Subtitled: Your Fav is Problematic, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Book
Gone With the Wind was originally published 80 years ago this month, so it seemed like a good time to tackle it for my Classics Club reading challenge.
Hold on to your hoop skirts, because this book review is going to be a bit different from my usual short’n’sloppy fare.
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell | 1936 | Scribner| Hardcover $30
Set against the dramatic backdrop of the American Civil War, Margaret Mitchell’s epic love story is an unforgettable tale of love and loss, of a nation mortally divided and its people forever changed. At the heart of all this chaos is the story of beautiful, ruthless Scarlett O’Hara and the dashing soldier of fortune, Rhett Butler.
Where to start with this one?
If I was friends with Gone with the Wind on Facebook, our relationship status would be “It’s Complicated” …
It’s well-loved for a reason.
It’s beautifully written, with a near-perfect balance between character development, interesting plot, and atmospheric scenery. The pace never lags and no detail feels extraneous. I felt immersed Scarlett’s world, in the last days of the Confederacy and its Reconstruction. It was such a unique, strange place & time, simultaneously lavish and brutal, elegant and savage — it’s no wonder that so many people are fascinated by Southern plantation culture and the details of life before/during the Civil War as well as the war itself.
Scarlett herself, though not precisely likeable, is well-developed and interesting. This book might even be a master class in making a basically narcissistic, mean-spirited and shallow character into someone that the reader can actually sympathize with + care about… even if she never freakin’ learns, the daft woman.
Many of her “co-stars” are well-developed and interesting, too — perhaps more interesting, but of course the story is all from Scarlett’s point of view and will therefore always be focused mainly on herself. Melanie and Scarlett together make quite the formidable pair of Southern Belles, and their friendship (such as it is, given Scarlett’s narcissism) is one of my favorite non-romantic relationships in literature.
BUT. The book is not without problems. I don’t know if it can stand on literary merit alone, and those problems deserve some discussion.
Popular things can be (and often are) problematic.
I’ve seen or heard this book called the literary equivalent of the Confederate flag, and even though I don’t want that to be true because it would mean that something I enjoyed/respected is downright bad, I can easily see why it may be viewed this way. Even though several of my own ancestors fought for the Confederacy and I try to respect the history of the South for what it is (painful as it is), I cannot condone modern use of the stars & bars flag because of its continued association with racist ideals.
The glorification of the Antebellum South is extremely problematic, erasing as it does the suffering of literally millions of enslaved people in favor of rosy nostalgia for a kind of American nobility that lived on mint juleps and among magnolia trees. (And I can’t lie; that very atmosphere is one of the most appealing parts of the pre-war section of this book.) Should Gone With the Wind be treated the same way as the Confederate flag — as a relic of an embarrassing past, to be remembered but not revered?
Or, as a piece of work that has not only outlived but thrived well beyond its expected lifespan, should we be more forgiving of its quirks? After all, the story at its base is a kind of nihilistic coming-of-age tale, and it does not shy away from nastiness nor encourage many warm fuzzy feelings. If it doesn’t manage to address all the cruelties of slavery and war, well, that might simply be a function of its concentration on the life of one particularly self-centered character who, as complicated and problematic person herself, did not recognize all those cruelties.
Historical books deserve a little leeway.
By ‘historical books’, I mean both historically important AND fiction set in historical time periods. Gone With the Wind is included in both categories, having stood the test of time in the literary canon, and with the story being set approximately 70 years prior to the publication of the book itself.
After all, adults who read this novel when it was first published in the late 1930’s had grandparents who lived through the Civil War & Reconstruction. In fact, we are farther removed now from the publication of Gone With the Wind than readers in 1936 were removed from the War Between the States. The equivalent for the modern reader might be a book set during WWII, from the perspective of a German or Japanese person. Such a book would no doubt be disturbing to read in some ways, but it might also offer interesting insight into the lives of people who experienced a devastating war and the total destruction of their culture.
Furthermore, the book itself is of historical importance. It won a Pulitzer in 1937 and inspired a hugely successful film that won 10 Academy Awards. To reject it outright as a relic of the past is to ignore the huge impact the book had on the culture of its own time period.
Historical leeway doesn’t make the bad parts any less cringe-worthy.
Subtitled: SO MUCH N-WORD HAPPENING WHY
Let’s go back to that example of a WWII historical fiction for the modern reader as a comparison to Gone With the Wind for its original audience. If the book was set in Germany, one might expect that it would include pejorative terms for Jewish people, or Polish or French or British people. Or perhaps it would have all the Jewish characters speaking some form of pidgin Yiddish. Those kinds of things are upsetting, especially in this historical context, and many readers might be upset at their inclusion, historical accuracy be damned. It is a fiction book, after all,and the author is choosing to use derogatory language about a severely abused group of people. But: is the author actually racist, or is she just aping the language/attitude of that place at that time?
