1937: Gone With the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell

Literary Style:

Mitchell is a genius at investing a reader in what’s happening on the page—a 950 page novel went past much more quickly than I’d have guessed.  This is not to say that I think she couldn’t have used a good editor or better pacing at times (about which a little more is said below), but she clearly had a talent for writing, and it’s appreciated.  Most of her central characters are really compelling—the enigmatic but undeniably charismatic Rhett, the saintly (yet appealing) Melanie, the brooding lost “knight” Ashley, etc.  Even her relatively minor white characters, like the Fontaines and Tarletons, like Miss Pittypat and Archie, have a liveliness to them.  There’s no question that, as you read, you become personally involved in the storylines, rooting for certain outcomes.  The death of a major character is genuinely moving, and its aftermath hushes the rest of the story.  Had Mitchell not died well before her time, I think she might have risen to more prominence as an American author—perhaps not its most “literary”, since I don’t think her use of language and theme is especially deep or insightful (though it might have grown with time), but among its most popular, and for many good reasons.  There is a reason this book stands at the front of sales figures in the United States—of the books produced by American authors, none have outsold it, and I can see why.  And yet, if you’ve been following my progress through the novel, you know my feelings don’t stop there.

Scarlett is a major obstacle for me, and I think there’s little that can be done about her—she is the novel, and your take on her will inevitably dominate your feelings about the book itself.  Every other character distances themselves from the reader at times, sometimes hundreds of pages at a time, but Scarlett never gives us breathing room.  Mitchell wants us to encounter her very closely….but why?  There is a tragic arc to Scarlett’s life—she matches the classical definition of the tragic hero whose flaw is her downfall—but to me that arc doesn’t pay off.  In part this is because I think the novel is too unwieldy in length to give resonance to her story: by the time Scarlett is ready to face her flaw and acknowledge her tragedy, it has been too long for me.  Like Rhett, I had been willing to wait for her, but not that long—her revelations at the end are no more appealing to me than they are to Rhett, and like him, I no longer give a damn about her.  I think there were opportunities to avoid this in the novel, but Mitchell would have had to write a very different book, and almost certainly a much shorter one, in order to make it work for me.  And frankly, I’m not sure Mitchell wants the character to work—a tragic hero, in the end, at least gets the benefit of realizing what they’ve become.  Scarlett undoes this personal growth, though—her last lines in the novel more or less mirror the last lines in the film, if that’s your only tie to the story.  It’s as though the aging Lear, holding the dying Cordelia in his arms, is bending over her and with the last lines of the play says “Dear, tell me how much you love me.”  It feels a bit profane—as though the character and the work are punching the reader who has let down any guard.  I had at least tried to invest myself in Scarlett’s growth, in her ability to recognize the emptiness of her “old charm”, etc., only to find at the end that she is not moved.  Even Macbeth, the tyrant and slayer of children, earns something true and good in his final cry of “Lay on, Macduff”, his willingness to face Fate and not to run from it.  But Scarlett is denied this, and to me it reads, as it has for much of the book, as though Mitchell has nothing but contempt for Scarlett—as though she wants to punish Scarlett for being herself as much as Booth Tarkington punished Alice Adams.  I know not everyone reads the character, and her relationship to the author, in this way, but the feeling is too overwhelmingly present for me to understand how else to see her.

A cartoon threatening that the KKK would lynch...

An image from 1868, depicting the work of the Klan in whose success all the characters invest themselves to some degree. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Lastly, what can I say about this novel’s attitude towards race?  I’ll give one example to explain how complicated this is for me—at one point, midway through the novel, I am fully invested in a very tense chapter.  All of the characters we know and care about are working against a very difficult circumstance, in which the wrong word or action may mean death for several beloved people.  I know I personally was almost on the edge of my seat as I read, hoping they would beat the odds, hoping that no one would be caught, cheering them on: Mitchell’s writing was working very well.  And then I stopped and realized what I was doing.  All of these characters were in trouble because they, as members of the Ku Klux Klan, had killed a free African-American man in an act of vigilante justice, and I was cheering their ability to escape without being caught by the soldiers stationed in Georgia for the prevention of this kind of violence.  And the disgust I felt for myself and the characters and the author and the whole weird mess of the situation was really awful.

