Margaret Mitchell, “Gone with the Wind”

Yes. It is still fabulous.

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.

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
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10 Responses to Margaret Mitchell, “Gone with the Wind”

  1. Ginny Arndt says:

    Generational or not, I ready to ready this book again. I’m checking with my granddaughters when they arrive for their vacation to see if they have read GWTW. If not, I’m buying it immediately. Also did you know that your Pequot Library in Southport has some of Margaret Mitchell’s original manuscripts due to the fact that her publisher George Brett lived in Southport.

  2. carolwallace says:

    Yes, Ginny, there was a GWTW exhibit when I came to Pequot Library last April, which my husband reminded me about. Great resource for Pequot, but I’m not surprised, considering what treasures you have. I hope you enjoy Mitchell’s book again as much as I did!

  3. Great post! I love ‘Gone With the Wind’. You are right, Scarlett is flawed and a bitch, but she is an amazing survivor – and she does her own rescuing. I also loved the way Margaret Mitchell catches the limitations and hypocrisy of that society, especially the way she describes the women as taking care of everything, the men then taking the credit and the women praising them for it. Wonderful!

    • carolwallace says:

      Thanks, Juliet! I’m glad you brought up that hypocrisy business, because I couldn’t figure out how to work it into the post but it’s so important!

  4. Alex says:

    How do I admit this? I’ve neither read the book nor seen the film. I bow my head in shame and promise to at least rent the DVD at some point in the not too distant future. The trouble is that this is one of those stories that everyone thinks they know whether or not they’ve read or seen it, so somehow it never quiet rises to the top of the TBR pile. Mea Culpa.

    • carolwallace says:

      You’re right, Alex, it’s so deeply embedded into the culture that it feels familiar — but the real thing is so terrific! Save it maybe for a long, long plane trip? It’s really absorbing.

  5. gmoulder says:

    My Name is Gloria Gravitt Moulder. I am the daughter of Hugh Dorsey Gravitt the man who hit and fatally injured Margaret Mitchell on Peachtree Street in Atlanta Georgia on August 11, 1949. I recently published an ebook on Smashwords, and Amazon that tells my dad’s side of the Death Of Margaret Mitchell. If you have any questions please comment, and I will get back to you.

  6. Tim says:

    Ms. Moulder I would love to get you to sign my book can you contact me by email and tell me where I can send my book to you with return postage. Thanks -trlinatl@comcast.net

  7. Pingback: Grace Metalious, “Peyton Place” « Book Group of One

  8. Pingback: Follow my book blog, “Book Group of One” | | Carol Wallace BooksCarol Wallace Books

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