Gone With the Wind

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Gone With the Wind
by Margaret Mitchell

I first read this epic novel 10 years ago and now after rereading it I appreciate it even more. It’s easy to dismiss it as a love story, but that doesn’t even cover half of the story. It begins in the days preceding the Civil War as Georgian plantation owners gather for a barbeque.  We meet the O’Hara family: spitfire Scarlett and her sisters, their gentle mother Ellen and wild Irish father Gerald. 

The plot unfolds as war is declared and the self-centered Scarlett realizes the man she loves, Ashley, is planning to marry someone else, Melanie. I couldn’t put the book down as we swept from marriage to death, births to destruction. It is a romance, but it is also so much more than that. It’s a history of the south and a portrait of endurance. It’s a story about surviving change. The entire Southern society comes crashing down around its people, some survive, some flourish, some die, some live in denial. It affects everyone, but each person reacts differently.

One character that stood out to me this time was Scarlett’s mother Ellen. I’d forgotten that she is only 32 at the beginning of the book. She’s has had six children, but she’s so young! After her heart was broken, she married Scarlett’s father Gerald, even though he was 28 years her senior. Ellen is the only person who Scarlett truly respects and wants to please. Even after her death, Ellen’s impact on her daughter resonates throughout the novel.

“Mother had always been just as she was, a pillar of strength, a fount of wisdom, the one person who knew the answers to everything.”

Gerald is another great character. He’s 60 at the beginning of the book, but he’s full of life. When his wife dies his spirit completely breaks. He does want what’s best for his children and he knows that Ashley would never be a good match for Scarlett. He warns her of this, that their temperaments are too different to ever be compatible, but she ignores him.

Scarlett's Men:

The men in Scarlett’s life shape her in many ways. Her first husband is the weak and naïve brother of Melanie. Scarlett marries him to spite Ashley, but their brief marriage is cut short when Charles dies after only two months. His only legacy was the son, Wade, he gave her.

Scarlett married for the second time out of necessity. She needs money to save her beloved plantation, Tara and so she marries Frank, her sister’s beau. She always refers to him as a fussy old maid, but he was stronger than he first appeared. Despite being tricked into marriage, he honors her as his wife. She bullies him and scandalizes him by purchasing and running lumber mills. It’s an unhappy pairing that is cut short by Frank’s untimely death, but not before Scarlett bears him a daughter, Ella.

Ashley is the man that she can never have, but the one she never ceases to love. She may have loved him purely at one time, but at some point it becomes more of a dream. She wants him because she can’t have him. Everyone who knows either of them understands that they would be horrible for each other, but she idolizes him in her mind and it doesn’t matter who he truly is. I was so frustrated by Ashley. In his honorable way he strings Scarlett along for years. He is weak in so many ways. Although Scarlett does some despicable things, you have to admire her tenacity and unwillingness to let circumstances defeat her.

“He accepted the universe and his place in it for what they were and, shrugging, turned to his music and books and his better world.”

I’ve saved the best for last. Rhett Butler, the scoundrel, the soldier, he is so many things throughout the book, but in every situation he is honest to a fault except for when it comes to his own heart. He and Scarlett are two peas in a pod. She continually finds herself admiring Rhett because of his practicality and she can’t help but feel physically attracted to him, but she also despises him because he’s the only man who truly knows her, sees her for what she is and still loves her.

“I wonder if anyone but me realizes what goes on in that head back of your deceptively sweet face.”

I love that the readers and Scarlett never completely know Rhett. He teases and goads, but he very rarely shows his true face. Only when he talks about his cruel prideful father and his poor mother or when he’s angry do we see his vulnerable self.

“He was dark of face, swarthy as a pirate, and his eyes were as bold and black as any pirate’s appraising a galleon to be scuttled or a maiden to be ravished. There was a cool recklessness in his face and a cynical humor in his mouth as he smiled at her, and Scarlett caught her breath.”

