“She loved him and she wanted him and she did not understand him.”

Oh, that Scarlett O’Hara.  Mitchell is unflinching about her—not just about her thoughtless attachment to Ashley Wilkes, as noted in the quotation that provides this post’s title, but about pretty much everything else.  She is impulsive and obsessive.  She has never had any female friends.  She fails to have any understanding of the inner workings of any person’s mind—not even her own.  All of this, I know from the narrator making it totally explicit—I’m not meant to infer this, but simply to know it openly.  So however I take this novel, I think it’s clear that it can’t be a wholesale defense of Scarlett, at least, and that on its own is encouraging.  Mitchell doesn’t seem to care if I admire her, anyway—whether or not she wants me to like her is still a bit mysterious to me.  Mitchell’s actually pretty talented with this character development—over the novel’s 2nd and 3rd chapters, I’ve gotten a pretty clear picture of how Scarlett thinks and acts, and her relationship to both her parents.  I also understand a lot more about both her parents—Gerald, the self-made and volatile Irishman, and Ellen, the cool and quietly authoritative Frenchwoman.  At first I thought Mitchell was playing a little too loose with them, especially when I learned that they married at the ages of 43 and 15, respectively (I need hardly mention how icky this is), but I’ll be darned if she didn’t give me a very plausible account of both lives so that I really did believe this 15 year old girl might have chosen to marry the aging Irish plantation owner, and he her.  The novel’s investing me in the O’Haras pretty successfully, and that’s making for a reasonably nice reading experience.

Except for the freaking racism which will not go away.  What’s most troubling about it is how casually it shows up, both in the characters’ dialogue and in the narrator’s statements.  This is the first Pulitzer winner set among active slave owners—Lamb in His Bosom is in antebellum Georgia but all the farmers are too poor to own slaves, and while The Store presents relationships between people who used to be slave owners and slaves, it all takes place after the war—and I just can’t take how relaxed everyone is about it, especially because Mitchell’s making me like them.  It’s like being at a new friend’s house for dinner, and the conversation’s great and the food is lovely, and then as your hostess dishes up some more potatoes she remarks off-handedly, “you know, Harold used to be an accountant before he became a loan collector for a local mob boss, which he really finds more exciting, don’t you, dear?  Why, only last week, he had to cut off a man’s little fingers.  Well, he probably didn’t have to, of course, but it’s really the only way for folks to know how serious you are.”  And you’re frozen there, not entirely sure whether to just walk out, or argue with them, or stare intensely at the peas you’re trying to jab with a fork while silently praying that the conversation will get back to their charity work or their love of Impressionist art, since you’d really like to make some new friends who aren’t completely vile human beings.  Only I can’t walk out, and arguing with characters in a novel isn’t going to change them at all.  All I can do is hope she can sideline the racism enough for me to not feel too grimy and awful for liking these people, or else hope that I can find a way of enjoying the novel despite feeling like vomiting when Gerald O’Hara enlists Scarlett in a little “practical joke” he’s thought up, where he’ll tell his oldest and most trusted slave that he just sold him that afternoon.

Illustration of Jim and Huckleberry Finn, by E...

Huck and Jim: just one more example of the racist literature I should reject? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Let’s take that racism thing in perspective, though, for a second.  Is it possible I’m being too judgmental?  After all, I love The Iliad, despite the fact that the whole story hinges on the possession of a slave girl (Briseis) and the characters I love in that poem are no more or less blasé about slave-girls than the O’Haras are.  I’ve always thought that people are too harsh on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, even though I’ll admit that Tom is downright callous about the slavery issue, and Huck never really makes the transformation we all want him to on the subject (though he definitely makes some kind of progress).  Is it wrong of me to hold Margaret Mitchell to a higher standard?  Or am I holding her to a higher standard at all—maybe there’s something different about race and slavery in this novel that justifies my feeling disgusted and angry in a way that I’m not with other works?  I know some of you have read this book, and more of you have seen the movie.  Am I bringing up a wall too quickly here, or am I just seeing a “profoundly racist novel” (to quote James Loewen again) for what it is?

