“Mist’ Gerald, I is sorry to ‘sturb you, but I wanted to come here and thank you agin fo’ buyin’ me and my chile.”

I keep thinking about Gone With the Wind and Margaret Mitchell and race, and the plain fact is that it gets complicated.  Race is a tricky subject, so hear me out while I lay all my cards on the table right now (having finished Part One)—then, of course, sing out in the comments section if you think I missed the boat (or sank it, for that matter).  The O’Haras are undeniably good people—Scarlett’s parents, anyway—by the standards of their age.  Gerald, as noted in the quotation above, is a “kind” master because he not only bought Dicey, but was considerate enough to buy her 12 year old daughter, Prissy, also, because he knew it would make them sad to be parted.  Most masters aren’t quite as “noble”.  And before you gag and say this doesn’t seem kind at all, given that, you know, he’s owning people, let’s toss in that Gerald is widely known throughout the county as a man who will lend you money when times are tight, no questions asked.  His wife, Ellen, will drop whatever she’s doing, any time of the day or night, to go tend someone who is sick or dying, whether they are white or black, rich or poor.  And she is a racist, like her husband.  So what do we do with racism?

On the one hand, racism is such an ugly thing that I get our instinctive disgust—our feeling that anybody that openly racist is not deserving of an ounce of our pity or sympathy.  It would be like saying that we shouldn’t just flatly call Ted Bundy a “murdering sociopath” because he was a really good friend to some kids he grew up with, and kind to his neighbors, and he doesn’t get enough credit for that….we couldn’t really make that argument with a straight face, could we?  And yet.  We are forgiving of many faults, aren’t we?  We can maintain relationships with people who have committed grave breaches of ethics—people who have hurt others emotionally or even physically, people who have broken solemn promises, people who have committed crimes.  We still love them because they are our friends or our family, and we recognize that life is complicated.  Maybe we nudge them to change, if we can, or to accept their responsibility in the matter.  But when we cannot move them (as I cannot move the O’Haras), as in the case of very elderly relatives perhaps, don’t we allow ourselves to feel whatever we feel about them without having to constantly say “keeping in mind that my grandfather is racist, I love other qualities of his”?  I don’t know what my obligations are to a fictional character—are the evils of American slavery too large for me to see these characters in a positive light?  Am I putting too much pressure on myself to respond to the novel in the “right” way, rather than how it actually strikes me?  Would it be wrong to sit back and enjoy the novel, and root for the white protagonists, and not challenge its attitudes about race?  It’s just hard to know.  I don’t know what to make of the O’Haras, beyond that they are so likable on the page that I feel like I’d enjoy knowing them in real life, and that in real life I think I might have been morally justified in killing them if there were no other means of freeing the human beings they had enslaved.  And getting my brain around that juxtaposition of images is going to take some work.

The O’Hara we are most concerned with, of course, is Scarlett, who by now is widowed, having married in haste to avoid embarrassment (and inflict punishment, which seems to be Scarlett’s primary motive for almost everything she does to or with men).  Scarlett is almost thoroughly unlikable and almost thoroughly alive—very engaging to read about, as the emotions swirl and Scarlett wreaks her havoc, and I’m freed of needing to root for her at any moment.  The only thing holding me back from really enjoying her comeuppances is that Mitchell so obviously dislikes her too, and enjoys punishing her.  That kind of condescension angered me when it was Tarkington looking down on the title character in Alice Adams, but Scarlett’s such a nasty piece of work sometimes that I feel this uneasy kinship with Mitchell about wanting to see Scarlett disappointed.  It’s a weird feeling.  How on earth Mitchell’s going to sustain that strained relationship to her main character for another 800+ pages is really beyond my ability to guess, although it’s certainly intriguing for me as a reader, on some level.

Cropped screenshot of Olivia de Havilland from...