One of the things I love and admire so much about this book is the complex characters. They surprise you with their depth and their ability to change and grow. Rhett is practical to a fault, but he is also incredibly heroic, deciding to join the war when it’s almost too late to do anything. Melanie is by far my favorite character in the book. When you first meet her you think she’s a simpering fool, much of that is because we see her through Scarlett’s eyes. As we get to know her we are surprised, alongside Scarlett, to find an incredible strength of will. She is one of the kindest and strongest characters in all of literature.

“Now why didn’t I have the gumption to say that?” thought Scarlett, jealousy mixing with admiration. “How did that little rabbit ever get up spunk enough to stand up to old lady Merriweather?”

It takes a long time for Scarlett to get past her initial impression of Melly, but in addition to her unfailing loyalty and kindness, she has a strength that Scarlett admires.  

“Struggling against hatred for Ashley’s wife, there surged a feeling of admiration and comradeship. She saw in a flash of clarity untouched by any petty emotion that beneath the gentle voice and the dovelike eyes of Melanie there was a thin flashing blade of unbreakable steel.”

In addition to the main characters there is a wonderful selection of supporting characters that didn’t make it into the famous film. Beatrice Tarleton owns a neighboring plantation. She has four rambunctious sons and raises horses. She loses all of her sons and horses in the war and it breaks her heart. Grandma Fontaine, another neighbor, tells Scarlett about watching her family being slaughtered by Indians and somehow surviving the experience. She is a picture of what Scarlett could become when she is old, a formidable woman. Will Benteen is a Confederate soldier nursed to health at Tara. He stays on, helping run the farm and despite his poor upbringing he becomes a helping hand to Scarlett as she tries to rebuild their lives. He knows and understands much about the family’s dynamics, but he remains silent on most issues.  

One of the most interesting things about Gone with the Wind is the question of whether not Scarlett is a villain. In the classic sense she is an obvious villain. She doesn't care who she hurts while trying to reach her goal. She ruins lives with abandon, she lusts after another woman’s husband, she is a neglectful mother and a shallow creature. Yet she also protects those around her. Without her Tara would have been lost to the Yankees, Melly would have died in childbirth as Atlanta burned. She can become petty and cruel. But if every decision she made was out of selfishness she never would've stayed in Atlanta while Melly was pregnant. Even if she did that out of a misplaced the loyalty to Ashley It was still the right thing to do.

Scarlett is a fascinating character because of her contradictions. In the same way Melanie is just as fascinating. She is both weak and incredibly strong. The women are two sides of the same coin and their similarities are just as interesting as the things that separate them.

Scarlett’s great tragedy is that she never truly understands the people in her life until it’s too late. She loves a version of Ashley that doesn’t exist. She doesn’t see how much Rhett loves her and she never understands what an incredible friend she has in Melly.

“Never before had it occurred to her that she needed Melanie. But now, the truth surged in, down to her deepest recesses of her soul. 

“Now she had a fumbling knowledge that, had she ever understood Ashley, she would never have loved him; had she ever understood Rhett, she would never have lost him.”

BOTTOM LINE: This beautiful novel has so many layers and is just a damn good book. It’s about the crumbling of a way of life. It’s about war and starvation. It’s about the deep bounds of friendship and the impact your parents have on your life long after they’re gone. It’s about love and the illusion of love and longing for things you can’t have. It covers so many issues and yet at its heart it’s also a love story. I know I’ll reread this book again in the future and I’m sure that the next time I’ll peel even more layers away.

 “Now you are beginning to think for yourself instead of letting other think for you. That’s the beginning of wisdom.”

“They were right! Everybody was right! You aren’t a gentleman!”
“‘My dear girl,’ he said, ‘how inadequate.”

“Scarlett reigned supreme at Tara now and, like others suddenly elevated to authority, all the bullying instincts in her nature rose to the surface.

“All wars are sacred to those who have to fight them. If the people who started wars didn’t make them sacred, who would be foolish enough to fight?”