Now, I know the novel can be read in all sorts of ways: all I can tell you is how I read it.  I don’t like being caught up like that, any more than I like a novel to get me rooting for a rapist to assault a woman and get away with it, any more than I could read a novel about the Holocaust and be rooting for the Gestapo to find the Jews hidden in the attic.  I’m not saying that a novel can’t help me explore what it must be like to be a man who commits sexually violent acts, or what it was like to be a German citizen in 1942 and to see the world through those eyes.  I’ve read novels that helped me explore those viewpoints in ways that unsettled me and challenged me, but didn’t make me feel as though I was being co-opted, being asked to stand on the sidelines and cheer.  GWTW is the latter kind of experience, for me as a reader, and for that reason I found many moments of my reading experience deeply unpleasant, to the point that I didn’t see at times how I could continue (in spite of my investment in the characters and in the resolution of the plot).  This is a big complicated novel, and I know there are a lot of places to grab hold of it—I could even feel that complexity as I read, but for some reason I couldn’t grab a hold of it in any way but the way I did.  I can’t explain why.

Historical Insight:

There are two different grades to be given here. As an insight into the South in the 1930s, and as it must have been for Mitchell to grow up in throughout the early 20th Century, it is astonishingly important: a novel that expresses all the complex relationships Southerners had to the idea of the “Lost Cause” and the antebellum South and the imposition of Northerners and their values, etc.  I think there are echoes here also of the hunger and fear that gripped many families during the Great Depression, since Scarlett goes through real deprivation at Tara at the end of the war, and I think there’s something powerful to explore there also.  This is a vitally important book for understanding how the world and the country’s past look through the lens of that society, and Mitchell is very good at providing a wide range of characters and experiences to help illuminate her vision of the war and its aftermath.

But this book has also imprinted on the minds of many Americans a vision of the South and of Reconstruction that is appallingly misinformed—it depicts slavery in the kindest, gentlest possible way, without anyone to challenge or offer context for shockingly bold claims about how nice life was for slaves and how much they appreciated it (and really preferred it to freedom in a number of respects).  It depicts Reconstruction about as accurately as the Nazis depicted German Jews in the Weimar Republic—it regularly plays up stereotypical racist images of freed black men as lazy, peanut-eating, barefoot, illiterate idiots who divided their day between voting illegally to tax ex-Confederates and give the money to carpetbaggers, taking wages and then doing no work for their employers, and sexually assaulting any white woman they could get their hands on (knowing that the Yankee courts would always protect them, no matter how many white women they raped).  I really can’t pull any punches here—the descriptions of Reconstruction are almost criminally irresponsible, and I can’t forgive them under any flag labeled “fiction”.  It was, as far as I can tell, what many Southerners truly believed in the 1930s—that, had it not been for the noble members of the Klan, the South would have lost every cent it had to Northern thieves, and every white woman would have been raped or murdered with impunity.  But it is almost unendurable for me to read.  These little snippets about the Reconstruction era only occur every so often—in total terms, maybe only 1% of the book is given over to the kind of content I’m describing.  But it doesn’t take much to really turn my stomach, and much of this certainly did.