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6 comments on ““She loved him and she wanted him and she did not understand him.”

  1. Jillian ♣ says:

    This novel is the story of Scarlett O’Hara, the daughter of a plantation owner. Scarlett and every character in the novel would have been casual about slavery. (Underemphasised it, as if it was “okay”, and allowed themselves to believe that the slaves were happy with their lot in life.) To write it otherwise would have been to dishonestly depict Scarlett’s version of the story. Maybe part of the disgust is that the story is just so charming, and the slave issues really are so romanticised that it’s difficult to sink into the story without “accepting” them as part of the charm. This may have been Mitchell’s point.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Thanks for the comment, Jillian! I can see from your blog that GWTW is your favorite novel, so it’s nice to have someone who can be an eloquent defender of the book I’m currently wrestling with. You’re right to point out a fact I should keep more in mind—the simple truth that Scarlett being who she was, and these people being who they were, it would be dishonest to depict them in any way other than these casual attitudes about slavery. I think my discomfort comes with the fact that Mitchell is not interested in interrogating this at all—the slave characters are pawns of the plot but not given the complexity of the O’Haras. When we hear them speak, it is almost always in terms that show how much they love being owned by the family they are, and how scornful they are of non-slaveowners (note: of course all of these comments are from someone still in the middle of the book, so my “almost always”es should be taken with that in mind). If there is cruelty to slaves on these plantations, Mitchell isn’t interested in it—this vision of the Old South is sanitized. I think you’re right that this may have been Mitchell’s point, and that’s where I’m having the struggle—the book is undeniably charming, and the characters are winning me over, but I feel as though the point of the book is to have this effect on me so that I become personally a bit more numb to the idea that there was anything wrong with a civilization built on the idea that some people owned other people. How complicit am I willing to be in that argument for the sake of reading a good novel? I just don’t know. If she had written it in 1859, I think it would be easier for me to forgive this, or set it aside, but a writer seeking to defend the slave system from the perspective of the 1930s is harder to handle. I have no doubt I’ll continue to chew on these questions as I blog my way through, and I hope you’ll be back to present your take in the comments: I’d love to have someone presenting sides of the novel I’m not seeing as clearly, and helping me to articulate exactly how it does and doesn’t work for me! :-)

      • Jillian ♣ says:

        In my view, Mitchell is writing about the South as a whole, and about survival. Watch Mammy, Prissy, Pork, etc, as the story goes on. Yes, they are fairly one-dimensional and appear to like being slaves, but this is all depicted through Scarlett’s eyes. She’s not seeing behind-the-scenes. How the slaves “survive,” not only the war, but slavery itself, may be an interesting lens through which to read this novel. Mammy, Prissy, & Pork could have openly shown that they disliked slavery, but would this have served them? Perhaps, perhaps not. We never see the point of view of the slaves that don’t stay (the ones who run away, join the war, etc.) We see only those who stayed, and have learned to cope with slavery by pretending to be happy, and letting the O’Haras believe what they want to believe. This is how they choose to survive. If they are one-dimensional, imagine how slave-owners saw them. They were not permitted to read or right and were encouraged to appear childlike. The O’Haras are seeing what they want to see.

        Likewise, the war conversation: it’s unlikely the men would have been shouting about having the right to own slaves right in front of the women. Women back then (stupidly enough) were sheltered from the “real” parts of life. If the men said anything about the war in front of ladies, it would have been watered down to sound honorable and valiant. It would have been “believed” that the slaves wanted to stay and that the Yankees were invaders. States rights would have been shouted as a badge of honor to stir up the Confederacy and make an abhorrent war seem like a regal quest. I can’t imagine the men discussing keeping slaves in front of refined ladies. What you are seeing in this novel is the romanticised version the South saw — that Mitchell herself was told as a little girl. (If I remember right, her mother sang her Confederate songs to put her to sleep at night, and her relatives rehashed the war over and over while she was growing up. She didn’t know the Yankees had won until she was ten.)

