent herself, something people usually only say about men.
Robin: I agree about the fall of Atlanta but would also take the whole day when Melanie has her baby. That chapter is so wrenching, yet so well written, that you can pick the book up cold after years and be completely sucked in, with the reading of just a few sentences. Its such an important time because it changes the way Melanie feels about Scarlett for all time. It is also a changing event for Scarlett.
I have always thought that the “I’ll never be hungry again,” scene with the radish was redundant (and over dramatized in the movie) because the change has already happened and it happened on the day Melanie had her baby.
When Aunt Pittypat leaves her alone in the house with Melanie, Scarlett is forced to take an adult role. She tells herself she is doing it for Ashley. Maybe she is. But it is also possible that Scarlett is not giving herself enough credit. Her actions throughout the book speak of an amazing loyalty to those around her. Scarlett can be cruel but she saves Melanie not just out of love for Ashley but out of loyalty to him.
And the Scarlett of the book, in those horrible hours is more ruthless and torn than the Scarlett of the movie. She wishes Melanie dead and herself away. She hates Melanie, hates everyone who has left her and most of all hates Prissy, the little slave who lies that she knows about childbirth. But it is more than hate. At one point she actually wishes Melanie would die so she could escape herself.
But the heat, the flies, the dust and the terror of that afternoon are so vividly described that few readers completely blame the sheltered Scarlett for her feelings. At the worst moment real heroes seldom feel like heroes. Perhaps this is one reason that so few battle veterans feel heroic. When put into the worst of circumstances they do what needs doing. That is what Scarlett does that day. She does what needs doing, though she doesn’t feel the feelings we associate with heroes or heroines.
LLB: Hmmm… I agree about the day Melanie had her baby. I looked all over for a photo from the movie and couldn’t find one, but maybe it’s just as well since, as you say, it’s far more intense in the book than in the movie. There’s the siege, the burning, the fact that Prissy lied about knowing how to “birth” babies, the heat, being responsible for Melanie and the baby at such a relatively young age when everyone else had fled, and the fact that Scarlett does a good thing, but for the wrong reason.
But I disagree about the radish scene. For a long time, all Scarlett wanted to do was go home to Tara and be with her mother. Though she stays for the wrong reason, she stays, all the while believing in her heart of hearts that everything will be okay once the ordeal of the siege is behind her and she’s delivered Mellie’s baby. Mitchell makes it clear that if Scarlett hadn’t had Tara and Ellen to look forward to, her survival of that horrendous last day in Atlanta, as well as the dreadful trip back to Tara after being deserted by Rhett, might never had happened. Conceivably she might have done it all because of Ashley, but it’s the dream of her mother and her home that get her through. That Scarlett didn’t simply cave after arriving to discover her mother gone, her father’s mind gone, and Tara in such sad shape, all comes together in that moment in the field when she makes her declaration.
Robin: That return to Tara is one of the saddest sections of the book. I wasn’t only sad that Scarlett’s parents had died nor that Tara had been made a base for Yankee operations. I was also sad in the change that Margaret Mitchell made in the house slaves who stay behind, especially Mammy.
Up until this time Mammy has been portrayed as an unbending woman over whom Scarlett has surprisingly little control. Scarlett may ignore Mammy and complain about her dictates but underneath is all she is afraid to defy her. Mammy’s voice, constantly reminding Scarlett to mind her manners, carries Ellen’s wishes for her daughter. Mammy isn’t afraid of Scarlett. She knows how to scare her by threatening to tell Miss Ellen but she’s willing to compromise when Scarlett gives in on major points. Mammy and Uncle Peter (Aunt Pittypat’s butler who is left out of the movie) both seem like grown up people who take their responsibilities seriously. It is pretty clear for example, that had Mammy been around when Melanie was having her baby, Scarlett would have been in a much better situation and Prissy would never have gotten away with lying about her expertise in childbirth.
Scarlett returns home and when she realizes how much things have changed she wants nothing more than for Mammy to hold her in her arms. But Scarlett is in for a huge disappointment because in the scene Mammy reveals herself as a prisoner of her race. In other words Margaret Mitchell seemed to feel it was necessary to compromise the strong character she had written for Mammy just to prove that African Americans were incapable of taking on real responsibility.
Here is the scene:
Her eyes lighted up at the sight of Scarlett, her white teeth gleamed as she set down the buckets, and Scarlett ran to her laying her head on the broad sagging breasts which had held so many heads, black and white. Here was something of the old stability, thought Scarlett, something of the old life that was unchanging. But Mammy’s first words dispelled this illusion.
“Mammy’s chile is home! Oh Miss Scarlett, now dat Miss Ellen’s in de grabe, whut is we gwine ter do? Oh Miss Scarlett effen Ah wuz jes’ daid longside Miss Ellen! Ah kain make out widout Miss Ellen. Ain’ nuthin’ lef’ now but mizry an’ trouble. Jez weery loads honey, jes weary loads.”