Rating:

Given all of that, how can I encapsulate my response in a phrase?  I’ll say it this way: under my unscientific rating scale, I’ll give Gone With the Wind a “let the reader beware”.  I think it is one of the most important books in the nation’s history.  I think anyone wanting to understand the nation’s history with race, anyone wanting to understand the North-South dynamic, and anyone wanting a window into how this nation changed and grew over the course of the 20th Century almost has to read this.  It would be required reading in any class I tried to teach on those subjects.  And I think it has many moments where, away from the elements that disturb me so much, it is powerful storytelling by one of the nation’s better yarn-spinners—Mitchell might have been our Dickens (if not our Shakespeare), given time to grow.  But I do not think I will ever be able to read it again.  I know many people who, given their preferences as readers, would get no joy, and much pain, from trying to read it even once.  For those who can read it, I think there is something important about approaching the book thoughtfully—ready to interrogate your own feelings, informed about the real history of the period, willing to let the story work on you as it goes.  This is probably the most troubling and problematic book I will read in my Pulitzer journey, as well as one of the most important to the nation.  It is almost certain to be the most memorable of the Pulitzer winners, for me personally.  And I think I’ll have to leave it there.

The Last Word:

It’s one of my testaments to Mitchell’s talents as a writer that, unlike most of the novels I’ve read for this blog, I wasn’t keeping an eye out for a good “last word” passage as I finished—I was too engrossed in the events, to attentive to the conversations, to pick out the right bit for sharing.  As always, I hope to show you some of her most characteristic writing and a glimpse of the novel at its peak—moreover I give her the last word, and not myself, in a chance to win you over if she will.  As it is, I’ve come back to the novel and am a bit uncertain what to select: in the end, I’ve decided to share a bit of Rhett Butler being blunt with Scarlett, which to me is almost always the high point of the book.  This isn’t their very last conversation, but it comes late in the story, when Rhett is ready to let Scarlett have a bit more truth than even he usually loads upon her.  The topic, as usual, is her feelings for him, her feelings for Ashley Wilkes, and Rhett’s rising level of frustration:

“Oh, yes, you’ve been faithful to me because Ashley wouldn’t have you.  But, hell, I wouldn’t have grudged him your body.  I know how little bodies mean—especially women’s bodies.  But I do grudge him your heart and your dear, hard, unscrupulous, stubborn mind.  He doesn’t want your mind, the fool, and I don’t want your body.  I can buy women cheap.  But I do want your mind and your heart, and I’ll never have them, any more than you’ll ever have Ashley’s mind.  And that’s why I’m sorry for you.”

“Sorry—for me?”

“Yes, sorry because you’re such a child, Scarlett.  A child crying for the moon.  What would a child do with the moon if it got it?  And what would you do with Ashley?  Yes, I’m sorry for you—sorry to see you throwing away happiness with both hands and reaching out for something that would never make you happy.  I’m sorry because you are such a fool you don’t know there can’t ever be happiness except when like mates like.  If I were dead, if Miss Melly were dead and you had your precious honorable lover, do you think you’d be happy with him?  Hell, no!  You would never know him, never know what he was thinking about, never understand him any more than you understand music and poetry and books or anything that isn’t dollars and cents.  Whereas we, dear wife of my bosom, could have been perfectly happy if you had ever given us half a chance, for we are so much alike.  We are both scoundrels, Scarlett, and nothing is beyond us when we want something.  We could have been happy, for I loved you and I know you, Scarlett, down to your bones, in a way that Ashley could never know you.  And he would despise you if he did know. . . . But no, you must go mooning all your life after a man you cannot understand.  And I, my darling, will continue to moon after whores.  And, I dare say we’ll do better than most couples.”

“Scarlett did not realize that all the rules of the game had been changed and that honest labor could no longer earn its just reward.”

I have to be completely honest.  I’ve reached the point where I resent and am angered by Gone With the Wind.  I am not happy about this—truth be told, I wish I loved it—but I cannot accurately describe my emotions in any other way.  Reading it puts me in such a foul mood that my wife leaves the room if she sees it in my hands: I’m trying not to let my difficulties with the book spill over into my attitude about life in general, but I don’t think I’m entirely successful.  I’m going to try and make some kind of record of where I’m at here in a way that doesn’t become a full-blown rant, but fans of the novel or the movie should be aware that I’ve got some things to say I feel strongly, and I think I need to say them as clearly as I can.  I really want to emphasize that none of this should be taken as me criticizing the tastes or opinions of people who enjoy the novel—there are a lot of ways to take on a book, and I know there must be many ways to take this one on and get some joy from it.  I just have no access to those particular doorways.