        Again, only my thoughts. I’m excited to see you progress in this novel. You are correct that it is my favorite novel. :-)

        • jwrosenzweig says:

          Jillian—thanks for engaging in this conversation! I so rarely am reading a book familiar to anybody else that I’d forgotten how much fun it is to get someone else’s perspective. I’m very intrigued by your notion of these slaves as survivors, and will definitely try reading it that way, at least for the next big chunk, to see how it affects me. I’m not convinced it’s how Mitchell saw them, but maybe I need to “save the novel from the novelist”, as D. H. Lawrence would say. Is the narrator really the O’Haras, though? I think that’s part of what bothers me, since I feel Mitchell’s presenting the narrator as third-person omniscient. If this book were narrated in Scarlett’s voice, it would change my impression of it immensely, and almost entirely in a positive direction. It’s the fact that the narrator seems dispassionate that bugs me.

          I’m not totally sure I buy that discussing slave-holding would have been kept from these “refined ladies”, though—my memories of the courses I took on American slavery, anyway, aren’t calling up anything about slaveholding being seen as something frightening or unladylike. And aren’t we given pretty direct evidence that these women control and deal with the slaves directly—Ellen O’Hara certainly seems to, as does Mama (I’ve forgotten her first name) Tarleton. When I read the statements made by the founding Confederates, they seem pretty blunt about the fact that the war is associated strongly with keeping “Negroes” as an inferior race: why couldn’t they talk nobly about it in front of the ladies, “protecting the institution that has built the South”, “keeping those abolitionist busybodies up in Boston where they belong”, etc.? It seems odd to me, and a bit sinister, that Mitchell can’t put a single statement about protecting slavery in the mouths of men wanting to fight a war to do just that. I can’t be sure, though—it’s possible you’re right that this is why Mitchell does what she does, and if defending slavery really was a topic unfit for women’s ears, it would make sense that it therefore is left out of the chapters I’ve read, since Scarlett is nearly always present. I’d have to do more reading to be certain (though with 950+ pages, when will I find time? :-) ). Your notes about Mitchell’s upbringing are fascinating, and definitely help me understand why she depicts the South as she does.

          I’m really glad you’re sharing your thoughts, and hope that my “pushing back” a little on some of your points doesn’t dissuade you from contributing more of them. This is clearly an important novel for me on my journey, since if ever there was a novel that would allow me to use American literature to examine what America really is (a primary goal of this project), I think GWTW qualifies solidly. So I’d like to dig into it, and see it from multiple perspectives, and I’m glad to have your insights!

  2. Jillian ♣ says:

    I’ll certainly be back! I find this conversation and your views fascinating. I have read Gone With the Wind three times and confess I was “raised” on it. Awareness of Scarlett, Rhett and their tenacity is in my bones. I barely remember not considering them a part of my memory. My own cousins and 4xs great grandfather fought alongside Mitchell’s grandfather at the Battle of Atlanta. So perhaps I am jaded.

    I think it’s interesting to see Gone With the Wind through your eyes as you are newly encountering it. So much about America puzzles me — most particularly Thomas Jefferson. And I can see some of my puzzlement about Thomas Jefferson (who I both admire and am appalled by) in your questions about this novel. I’m very new to literature (and history), so I can speak my point of view but may not back it well. Often my statements are only questions — thoughts contributed to the discussion. I confess that Mitchell puzzles me sometimes too, though as a writer I am astounded by her. She once refused to take a class because a black person had been admitted, yet she anonymously funded the education of several black doctors at Morehouse College. (Receiving recognition for it posthumously.) Which isn’t to say she wasn’t a racist. Just that she matured, I think, over time. And perhaps that’s an honest reflection of America throughout our history — or at least in Southern history.