There’s also an interesting nonfiction account of the book’s journey from print to the silverscreen, Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind: A Bestseller's Odyssey from Atlanta to Hollywood.

Check out Adam's great thoughts here.


Sandy Nawrot said...

What an excellent review! I would completely, wholeheartedly agree with everything you said. I read this book for the first time four or five years ago, and I fell in love with it. it is hard to imagine that the book could be better than the movie but it is. I was amazed at all the additional children Scarlett had, and all the fascinating characters that never show up in the movie. And what about all that KKK stuff? But back then, that was just the way things were.

The Relentless Reader said...

I loved this review from start to finish, great job! Oh how I loooove this book :D

Mabel said...

Excellent thoughts!! I love your philosophy on Melanie and Scarlett as two sides of the same coin. And I love your words for Melanie. :)

annieb said...

Great review, as always! I haven't read this book since high school (over 50 years ago). Perhaps it is time to revisit it.

Brooke said...

A damn good book, indeed. I also love how truly complex Mitchell managed to make all of the characters. Amazing review, Melissa!

Laura said...

Melissa! This is so excellent! I reread Gone With The Wind recently too, and I just wrote a review last night, but THIS is so much more concise and excellent and everything than the word vomit I came up with!

ALSO- ARGH ASHLEY YOU ARE SO ANNOYING! Frankly, I would have Rhett and Melly run off together, but that clearly wouldn't have worked. BUT I WANT IT TO!

Jeanne said...

I read this book over and over the summer I turned 15. Frankly, my dear, I don't know how anyone can navigate through modern culture without knowing the many tropes that come from it. My most recent review of a novel talks about a house called Tara, after Scarlett's Tara.

Susanbright said...

I cannot believe that I never read Gone With The Wind. Definitely putting it on my to read list. Thank you!

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Sandy - I know! The movie is wonderful, but it can't even touch the complexity of the book.

Jennifer - It was such a treat to reread!

Mabel - It's funny how their strength and similarities become more apparent as the novel progresses. Such wonderful characters!

annieb - You should! There were quite a few things I'd forgotten.

Brooke - Thanks! I agree, I wish we had more novels from her.

Laura - Rhett and Melly running off together!!! That would be amazing! Although he has too much respect for her and she's too devoted to Ashley. They would make such an incredible couple. I can't wait to read your review!

Jeanne - This book makes me think I should name my home : )

Susanbright - I hope you love it!

Rebecca @ The Key to the Gate said...

I hate to confess that I have never read the novel. I must change this immediately and after reading your terrific review, I know that it needs to be prioritized to the top of my list. The writing in the text that you shared is so exquisite. Thanks for sharing!
Happy Reading,
Rebecca @ The Key to the Gate

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Rebecca - I hope you like it! My friend just read it for the very first time. After finishing my reread I told her she had to pick it up. She had a copy on her shelf and started it, only to realize that it was a copy I gave her 7 years ago when I first recommended it. I've been pushing this book on people for years!

Kerry M said...

Ok, I skimmed your review after the much appreciated "SPOILERS" alert, as I'm 100 pages in and have never read it before (or seen the movie!) so don't want to spoil it for myself. But I will be back when I finish the next 900 or so pages to read it fully!

The Insouciant Sophisticate said...

It's been about 12 years since I read this and I think I could use a reread-I'm more familiar with the film at this point and I know there are so many differences!

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Kerry M - I can't wait to read your thoughts!

Bookworm1858 - I had the same issue. The movie is so ingrained in my mind that I couldn't separate the two.

Captain Nick Sparrow said...

Beautiful review of one of my favorite books! I started reading it on my honeymoon and it has stayed with me since.
Have you ever read the sequel, Scarlett? I have it but another GWTW fan told me I should skip it.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Captain - I have read Scarlett and really enjoyed it, but it's been a long time. I read it right after finishing GWTW for the first time and I was in Ireland (where Scarlett is set) so I think that all played a role. I'm not sure how I would feel about it if I re-read it.