I’ll start with the point where the above quotation is inserted.  I have done my best to give the novel every piece of lee-way I can, acknowledging that Mitchell is just trying to represent a Confederate viewpoint in the statements made by her characters.  At first I took some umbrage at the narrator’s comments, which distort a true picture of the South before the war, but I saw some indications that perhaps the narrator is meant to be merely an extension of Scarlett’s perspective, and I chose to read the narrator in that light.  But the passage that follows the quotation I’ve posted is clearly not Scarlett, since she “did not realize” any of this.  And what Mitchell provides is full of exaggerations and half-truths that depicts the Reconstruction Era in the South as being factually what the Confederates of that era only pretended that it was.  It is devastatingly unfair to the freed slaves, and far too severe an apologetic for Southern white attitudes about blacks.  I cannot figure out why the novel is taking this turn, more and more—presenting as fact (and not just as the opinions of characters) a South that never was, and a Reconstruction policy that is distorted almost beyond recognition.  I am sure there are ways of reading the novel and setting this aside, but as a historian (and as someone who worked very hard as a teacher to push back against the false narratives about Reconstruction that GWTW is presenting, and which still dominate not just people’s vague ideas about Reconstruction but also the textbooks read by schoolchildren), it’s too much for me.  I don’t know how many pages a person can read of a misogynist talking about women before a reader gets to decide that they’ve heard enough.  I don’t know how many pages a person can read of an anti-Semite talking about Jews before a reader gets to decide that they’ve heard enough.  I only know that I’ve heard enough Confederate apologetics about the lazy, shiftless blacks who preferred life as slaves to know that I’m about done.  And I still have 450 pages to read.

I want to be clear—I’m not labeling Mitchell with some blanket term like “Confederate apologist” as though it sums up her being.  I honestly don’t know what Mitchell set out to do—Jillian, who has read extensively about Mitchell’s life, assures me of her personal virtues, and noted some kindnesses she extended to the black community in Atlanta.  I can’t argue with any of that, and I don’t want to—I’m very willing to believe it about her.  I just don’t know why she felt moved to write such an enormous novel that advocates such a poisonous view of the freeing of the slaves, and it seems to me that she is casting at least some of that viewpoint as though it is coming from her directly (if I misread her, apologies to Mitchell, but I’m a smart fellow and I can’t work out how else to take this).  I recognize that in part she is trying to capture the attitudes of her forebears, and that she believes those people were possessed of great virtue—I sympathize with her desire to “tell their story” and to show what was good about them.  With respect to her, I feel the same way about Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, and yet I can praise their wisdom and their contributions to the nation (and the world) while not excusing their participation in a vicious and cruel system that gave them luxury on the backs of people they owned.  I cannot work out why the novel reads as it does.  It would be good for me if the novel turns away from the track it is now on.  I confess that I have few hopes in that regard now—I’m ready for a very long trek, and I’ll do my best to read Mitchell’s work generously.  But I feel as though she has taken advantage of my generosity—or perhaps I should say that the text of the novel has done so (and I’ll leave aside what Mitchell and I would say personally to one another, were we to meet: perhaps we would find more common ground than I now can discover).