Olivia de Haviland as the girl Margaret Mitchell either thinks she was, or wishes she had been. Either way, she’s just a little too good to be true. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The inverse is more or less true of Melanie Hamilton, the most Mary Sue-ish character I’ve yet run into in my Pulitzer jaunt, that I can recall.  Were I to attend a barbecue at Twelve Oaks, of course I would have been sitting with Ashley Wilkes and Melanie, discussing Thackeray and Dickens, rather than hanging around passing dainties to Scarlett—she is not the kind of person I’d enjoy talking to, and they are (though they’d have found me a third wheel, eh?).  But I feel a bit odd rooting for a character who is so obviously just the author’s idealized version of herself, the saint-martyr who thinks no ill of anyone, the book-lover whose thoughts and conversations are ever so much more erudite than those of someone as crass and blunt as Miss Scarlett.  Of course Melanie’s likable—she’s not real, not in the vivid and dangerous way that Scarlett is.  Does it make any sense to say that I’d rather sit with Melanie at the party, but I’d rather read about Scarlett at the party?

A couple of quick thoughts to finish—first of all, the start of the war was handled all right by Mitchell, who does at least get some nice anti-war speeches into the mouths of characters it’s obvious the others should have been listening to.  But she glosses past all the reasons for the war, which is a bit shameful considering the way she’s already treating black people as though they really kind of enjoy being slaves, and have it pretty good.  The young men in 1861 didn’t shout “states’ rights” as much as they shouted that no Yankee was going to tell any Southern man what he could do with his slaves.  But the young men in this novel stick pretty much exclusively to the former.  Secondly, I am fascinated by the fact (ignored in the movie, unless my memory is almost totally shot) that Scarlett and her family are observant Catholics.  There’s a history of anti-Catholicism in America, especially in the mid-19th Century, and certainly no less in the South than anywhere else.  A much better, more perceptive writer would do something with that—the rich belle who is in some ways a minority herself in a society obsessed with minorities—but I just don’t think Mitchell has it in her.  She tells a good romance plot, I’ll give her that, and her characters sparkle pretty well.  But there’s precious little to think about under the surface, as far as I can see.  If Part Two, Scarlett’s move to Atlanta during the war, surprises me, I’ll have no trouble admitting it, but I have the sneaking suspicion that I already know what I’m in for.

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4 comments on ““Mist’ Gerald, I is sorry to ‘sturb you, but I wanted to come here and thank you agin fo’ buyin’ me and my chile.”

  1. jmtphd says:

    I think the comparison of our treatment of Ted Bundy’s behavior and that of the O’Haras is not particularly apt. Ted Bundy committed his murders in the context of a culture that was easily able to recognize his behavior as evil. Several years ago, I came across an interesting idea when reading some Ken Wilbur: cultures at a particular level of development are in fact simply unable to see the failings for which they are condemned by later generations. It is not the case that they are aware of the injustice and choose to be complicit. Rather they are hopelessly blind to it. From this point of view, perhaps a bit of grace is in order for the O’Haras that would not be appropriately extended to the likes of Ted Bundy. This idea should also give us some pause from another point of view. What injustices that we unconsciously perpetrate will cause critics from future generations to shake their heads at us and wring their hands over the unseemliness of the characters in our fiction? There are, of course, obvious answers to this but I suspect that there are aspects of our culture that never rise into our consciousness that will bring us in for the highest scorn. Should we be as generous with the characters from GWTW as we would hope future generations would be with our beloved (but hopelessly flawed) protagonists?

    Mitchell herself is a thornier issue of course as she is writing the story out of time with the events and characters in it. It is a bit of a brain bender: we read and criticize a story through the lens of one generation. Yet this story is about characters who see the world through the lens of an earlier, and very different, generation and is written by an author who is limited yet another.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Thanks for your thoughts, Jeff: I’ll agree that a simple O’Hara-Bundy analogy would be inapt, although that wasn’t really what I was trying for. I was attempting (inelegantly, and not particularly successfully, it seems!) to portray how we react emotionally to being asked to consider a racist’s good qualities—it feels to us, at least to many of us, as grossly inappropriate, given the country’s history with race. I think I’m particularly careful about this as a white man, and a descendant of slaveowners (distant, obviously, but they’re undeniably my ancestors). So I wanted to acknowledge up front that on an emotional level it’s hard for anybody to sit still while I defend a racist’s character, and that I feel that way myself. But as I said, I don’t think the paragraph did that well—I cut a corner or two I shouldn’t have, rhetorically, and I’m glad you pointed out the differences that you did.