    You may be correct that the novel is told through a neutral third party omniscient voice — perhaps, the voice of the South? Rather than through Scarlett or the O’Haras’ POV. I’ve always seen that neutral third party as a character in and of itself — the collected viewpoint of the O’Haras and those in Scarlett’s vicinity. And of course, Scarlett’s sole viewpoint throughout much of the novel. I see it too, though, as the Southern perspective in that day (Mitchell’s day.) Up until this novel, the South had not been able to publicly speak their peace (as I understand it) about an invasion and Reconstruction that they saw as decidedly against the values Thomas Jefferson and other forefathers held as “inalienable” in the building of the country. Slavery (wrongfully, of course) was never ommitted from America. In the South’s eyes, it shouldn’t have been. The perspective is jaded — absolutely. But doesn’t it have to be jaded to support America’s history? A whole war was fought over a perspective that made absolutely no sense to the North (or frankly the world, I think.) But that to Southerners, on the whole, really did have to do with the “perspective” that the Yankees were invading a perfectly fine society. This is horrible, awful, flawed, absolutely. But I don’t believe on the whole that the Confederates were awful people. They simple had a different perspective — one that was cruelly unfair to those they enslaved — absolutely. But one that many went to their graves believing was RIGHT, honorable, and of God and the American Constitution.

    A friend and I were just discussing the incredible duality of A Tale of Two Cities. Having been raised in America rather than England, I can see both sides of A Tale of Two Cities. My friend is from England and views the French side very differently from me. Our discussion of this stirred up the notion that so often, in war, one side’s hero is the other side’s monster. George Washington probably doesn’t fair as well in England as he does in our history, and history is written by its survivors — in their own viewpoint. Mitchell was raised on the knees of Confederates who told her that the Confederacy was right and of God, and that the Yankees were invaders that tore apart their homes, shot at her grandfather, and ripped apart their lives.

    My point isn’t that Mitchell was “right” in her depiction of the South, I guess. More, that she gives America a valuable gift in that she lets us view that part of history through the eyes of the Confederates. And yes, it is flawed, ugly, romanticized, one-dimensional – but isn’t it true that the South very likely saw their world as Scarlett, or the neutral narrator, or the O’Hara’s, or Mitchell herself apparently saw it?

    I learned in a recent Civil War class that MANY of the Northern soldiers were disgusted when Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was announced and claimed that they didn’t fight the war to free the [insert horrible word here that I won’t repeat.] This was apparently a common reaction in the North. The abolitionists were a tiny percentage of the North and were viewed by that part of the country as radical and strange. Likewise, the planter class took up only a small part of the Southern population. Most were yeomen farmers who were too poor to own slaves. I’ve traced my family in Georgia all the way back to the 1700s. We never owned a single slave. Some freed blacks in the South owned slaves. Yet in Northern history (the bit I’ve read of it), the Civil War is romanticized as a time when the Northern soldiers rode off on their gold steeds to free the slaves. If there is romanticism, it’s on both sides.

    You make a good point about the way the South may have discussed war and slavery in front of their women. I forget sometimes atrocities like Bleeding Kansas and think of the 1800s women as shy and blushing women of the Victorian era, who couldn’t say the word “leg” in reference to a table, because it was scandalous. But my own great grandmother (from 1930s Georgia) was no shy flower. She chewed snuff and certainly heard a lot of ugly truth in her lifetime.

    But I do think the culture of the South would have frowned on being indelicate in front of ladies. Too bad I can’t go back in history and spy a little to find out. I know that Ellen O’Hara and etc. directly dealt with the slaves. What I mean is that “delicate” women on plantations (may have) been raised on the notion that the slaves were family, didn’t mind their lot, and looked up to their mistress. Some ladies may have been shielded from the ugliest parts of slavery, like runaways and chains and the oft-practiced raping of female slaves. All of this would have torn the institution apart. Better to let the women think slavery is pleasant and that they are protecting theiir slaves by keeping them. I don’t mean the women didn’t know that slavery was there; just that it would have come with a lot of family propaganda about how right and proper it was to give the slaves a home in the family. And that may be what Mitchell is depicting.

