Friday, August 21, 2009

Gone with the Wind

"We bow to the inevitable. We’re not wheat, we’re buckwheat! When a storm comes along it flattens ripe wheat because it’s dry and can’t bend with the wind. But ripe buckwheat’s got sap in it and it bends. And when the wind has passed, it springs up almost as straight and strong as before. We aren’t a stiff-necked tribe. We’re mighty limber when a hard wind’s blowing, because we know it pays to be limber. When trouble comes we bow to the inevitable without any mouthing, and we work and we smile and we bide our time. And we play along with lesser folks and we take what we can get from them. And when we’re strong enough, we kick the folks whose necks we’ve climbed over. That, my child, is the secret of the survival.”

Gone with the Wind
may be Margaret Mitchell's only novel, but it also one of the most popular of all time and even finds itself on TIME magazine's TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005 list. It is a story of the American South, of the harsh aftermath of the Civil War, and of four people and how they react to the great change that rocks their world to its core.

The Plot:

It is April of 1861 and Scarlett O'Hara is the belle of her Georgia county. She is high-spirited, flirty, and extremely spoiled. Her current goal is to get nearby Southern gentleman Ashley Wilkes to marry her, and not his cousin Melanie Hamilton, whom Scarlett sees as a weakling. At a barbecue, Scarlett gets Ashley to confess a love for her, but he refuses to break off his engagement to Melanie. After their encounter, Scarlett meets Rhett Butler, a Charleston man who is no longer accepted in "good society", and who has overheard her conversation. She is furious and embarrassed, but he laughs the situation off. News then comes that war has been declared and many of the men enlist, including Ashley, who is now married to Melanie.

The rest of the story follows Scarlett through the heartbreak and terror of the war, the sickness and starvation of its immediate aftermath, and the brutality and horror of reconstruction. From the burning of Atlanta to Sherman's "March to the Sea", the Old South begins to crumble all around Scarlett, and she begins a desperate quest for survival, both for herself and for Tara, the plantation home she loves.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

Gone with the Wind is one of those stories that you think you know a lot about, even if you haven't read it. I mean, if you've seen the movie, there's no need to read the book right? Wrong! While the movie is good, it lacks the depth of character that the book has. By reading the book, you are not just seeing what the characters do, but also why they do it. This can change your perception of many of the characters, and that is exactly what it did for me. If it is nothing else, Gone with the Wind is a tribute to the South, both old and new. All of the beauties and flaws of the region are displayed and personified and each of the four main characters represents different aspects of the South.

Scarlett is a mixture of both the old and the new South, and is probably the one who best personifies the region's transition from leisurely, to desperate, to opportunistic. She just might be one of literature's most complicated protagonists. On the one hand, there are times when you absolutely HATE her. She is more than willing to back-stab absolutely anybody in order to gain what she wants, and she makes her decisions without regard to either honor or kindness. On the other hand, you have to her admire her strength, her determination, and her ability to adapt. By the end of the story, you neither hate or nor love her, you simply pity her. Like Rhett, you really "don't give a d**n."

Rhett is also a mixture of old and new. He aligns himself with the "Old Guard", the speculators, the Yankees...whoever suits his immediate purpose. Unlike Scarlett, however, he still has a healthy respect for the Old South. He realizes that those days are gone and so adapts himself, but he still loves their beauties and traditions and both times that he leaves Scarlett, it is to go in search of them.

Ashley is purely of the Old South. He is the quintessential Southern gentleman. He is a great rider, a lover of the arts, and a member of an old and established family. But just as the war shatters the existence of the Old south, so does it shatter Ashley's. Like Rhett he is nostalgic over the past, but unlike Rhett, he cannot thrive in the New South. He refers to the end of the war as a Gotterdammerung ("twilight of the gods") and is unable to adapt to his new position in the world. By he end of the novel, his weakness and incompetency is obvious even to Scarlett, who realizes that it was not Ashley himself that she loved, but the comfort and glory of the Old South he represented.

Melanie represents the quiet strength and kindness of the real Southern woman. She is the strength behind everyone she meets. She is the one who keeps Ashley going after the war, she is the one who comforts Rhett after Scarlett's accident and Bonnie's death, and she is the one who protects Scarlett from the attacks of the "Old Guard". The most telling portrait of who she is is when Scarlett kills the Yankee soldier and turns to see the frail Melanie carrying her father's old sword, ready to defend her family even in her weakness. Her death causes the final breaking up of the other three characters. "She was seeing through Rhett's eyes the passing not of a woman, but a legend - the gentle, self-effacing but steel-spined woman on whom the South had builded its house in war and to whose proud and loving arms it had returned in defeat."

I guess that I should now address the subject that always pops up when this book is discussed. Racism and class distinction. Yes, it is there, but there are two things that take the sting out of it. First off, you have to remember that this book was written in the 1930s when racism was still an accepted way of life. It is also set in the south during the Civil War, so it would be ridiculous to give modern sensibilities to a society that would not have possessed them. Secondly, for every character that is generalized according to race or station, there is at least one who defies it. There is Mammy who, though "only" a slave, possess the ability to clearly see the motives of those around her and is a support to Scarlett throughout the novel. There is also Will who, though a "Cracker" (a lower-class white), is the one person who is able to help Scarlett get Tara back on its feet. He also, like Rhett, understands Scarlett and why she does what she does and neither praises nor judges her.

Gone with the Wind is definitely a classic of 20th century literature. With complicated characters, a sweeping plot, and a love for the South, it is no wonder that this story is loved by so many. It is a stunning tribute to the beauty and vitality of the American South. I'd like to dedicate this review to both my mom and my grandma, both of whom love this novel. I think that the tradition has continued.

The Movie:

Chances are that more of you have seen the movie version of Gone with the Wind than have actually read the book. It was made in 1939 and stars Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, Leslie Howard, and Olivia de Havilland. As far as movie making goes, it is a wonderful production that makes you forget that it was made so long ago as 1939. The acting is flawless, the costumes are beautiful, and the burning of Atlanta is spectacular. The only problem is that you are not really allowed to delve into the characters, many of whom are only surface copies of their novel counterparts. It is definitely worth watching and provides some of the most memorable lines and scenes in movie history.

2 comments:

reviewsbylola said...

If I had to pick one all-time favorite book, it would be Gone with the Wind. Such an engrossing story!

Juanita's Journal said...

I guess that I should now address the subject that always pops up when this book is discussed. Racism and class distinction. Yes, it is there, but there are two things that take the sting out of it. First off, you have to remember that this book was written in the 1930s when racism was still an accepted way of life. It is also set in the south during the Civil War, so it would be ridiculous to give modern sensibilities to a society that would not have possessed them. Secondly, for every character that is generalized according to race or station, there is at least one who defies it. There is Mammy who, though "only" a slave, possess the ability to clearly see the motives of those around her and is a support to Scarlett throughout the novel. There is also Will who, though a "Cracker" (a lower-class white), is the one person who is able to help Scarlett get Tara back on its feet. He also, like Rhett, understands Scarlett and why she does what she does and neither praises nor judges her.


There were complaints about the racism and class distinction in GONE WITH THE WIND when the novel came out in 1936 and when the movie was released at the end of 1939. The old "it's a product of its time" argument doesn't really hold up.