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.
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?