You’ll notice I’m assuming that you have read Gone with the Wind at some point, which may be a generational thing, but everyone has seen the movie, right? Sure, both book and movie are long, but with Hilary Mantel tearing up the best seller lists, I don’t see that length is a big objection. And, yes, Margaret Mitchell takes a patronizing view of blacks and her perspective on some aspects of post-Civil War Georgia politics is repugnant. But the plus side is that Gone with the Wind is a thrilling read, for all 1025 pages. You could look far and wide to find a better summer beach book, even if you think it’s old hat. From “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, though men seldom realized it…” to “‘After all, tomorrow is another day,’” I was captivated.
Just in case you need a refresher: Scarlett is a headstrong Georgia belle whom we meet in April of 1861, as tiresome male war-mongering begins to interfere with her incessant flirtations. She is madly in love with Ashley Wilkes, a classic Southern gentleman of the bookish variety, fond of poetry and music, but the best horseman in the County. As war bears down on the South, Scarlett sees only her own tragedy when Ashley announces his engagement to his cousin Melanie Hamilton. In a private moment she declares her love for Ashley, who admits that he “cares” for her, but will marry Melanie nonetheless. This tender scene is unwillingly overheard by Rhett Butler, the bounder from Charleston, who is amused. In the first ten percent of the book, Mitchell has set up the conflicts that keep us turning the next 900 pages.
Of course Scarlett is the key to the whole thing. My goodness, what a piece of work she is — a monster-character along the lines of Angelica Deverell in Elizabeth Taylor’s Angel. Mitchell is very clear about Scarlett’s selfishness, obstinacy, limited intellectual gifts and poor judgment, but we remain fascinated. And not in a train-wreck way; somehow at the end of the book, when she meets a real defeat, we’re still rooting for her. I don’t remember where I read this but some writer recently pointed out that the great power of fiction is to make readers identify with the characters’ desires. We just can’t help it. So with a character like Scarlett who is all desire, we’re completely hooked.
Mitchell also does a great job managing the various levels of conflict in the novel. The Scarlett/Ashley/Rhett triangle separates and re-forms repeatedly as Scarlett marries, first out of pique, and second out of practicality. The war, of course, keeps the tension high, especially as Union troops approach Atlanta. But there’s also consistent confrontation between the Old South and the New, which Mitchell sees in rueful, elegiac terms. The cultivation and aesthetic charms of the old South, along with its essential values of hospitality, loyalty and gentility, are embodied in Ashley’s wife Melanie, who shows courage under pressure and kindness to all. She dies, of course, leaving the world to Scarlett, with her relentless energy and drive. Rhett has just delivered his deathless line — “‘My dear, I don’t give a damn” — but Scarlett is indomitable, and maybe that’s why we follow her through the book with fascination and a tinge of envy.