Mammy does make a kind of comeback later in the book. She disapproves of Rhett Butler. In the movie this is a bit of a joke. In the book it’s more serious. Scarlett becomes tired of Mammy, who constantly voices the old rules and manners but continues to respect her for a long time. Rhett comes to respect Mammy and eventually wins her over with a red petticoat. In the movie this petticoat seems like a bribe with the childish Mammy being distracted from her feelings with a pretty present. In the book Mammy is not so shallow. Her wearing the petticoat is not a sign of compromising her principles. It is a sign that she understands, finally, that Rhett has Scarlett’s best interests at heart.
Anne: Reading this book makes me think about apartheid in South Africa. I remember having a professor coming in to speak about it in class at college. Also, I saw documentaries about it. One of these documentaries mentioned the huge number of servants Afrikaaner families had – it made me think as much of Victorian England as the South before the war. The only reason they could afford those servants, of course, was apartheid, just as the only reason families in Victorian England could afford so many servants was because of the availability of cheap labor. One thing that struck me as strange, however, was the number of children in South Africa who were raised by black nannies during their formative years, much as Mammy had been so much a part of Scarlett’s life. I used to ask myself, “How could these people who had been raised this way then grow up and accept the life around them? They had been raised by nannies and probably saw their parents rarely.” This probably applies to people in the south as well.
Mellie helps Scarlett get rid of the body of the Union deserter and it’s the first time Scarlett feels a connection to her, or has any real respect. Not only was Mellie brave by bringing Charles’ sword (with what little strength she had after her harrowing experience delivering her baby) in case Scarlett needed help – but her quick thinking helped prevent a panic among the others in the house and helped Scarlett keep her head in order to dispose of the body.
Taxes are due on Tara. The only one with money is Rhett, languishing in a Yankee jail. Scarlett decides to visit him and ask for the money, but it would never do to visit him without decent clothes – it’s bad enough she’s so thin her bosom is next to nothing, and she’s got calluses as well from picking cotton. She and Mammy nonetheless create an outfit out of the green velvet curtains. (Unfortunately, I can never read this scene without being reminded of the spoof Carol Burnett did on her old variety show!)
Rhett’s marriage proposal wherein Scarlett reveals her nightmares of being hungry and her fears about being a person her mother wouldn’t admire. He knows she’s been drinking, an intolerable thing for a “lady” to do, but won’t let her off the hook by pretending the cologne she used as mouthwash covers up the liquor.
And I love it when Rhett says, “Dry your eyes. If you had it to do all over again, you’d do no differently. You’re like the thief who isn’t the least bit sorry he stole, but he’s terribly, terribly sorry he’s going to jail.”
When he gets to the actual proposal and realizes she still loves Ashley, he determines to make her love him with a kiss that lays bare his soul to her, only she doesn’t get it! Originally it was his flippant little joke at the end, after she asks if he’s going to kiss her goodbye and he responds, “Haven’t you been kissed enough for one day?” that I loved best about that scene, but after several re-readings, it’s his passion for Scarlett and his understanding of her that I find so striking.
The scene in which Melanie stands up to the “old guard” and informs them she will not receive them if they shun Scarlett. In this scene, and the scene involving the Union deserter, Melanie’s true strength is revealed. Anne, I am one of those people you mentioned earlier who doesn’t care all that much for Melanie, but it’s in this scene that I like her best. It’s not that she’s mealy-mouthed, it’s that she’s so utterly without guile I couldn’t believe her as a character.
Scarlett and Rhett’s honeymoon. Marriage can be “fun,” indeed (and for the first time in years Scarlett has enough to eat, and Rhett doesn’t mind her strong appetite, proving once again he’s no gentleman). The way Rhett pets Scarlett after her bad dreams, then intuitively knows when she’s wishing he were Ashley, is wonderfully written – Scarlett feels his arm turn to iron under her neck.
After having had such a strong intimate relationship, it all goes downhill once Scarlett informs Rhett she doesn’t want to have any more children – her euphemistic way of saying she doesn’t want to have sex with him anymore. She threatens to lock him out of their bedroom, to which he responds, “Why bother? If I wanted you, no lock would keep me out.” (And if I remember correctly, in the movie he may actually kick the door to illustrate.)
And then, after Rhett and Bonnie return to Atlanta and Scarlett after a three-month separation (this after the birthday party described below), it almost seemed possible that Scarlett and Rhett could reconcile. But there’s that horrible moment when he sarcastically tells her, “Cheer up, maybe you’ll have a miscarriage,” after which she falls down the stairs. Only people hurting out of a deep place of love could be this cruel – and have it stick.
The section of the book surrounding the “staircase scene” are quite possible the most dramatic of the entire book. Scarlett has been caught in a compromising position with Ashley and does not want to attend Ashley’s birthday party but is forced to by Rhett, who helps her dress and calls her a “white livered cowardly little bitch.” When they arrive at the party, he says: “Get out, darling, and let me see the lions eat you.”
