Mitchell’s above comparison of the young Scarlett O’Hara Hamilton and the young Atlanta is clever, and would be more clever if it also had the merit of being true. But in fact, as we and Scarlett discover, the “anything goes” attitude she seeks and seems to find in Atlanta isn’t necessarily there—it’s still a Southern town full of gossiping old biddies and restrictions on the conduct of a young widow and church bazaars and the like. I’ll grant that Scarlett finds a degree of freedom in Atlanta that she’d missed back home, but that is almost entirely due to the weak will of her chaperone aunt-in-law, Miss Pittypat Hamilton, in comparison with the stern authority of her mother, Ellen O’Hara, who remains back home at Tara. If Ellen lived in Atlanta, and Pitty at Tara, Atlanta would be no walk in the park for Scarlett, and a visit to Tara would have been her chance to live it up a bit. Still, there is something interesting at work here: I’m curious to see if Mitchell really does want to dig into the tension of countryside vs. town (as is usual for Pulitzers of this era—One of Ours, Arrowsmith, and So Big all come to mind, off-hand), and what she can do with it. So far, I don’t really see it being developed very much, but I think Scarlett’s return to Tara towards the end of the war may create more opportunities for this.
I have to admit, the characters are all very appealing—not as people I want to befriend, I should note, but rather as people I’m enjoying observing. Rhett Butler’s got a nice caddishness about him, and he certainly knows how to maneuver within (and yet somehow unconstrained by) the conventions of Southern society. Scarlett’s got more to her than I’d at first guessed, though she’s still not really a sympathetic character, or rather I am sympathetic to her plight but not always to her way of resolving problems. I think Mitchell’s having fun with that aspect of the Scarlett character, and I don’t blame her—it’s a nice distance for an author to have from her main character. Melanie Hamilton Wilkes has a bit more edge to her than I’d expected from my memories of the movie, and I no longer feel, as I did in an earlier post, that she’s just some wish-fulfillment character expressing Mitchell’s idea of herself. Watching these characters interact with each other and the rest of an enormous cast is definitely fun, especially because Mitchell is good at those conversations where one thing is said and another meant. Most of Rhett and Scarlett’s dialogue effectively operates this way, and it has a sparkle to it. Most of the chapters I hit are fun to read—lively, eventful, sometimes a bit humorous, and certainly easy to get caught up in.
But the long struggle continues with GWTW as a) a book that defends the Confederacy as an idea and b) a book that defends racism. It’s fair at this point to say that I haven’t resolved whether a) or b) are true statements to make, although I’m pretty skeptical about acquitting the novel entirely on either charge. Jillian from A Room of One’s Own has been a welcome and vocal addition to the comments section here in the last few days, and I think if anybody can convince me that I’m being too hard on the novel, she can. But, having said that, I’m not sure anyone can. The reason is this: Mitchell presents a case about the Confederacy that, at first blush, seems pretty critical. Scarlett, with whom we are closely concerned (whether or not we always agree with her), is not a fan of “the Cause”, and Rhett’s even harsher than she is. It might seem, then, that the novel is in fact an argument against the South’s attempts to stave off change—a novel that sees the war as wasteful, boastful arrogance, an act of an ignorant and petulant child. But Mitchell presents other views as well—Melanie Hamilton Wilkes, who is undeniably presented to us as admirable (even the caustic Rhett Butler has nothing but praise for her), has shown anger on only one occasion so far…when she realizes that some of the South’s men are unwilling to go and die nobly for the sake of the glorious cause. And Ashley Wilkes, who I’d also argue is undeniably presented as a thoughtful and admirable man, laments the war but for the wrong reasons. He claims in a letter to Melanie that the war is not about “the darkies”, as he calls them—no, he is fighting for something other than the preservation of slavery. What? The “old ways” that are certain now to disappear. What characterizes the old ways? Oh, he lavishes detail on them, but it boils down to missing the peaceful, quiet, steady life he could have lived on a plantation, and the sweet sound of tired “darkie” voices singing as they trudge home from the fields after a long day’s work, etc. No, Ashley’s not fighting for “the darkies”….he’s fighting to defend the privileged and pleasant life that owning slaves allowed him to live. The fact that he sentimentalizes slavery by seeing it as this sweet, decorous, stained-glass window image of the happy slave headed home, proud of a good day’s cotton-picking, is really no excuse for making it his reason for fighting. I certainly don’t hate Ashley Wilkes, or his wife Melanie, for that matter, but there’s no denying that the characters most praised and built up by the narrative in this book are also the characters most eloquent in defense of the South’s war to preserve the comfortable lives of white slaveowners.
At this point, I can read the above work in one of two ways—I can say that Mitchell actually thinks Ashley and Melanie are wrong, obviously wrong (as they are, in fact), and that therefore the novel’s presenting a case against the South, largely through the mouths of Scarlett and Rhett, who for their faults are more vivid than the Wilkes are. Or I can say that Mitchell agrees with the Wilkes and thinks the Civil War is a tragedy, not because so many people had to die in order to set a race free, but because so many people had to die in noble defense of the beautiful world made possible by slavery. The question of the author’s intentions is not important to every reader, but it’s important to me—I went a few rounds with Paul on this subject in the comments section of a post on The Magnificent Ambersons, and I suspect I may go a round or two with Jillian in this post’s comments section. This is not a bad thing—I like being pushed to make sense of a novel like this. And it’s fair to point out that there’s no reason I can’t praise or enjoy a novel where the author’s intentions run opposite to mine. I’m certainly liking a lot of the reading experience I’m getting out of GWTW, which is a much more skillful and engrossing novel than many of the Pulitzer winners I’ve read thus far—it’s just that the novel still makes me uneasy every time we turn back to race and the war. I tense up every time it looks like the narration is running back to those subjects. I don’t know that I’ll ever get over that, and more to the point, I’m not sure I should try to “get over it”, since it may be that this is a perfectly good reaction to a book whose agenda ought to be opposed. I will be mulling this one over long after I finish reading it, though, that’s certain, and I’m glad of that.