I think part of my problem is that I really can’t stand to be in the room with Scarlett.  I’ve tried to read her in as many ways as I can, and no matter what tack I take, I end up feeling that I’m imposing on Scarlett the character I want to read about, rather than letting her be who she is.  I don’t demand likable characters—honestly, I don’t!  I’d say I don’t like any of the characters in The Great Gatsby, for example, and yet I praise it as a brilliant and enjoyable novel.  I take interest in the vitality of those characters—in the ways their actions and thoughts are revealing about their society and about America.  I just can’t get there with Scarlett—I think in part this is due to my feeling that Mitchell’s pacing of the lean years at Tara is much too slow.  An editor ought to have tightened it up, if you ask me—the same cycle of events and emotions is repeated too often.  I imagine it’s for effect—getting me into the desperate mindset of Scarlett and her extended family—but it just seemed to sap all my energy.  I was trying to read Scarlett as a survivor in a way that inspired something—hope, respect, etc.—but in the end she comes across to me as being mostly a survivor like the Thénardiers of Les Miserables fame, a sort of “clear away the barricades, and we’re still ‘ere” figure.  I find the Thénardiers fascinating, and can take them in small doses, but if Hugo had written the novel about them as the principal characters, putting us in their heads and lives for hundreds of pages at a stretch, I don’t think I could have enjoyed it, or gotten enough out of the experience to warrant the effort.  I know Scarlett can be read in other ways, and goodness I wish I could.  It does me no good to dislike a book I cannot help but read, or its main character.  I’ll keep trying.  But I don’t find Scarlett revealing or complicated—I just resent being stuck with her.

And I want to emphasize that I’m not taking a shot at Mitchell’s abilities as a novelist here—she writes really fascinating characters.  But she sets them aside for hundreds of pages (like Rhett) or treats them as minor contrivances (like Old Miss Fontaine, who frankly I wanted the book to adopt as its new focus).  Rhett’s return may help me out a bit, and I’m sure I’ll find more side characters to enjoy.  I just think the decision to put Scarlett front and center is a colossal mistake—at the least, I can say that this decision proves alienating to me as a reader.  It may well be that Mitchell didn’t want someone like me—or wouldn’t, if asked about it today.  I can respect that.  I just don’t fully understand it—understand what she’s doing with Scarlett in the spotlight, and why—and I wish I did.

A Bureau agent stands between armed groups of ...

A Freedmen’s Bureau agent stands between armed groups of Southern whites and Freedmen in this 1868 picture from Harper’s Weekly. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And as far as Reconstruction goes, sure, there are points to be raised about a Republican Congress’s desire for vengeance against the South, and the misdeeds of some profiteering “carpetbaggers”.  But these ethical mis-steps pale in comparison to the Black Codes (about which Mitchell says nothing, other than to ridicule the notion that such a thing could ever have been on the minds of Southerners) and the resistance to the Freedmen’s Bureau (an overmatched organization whose best efforts to protect the freed slaves from discrimination and rebuild the economy of the South were ultimately fruitless in the face of implacable Southern resistance to the Civil Rights Act of 1866, and the Bureau’s own existence).  I don’t demand total fairness from a novel, but I do expect a historical novel to try to hew a line close to reality.  And I am especially demanding of this when the errors made by the novelist perpetuate a damaging racist view of the time period in question.  I’m not calling Mitchell a racist because I don’t know how to distinguish between novel and novelist, or how to be fair to 1930s mindsets, etc.  But I can’t fairly acquit her novel of the charge.

This is hard to write, because I know how much this novel is loved by many Americans (including one blogger who has been relentlessly fair and friendly in our discussions of the novel), and I take no delight in the position I have reached vis-a-vis Gone With the Wind.  Maybe someday I’ll find a different angle on the work, and one that rehabilitates it in such a way that I see its great power for those who treasure it.  For now, all I can do is throw up my hands helplessly and admit that I resent the book, and I cannot fathom where I will get the energy to read another 450 pages of it.  The posts may jump more pages at a time, in future, since I have no interest in dragging the novel through the mud—if I can’t say anything new or revealing, I won’t revisit the negative feelings I’ve expressed above.  Onward I press, towards a review and The Late George Apley.

“As God is my witness, I’m never going to be hungry again.”