After the party Rhett gets drunk, puts his hands around Scarlett’s head and informs her that in order to remove Ashley from her mind, he could “put my hands, so, on each side of your head and smash your skull between them like a walnut and that will blot him out.” Vowing for there only to be two in his bed tonight, he grabs her and carries her up the stairs.
And finally, the ending – after Mellie’s gut-wrenching death, Scarlett’s realization that she loves Rhett, and can’t wait to tell him. I’ve been asked many times whether or not I found the ending disappointing, but I don’t. Would the book be the same if he didn’t turn around and tell Scarlett, “I wish I could care where you go or what you do, but I don’t. My dear, I don’t give a damn?”
It’s as he tells Scarlett at the very end – he loved her all along (could never stay away) but couldn’t tell her or she’d have walked all over him, and now that she’s finally realized she loves him, it’s simply too late because love can die. For Rhett to have been Rhett, he had to do it. Where’s the impact if he hadn’t left?
I may not agree with Mitchell’s logic in having Rhett never before reveal his true feelings in words (he’s so very brutally honest, after all), but given how the story plays out, that’s a moot point. While Scarlett may believe she’ll win him back, I shudder at the thought. The story ends at exactly the right place, even if I’m in tears and utterly devastated (along with Scarlett) every single time.
Robin: I suspect Margaret Mitchell felt herself to be in a tough spot with this one. GWTW is not a literary novel though there is much that is literary in it. In this kind of a book good usually triumphs over evil. But Margaret Mitchell had written a book where the heroine, Scarlett, was neither completely good nor bad. By popular standards she did unforgivable things and I am not only referring to her scheming to get another woman’s husband, nor marrying her sister’s beau. She abandoned the manners of her mother’s generation. She worked tirelessly for money and succeeded. She used sex to advance herself by marrying for reasons other than love.
Could Margaret Mitchell have allowed Scarlett a happy ending? I think she thought she could not. I also think that she saw in Scarlett a kind of central flaw that would never be fixed by a man, not even Rhett. But beyond that loving Rhett might have meant changing Scarlett. Can you imagine an ending with Scarlett promising meekly to be a good wife to Rhett? To give up her schemes? It would be rather disappointing, wouldn’t it?
In spite of all that, in spite of everything I do wish that Margaret Mitchell had seen a way to give Scarlett a happy ending. I found the ending frustrating in the extreme. It’s too abrupt. Worse yet is the tantalizing possibility that the story will continue without us.
Anne Edward’s fascinating biography, Road to Tara: The Life of Margaret Mitchell, puts to rest the false rumor that a sequel to GWTW was written and destroyed. Margaret Mitchell, who had been a journalist before she wrote GWTW, was simply overwhelmed with her own success. She literally did not know how to turn down thousands of requests for autographs, interviews and appearances. The book’s success was such a distraction that it destroyed her writing career. Would Margaret Mitchell have written a sequel if she could have? She always said she would not but I would have loved to know her private opinion on whether Rhett was truly done with Scarlett.
Some Last Words
While the original idea of devoting this column to Gone With the Wind seemed inspired at the time, it was a daunting prospect to actually deliver the goods. Reading the book again and working on this column simply took over my life for the past couple of weeks (and severely slowed down my ability to post reviews, sorry). But the more we talked about it, the more excited I became. Suddenly moments and scenes were rushing into my head faster than I could list them, and several days ago didn’t even mind spending a full hour combing the book looking for a particular line of text.
My enthusiasm, however, when combined with my tendency toward verbosity, got the better of me, and poor Robin and Anne had to cope with this panicked refrain more than once: “There’s too of me and not enough of you!” The final product, though, I think strikes a good balance amongst us all in terms of coverage; I hope you agree.
Though I’m generally not one for “bells and whistles,” and things such as /wp-content/uploads/oldsiteimages that slow the load time of a web page, once I decided that photos were essential, I spent close to three days finding just the right ones. There are a few I could never find, but the process proved to me that the Pulitzer-prize winning novel Margaret Mitchell wrote in the 1930s is as powerful today as it ever was, and for me, it’s become an even richer and more powerful read, flaws and all.
GWTW is not a romance – at least in the genre sense of the word – but there’s a reason why it’s been on our list of the Top 100 Romances the two times we’ve conducted that poll. I know that one of the reasons I loved the book even more upon this re-reading is that I’ve been immersed in genre romance for so many years now. Many a complicated, flirtatious, kick-butt heroine and rakish rogue of a hero owe their lives on the page to Scarlett and Rhett.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this very unusual ATBF and will want to share your memories of the book and movie on our ATBF Message Board. There will be no questions in particular because we think we’ve provided so much food for thought throughout our round-table discussion. We hit on many different aspects of the book and tried not to focus on any one in particular; I’d like to think we succeeded. We look forward to chatting with you about the book and column over the next two weeks.
TTFN, as Tigger said to Winnie the Pooh
Laurie Likes Books, Anne Marble, & Robin Uncapher
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