      The larger question of how much we can blame people for being of their time is difficult. Slaveowners in previous generations had been very conflicted about owning slaves, and many of them had basically admitted that they knew it was wrong but couldn’t imagine how they’d make a living without them. Abolitionists had been publishing tracts against slavery for a century (though admittedly the laws in the South had largely prevented the free circulation of these works since about the mid-1830s: I don’t know, myself, how familiar the average wealthy plantation owner was with the best arguments against slavery…I’d guess Ashley Wilkes was, given his library, but I might be wrong). When in history are we allowed to begin holding people accountable for holding the wrong opinions? To jump to our own time, when will we be allowed to hold people accountable for anti-homosexual bigotry? Can we today? Could we 20 years ago? I don’t know. You’re very right to bring the question forward—it’s essentially a question I’m wrestling with, though I didn’t make that explicit in this post. Thinking of it in my terms is maybe best—what if one day animal rights becomes a major issue? What if I appear a monster to the people of the 22nd century for eating many animals, and keeping others captive in my home against their will? [Important note: I am in NO way personally comparing American slavery with pet ownership as being roughly analogous. I am imagining what it might be like for a society that does see them in that light.] I don’t know how I want them to see me, or how I think it would be fair for them to judge me. I don’t want to simply say “oh, all Southerners were racist back then, you can’t hold it against them”, because that doesn’t feel reasonable enough to me. But I also don’t want to say “all these people are racist, and therefore devoid of anything I can admire or accept”, because I think that misses something too. What the middle ground is, though, I do not know.

      You’re right that Mitchell’s a tougher case. I really don’t cut her any slack at all, and when I compare her to T. S. Stribling, a Southerner who wanted to make African-Americans real, living characters and not crappy stereotypes, I think that by the standards of her age she really falls down. But 800 pages remain to either change my mind or confirm it thoroughly….we’ll see which is which. :-)

  2. Jillian ♣ says:

    I love your detailed responses to this book!

    I think you are wrong about Melanie. She was not Mitchell’s idealized depiction of herself. She was the idealized depiction of what the South expected of “a lady.” She is what Scarlett can never live up to. That’s why Ashley picks Melanie for his wife, even though a part of him loves Scarlett. Scarlett is tempting, but she is not “quality” the way Melanie is. Melanie is (in Scarlett’s eyes) weak, boring, idle, useless — yet Melanie is idealized by the South as a flawless woman. Melanie makes Scarlett sick, and yet people prefer Melanie. The conflict here is that it would be wholly unnatural for Scarlett to behave like Melanie, yet to follow her own compass is forbidden in her world. I think this lesson is true of both Scarlett and her author. Melanie is Scarlett’s foil. If you find Melanie overly good, overly erudite, dull, and even unnatural, consider that this may be the author’s point.

    If I remember right, there is a Catholic prayer near the opening of the movie version of this novel. I disagree that the author “didn’t have it in her” to use the Catholic minority as a theme within her novel. I think the theme is there, but understated.

    Only my thoughts. I hope you enjoy the book as you progress. :-)

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Jillian, thanks for the high praise! Given how serious you are about your blog and the writing you do there (I’ve read a bit since our conversation began), I take your compliment as a real mark of esteem. Re: Melanie, you’re right about her—I was working too much from a couple of early scenes and from my memories of Olivia de Haviland in the movie version. I think it’s interesting, though, that Rhett also idealizes Melanie…it makes it hard for me to believe that Mitchell really wants me to criticize her much. I definitely see the challenges inherent for Scarlett, though, and I like the way you put Scarlett’s conflict into words.

      I don’t remember that Catholic prayer in the movie, but it’s been a while. I keep looking for the Catholic theme in the novel to be anything more than window dressing, but I’m not picking up on it….maybe I haven’t hit the right passage yet? If I keep missing it as I read, I think eventually I’ll ask you to clue me in, because I think the understatement may be too low for my brain to pick it up. Thanks for your comments! :-)

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