As anyone familiar with the movie knows, this is the epic conclusion to the first half of the film (I think it literally is the last line before the act break, isn’t it?)—Scarlett, her mouth full of bitter root, having just survived the fiery fall of Atlanta, making an important personal breakthrough.  I have to be honest, though.  In the novel it doesn’t play that well for me: it feels a bit forced, as though Mitchell wanted to rush the character to some kind of critical decision a bit before she’s built up the character enough to support it.  Scarlett’s a tricky one.  I did like the comment from Diablevert at Along With a Hammer (my most indispensable companions on this Pulitzer path) who points out that Scarlett really has to be the distracted, self-involved person she is at the outset because otherwise it would be nearly impossible to remain sympathetic to her later on.  I’m not positive I agree with Diablevert, but I definitely can see that angle, and I have a feeling it may lie at the heart of why the novel is written as it is.  For me, the frustration is that the line comes across as a woman who’s ready to take more charge of her life, but it comes at the heels of a whole string of instances where she’s heavily dependent on others.  I just don’t see the self-reliance in Scarlett yet—in fact, I feel like Margaret Mitchell’s invested most of the first 400 pages convincing me it’s not there—and I can’t work out how she thinks I can turn on a dime like this.

I did like the whole depiction of the siege of Atlanta—the little details feel very vivid and accurate, and I have to assume a lot of it came from folks’ memories of those weeks.  I am glad she didn’t shy away much from the violence and the agony of the wounded, and the desolation of the nearly empty city on that last day certainly hit home.  For setting, I think Mitchell’s second to nobody I’ve read so far—she’s less poetic than Josephine W. Johnson was in Now in November, but I think I see more when I read her.

Rhett’s sudden decision to enlist after getting Scarlett and Melanie out of the city was another stumble, for me—again, I feel like Mitchell had very carefully built up a clear sense of the character, and she hauled on the reins way too fast.  I understand that Mitchell wants me to see the effect of Scarlett’s words on Rhett, but it’s badly played—a man with Rhett’s integrity (a word I dwelt on, last post) doesn’t move like that without a much better set up than a couple of choice remarks from Scarlett.  She makes plenty of remarks, and so far none of them have come close to landing on him.  Hollywood romantic comedies and Lifetime movies-of-the-week rely on this kind of thing, with characters whose sudden decisions are there solely to serve the plot, but Mitchell’s much better than that, and the false move clanged for me.  I feel as though it was more her embarrassment for Rhett that motivated the move than anything else.  A note to our author: when your characters are basically coming out and saying openly “I really have no explanation for why I’m behaving this way”, it’s probably a good sign that you haven’t set up the decision.  This is especially true for characters who are otherwise incredibly perceptive about human beings, including themselves, and their motives.

So, I’m still taken by a lot of things in the book, but I’m a bit fretful that Mitchell’s losing a handle on her two best characters at this point.  We have a long way to go, and she’s going to need to settle them back down.  The question of race continues to plague me—in this section, it’s my utter bafflement that Mitchell has to depict slaves as being so freaking stupid.  I mean, almost every conversation between Scarlett and a slave in this portion of the novel involves the slave being a total idiot, and Scarlett having to (not so) patiently walk them through incredibly obvious decisions.  It’s almost on the level of “Miss Scarlett, the cow is thirsty.” “Why, give her some water, then.”  “Why, Miss Scarlett! You are the smartest woman!  Water….who’dve thunk it?”  I get that at least some of Prissy’s ineptitude has been set up for, and works into the plot, but mostly it just feels like really simplistic argument—Scarlett (in the voice of the narrator) keeps wondering why on earth the Yankees want to free such mindless livestock.