Is Mitchell’s somewhat upsetting, certainly patronizing treatment of her black characters a reflection of her own views, or an attempt at historical accuracy? Or, perhaps, both? Perhaps historical context necessitates some forgiveness on the part of the present-day reader. And yet, when that historical context includes racist language, or more complicated issues like the encouragement of the devoted and coddled near-family slave trope in the form of Mammy and other slave characters, how far should that forgiveness extend?
But sometimes you just have to accept (and even love?) a thing for what it is, warts and all.
Complications and ambiguity are just part of life and human history, and are necessarily going to be part of a story about a very imperfect person’s life during any historical time period. Yes, even in fiction — in fact, I think complications and ambiguity can be a sign of good fiction.
In the end, I’ve decided to go with my gut and just accept that I enjoyed reading Gone With the Wind. It’s simply an engaging story and, because the story centers on a purposefully problematic main character, I’m inclined to give the author the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the problems of derogatory terms + condescending treatment of slaves.
I also have to accept that being able to enjoy this book may be in itself a function of white privilege. Did my own ancestors’ privilege as descendants of Europeans instead of Africans in the slavery-dependent South before the Civil War echo down the years to confer upon me the privilege of being able to enjoy this book in the present, a century and a half after slavery was abolished in our country? Probably, which is why I think it is important to address my misgivings about the book here, & to absolutely avoid the temptation of Old South glorification.
This is the third time I’ve read Gone With the Wind. I was a child the first time I read it, which was soon after seeing the movie version. It was one of the first “grown-up” novels I ever read, and I loved it with the kind of uncomplicated love that only a child who has never directly or even indirectly experienced racism or the destruction of one’s home/entire culture can feel. I thought it was a lovely story about a plucky girl in fantastic dresses who didn’t care what anyone thought of her — because I was a little budding feminist, & I somehow managed to admire Scarlett because I imagined her story was all about fighting The Man. (Plus, I had a little crush on Rhett.) When I read it again several years later, as an undergrad whose eyes had been freshly opened to the actual history of the Civil War and racism in America in general, I was disgusted. Why was this book so popular; couldn’t people see how horrible it was, how horrible Scarlett herself was? I had not yet learned how to enjoy reading about “unlikable” characters, or how to handle the guilt of my own ancestors’ misdeeds. (Although I still had the tiniest bit of a crush on Rhett.)
I’m glad I chose to read it a third time. I can see now why I admired Scarlett as a kid: she was outspoken, flirtatious, strong-willed, and generally fancy — all of the things I wasn’t. And even though I’m still disturbed by certain aspects of the book, I guess I’ve learned to accept those flaws as parts of the overall-worthwhile whole. (And I’m still rather charmed by that scamp Rhett, to be honest.)
Gone With the Wind is, I think, a good book/movie to have in a COLLECTION of other books and media about/set during the Civil War. It’s a good work in an of itself, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t think it should stand on its own as a singular perspective on life in the Old South. Here are a few other options for starters:
- Mercy Street (2016 TV series, PBS)
- Roots (1977 TV series, ABC; based on novel of the same name by Alex Haley)
- Jezebel (1938 film, Warner Bros.)
- Freeman by Leonard Pitts, Jr.
- Brokenburn: The Journal of Kate Stone ed. by John Q. Anderson
- Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (Haven’t read yet; on my next Classics Club list)
- Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Ann Jacobs (Haven’t read yet; on my next Classics Club list)
And check out these links for some other perspectives:
- Gone With the Wind: On Unlikable Characters and Problematic Art, at BookRiot
- The Wonderful, Terrible Gone With the Wind, at AV Club
- Gone With the Wind Should Go the Way of the Confederate Flag, at the NY Post
- The Racism of Gone With the Wind is Still With Us, at Esquire
- Why We Should Keep Reading Gone With the Wind, at the Washington Post
- 10 Fascinating Facts About Gone With the Wind, at Mental_Floss
- Gone With the Wind: Is it America’s Strangest Film?, at the BBC
- Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, at NPR
- Margaret Mitchell: American Rebel, at PBS
Got your own opinions? Gone With the Wind does invite a lot of criticism as well as praise, and I’d love to hear what you think. Talk to me!
Publication information: Mitchell, Margaret. Gone With the Wind. New York: Scribner, 1964. Print.
Source: Personal library.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.