    I don’t think this is true of all families in the South. I just mean that this may be why Mitchell ommitted it from the mouths of the boys running off to war.

    Watch Ashley Wilkes for some of your answers. Mitchell uses Ashley, Melane, Rhett and Scarlett to offer different perspectives on some of the issues of the South. When I reread (which I eventually will!) I’ll watch the third party narrator.

    Cheers! :)

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Jillian, thanks as usual for your thoughts—if I replied to everything you said (all of which I read, and appreciated), this conversation would start to get unwieldy for a comments section, so I hope you won’t mind my choosing only a couple of points to respond to?

      I think it is fair to try to distinguish between the fact that Southerners were almost universally racist by modern standards (pretty much everyone alive in 1861 is racist by modern standards) and the question of whether we should really demonize them for fighting to defend their society. I don’t have any easy answers for that—you and I each have very personal connections to the South in this era, and different ones. I’m a Westerner, born and raised, but I know that some of my ancestors were slaveowners, and in fact I’ve carried on a dialogue (some of which has been alluded to on this blog) for a couple of years with an African-American blogger for the Atlantic Monthly who is probably my cousin—a man descended from a white woman and a slave man (we believe). Combine that with my fascination with the Civil War since I was young (I wrote a play about Lincoln when I was eight, I saw Gettysburg in a not-crowded theater when I was 14, etc.) and my more serious adult work in American history (undergrad degree in it, and taught high school history for 5+ years), and there’s a lot about the South I am still processing. Some of it is personal because of my ancestors, and some of it is personal because as an American I think we all still feel the effects of what our country went through in the mid-1800s. Most of these thoughts are unfinished, but some will bob to the surface throughout my Pulitzer journey, which has been to the South before and will keep coming back, I know. :-) GWTW is another stop, and one that’s definitely making me think.

      Your comment about the Northern soldiers is fair in part, I think, but in all honesty your comment that “in Northern history (the bit I’ve read of it), the Civil War is romanticized as a time when the Northern soldiers rode off on their gold steeds to free the slaves” is totally unrecognizable to me. It’s possible we teach the Civil War that way in elementary school, but I can assure you that no kid left my high school, when I was teaching, with that view of the war. Certainly there hasn’t been a serious Northern historian in 100 years to advance a thesis like that. I think also that I have to point out this isn’t a simple equivalence—there were undeniably thousands of men who fought for the North specifically to further the cause of abolition, among them regiments of free blacks who risked even more than their white comrades to free their people. As far as I know, not one Southern soldier was fighting for abolition. So, we can and should definitely wrestle with racism in the North, with the fact that the abolitionist cause was not the primary motive for many (most?) Northern soldiers, etc. But I don’t think we can use that fact to ignore the dangers of romanticizing or distorting the Confederacy’s motives in fighting the war.

      Lastly, I’m afraid I’m still not convinced by your “not around the ladies” thesis—as I was reading tonight, I hit a moment where Melanie Hamilton Wilkes says very directly that she understands that the militia is kept in the South out of a desire to protect the women from a slave uprising. If ever there was a Southern woman sheltered from unpleasant things, it’s Melanie Hamilton. And she is no stranger to the suggestion that, far from believing that slaves “don’t mind their lot”, the slaves might be dangerous and violent in throwing off their chains. If Mitchell had a reason for not dealing with slavery as a cause of the war in that argument at Twelve Oaks, I don’t see any evidence from the novel that it can be due to delicacy around Southern women on the topic.

      I do appreciate what you’re saying about the central 4 characters providing views on the war….as you’ll see from my latest blog post, it’s something I’m tangling with now. I’m afraid Ashley is providing answers, but answers I’m not comfortable with. But I’m glad that Mitchell is giving them real minds and real ideas to bump into each other, and I’m hopeful that I’ll learn something about Mitchell at least, if not the South in the 1930s, from seeing the resulting conversation. Thanks for providing a lot to think about!

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