This is where I get frustrated with Mitchell.  I’m willing to go along with the idea that Mitchell wants me to see what Scarlett saw, and that part of this is her attitude about slavery.  I have been uncomfortable with this aspect of the book, but I’ve done my best to go along with it and see what it illuminates for me.  But the problem here is that the slaves (as narrated) really are stupid.  In every other matter (the war, Ashley’s feelings for Melanie, Rhett’s true character, etc.), Mitchell gives me enough information to see both sides—to see Scarlett’s view of the world, but then also to see how the world really appears (or at least how it would appear to other people).  With slavery, there’s only one view.  Slaves are dumb animals, and they’re lucky this angry, pouting 19 year old is around to shout orders at them or these poor childlike creatures would die where they sat.  If the novel has any intention of presenting even brief glimpses of slavery that call Scarlett’s attitudes into question, I’d like Mitchell to get busy doing it.  Great literature can do this—if it is honest enough, it can even transcend its age.  William Shakespeare is writing in an age of widespread antisemitism, and may well have been antisemitic himself, but his anti-Jewish comedy, The Merchant of Venice, presents Shylock as a human enough character that the play can be (and has been) reinterpreted for modern audiences with almost no changes to the original script.  The Bard—maybe in spite of himself, or maybe with great skill—gives us enough to both see Jews as 16th Century Englishmen would have and to see them as the unfairly embattled minorities that they truly would have been at the time.  I want Mitchell to just try to be that good at giving me the humanity of Mammy and Pork and Prissy—even just one of the three.  Until she does, I don’t think I can ever really get past that portion of the novel, and I think it’s a fair standard to hold her to, since she’s clearly a novelist of significant talent.

In short, I feel like I’m at the turning point here, myself, along with Scarlett.  I’ve either been set up for some real redemption (and a novel that makes my top 3 in the Pulitzers read thus far) or for a real disappointment (and a novel whose strengths can’t outweigh its stumbles, at least not for me).  Time will tell which one lies in store.

“He seemed to take pleasure not only in affronting the sincere and red-hot loyalties of Atlanta but in presenting himself in the worst possible light.”

Cropped screenshot of Clark Gable from the tra...

I mean, look at him. The Most Interesting Man in the World learned about Dos Equis from THIS GUY. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have to say, I’m really falling for Rhett Butler.  I think he’s about as interesting, entertaining, and deep a character as I’ve run into on the journey thus far—perhaps not quite equal to Wharton’s best work in Age of Innocence, or the very best characterizations in Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey, but this is excellent territory to be in.  He’s almost single-handedly moving my opinion of Mitchell, because I think he so clearly complicates the image of the South at the time—Butler is Southern born-and-bred from an excellent Charleston family, and yet he sees through his society with incredible perception—and because I think she so clearly agrees with him much of the time.  He’s helping clarify parts of the novel that I’ve been a little uneasy about, and the roller-coaster he’s taking through Atlanta society is revealing most of these folks for who they really are, to the point that they hate him for it.  If the rest of the novel can live up to the pace and tone she’s taken here in Part Two, this is a really great read, a much more complicated novel than its reputation gives it credit for being.  Point to Mitchell, in other words (and some apologies for my harsher comments in earlier posts).

Melanie Hamilton Wilkes, too, is really growing on me—she’s not just a goody-two-shoes, and her courage is apparently greater than almost anyone we’ve met thus far (including the soldiers).  What’s better is that Mitchell makes me believe her, since it would be easy to have a tough yet unfailingly kind character come across as a little too perfect.  But Melanie has just enough edge to keep away such thoughts, and generally she seems to represent Rhett’s inverted mirror image.  Both of them are people with the courage of their convictions—Melanie chooses to turn that integrity towards civilization and constructiveness, while Rhett’s integrity makes him a cynic and a bit of a scoundrel.  But each of them know the quality resident in the other, and there is a remarkable respect shown in their limited interactions, given that Melanie’s about the most beloved person in Atlanta in 1864 and Rhett about the most despised.  Another point to Mitchell.

Ashley Wilkes, in a fairly minor role in this section, is still nicely complicated—we don’t really know what he thinks, largely because the narrator seems to be afflicted with Scarlett’s blindnesses, and Scarlett has no clue how to make sense of Ashley most of the time.  But this is okay, since this is the section where we want some mystery about Ashley, I think—just why is he fighting, and what does he think of the Cause?  How does he really feel about Melanie, and how does he feel about Scarlett?  What is he willing to do about either of them?  I’m fairly certain Ashley possesses more badness than the novel knows yet—I wouldn’t be at all shocked if, on an ethical level, he’s a worse man than Rhett Butler in some respects (and maybe the ones that matter).  Given his sterling reputation, this only makes him more interesting to me.  I wish Mitchell would give me a bit more with him when he’s home, but still, a nod in her direction for another excellently handled character.

I am a little uneasy about the treatment of Scarlett, though.  Mitchell gives us Scarlett, time and again, as the coward, the schemer, the fool.  She doesn’t understand half of what Rhett says, or Ashley for that matter.  And it doesn’t seem to be that difficult—we the readers aren’t confused.  So we’re left undeniably seeing Scarlett as somewhat stupid—a child who can be bought off with a hat or a new dress, a simpleton who doesn’t know what she wants except on a very instinctive and irrational level.  I can’t help thinking that Mitchell hated Scarlett a bit, or at least that Scarlett on some level represented someone in her life that she wanted a bit of comeuppance for.  This doesn’t necessarily make for bad writing, I should note, but it does make me uncomfortable at times (just as I was uncomfortable with the relative glee Booth Tarkington seemed to have in stepping on Alice Adams’s hopes and dreams….a young lady not that different from Scarlett in some respects).  I don’t quite know what Scarlett’s doing in the novel, and since she’s our main character, that is just a little destabilizing as I read.  I do get the sense that she’s a survivor, but not like Rhett and Melanie are.  She’s a survivor because she’s content to hide in the shadows, to live off of blackmail or resentment, to nod along with society while secretly disagreeing.  In other words, the integrity that’s so appealing in Rhett and Melanie is light-years away from Scarlett, or so I’m reading her right now.  I can come up with reasons to excuse her, but I don’t personally find them very compelling….again, I feel a bit as though Mitchell’s stacked that deck.  We’ll see how I handle Scarlett as she comes through the war—perhaps I’ll find other sides to her character.

I’ve complained a bit about Mitchell, but I’m actually enjoying a lot about the novel, so I’ll keep the shots brief here at the end.  But I have to say, it is so bizarre to me how invisible half of Scarlett’s world is.  She has a son, though he is never actually in the room, and only rarely remembered or mentioned.  Where is he, if not with his mother?  With the slaves, of course…..who are also never in the room, and really almost never remembered or mentioned.  About 99% of Part Two gives me Scarlett as a dancing woman at parties, a nurse at the hospital (occasionally, for the flirting) and a whole lot of murmured conversations in the parlor, often with Rhett Butler.  But this can’t possibly have been her whole life—she would have to deal with her son sometimes, and with the slaves who are raising him.  Again, we can say “that’s not what Mitchell’s writing” and okay, she can make that choice, but I find it weird.  Anybody who wrote a biography of Winston Churchill that didn’t mention World War II would be making a choice, but it would be a weird one, since it omits some really formative parts of the man’s experience.  It’s hard not to feel that Scarlett’s relationships to her growing son and to the slaves who will soon be free are so insignificant that the author is right to waste zero time on them.  She certainly has enough pages to work with, and I personally feel that her decisions to omit certain elements and storylines seem very strategic to me.  More on that as it develops.

“Atlanta was of her own generation, crude with the crudities of youth and as headstrong and impatient as herself.”

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.

Cropped screenshot of Leslie Howard from the t...

“Why, no, I’m not fighting to protect slavery….just to protect the entire civilization built on slavery (and so slavery too, but implicitly, as polite people should always do).” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

“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.

“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?