“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.

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

  1. jwrosenzweig says:

    A side note on Ellen O’Hara—how is it she never considered that her three girls would have to be as determined, hard-working, and responsible as she was? It just doesn’t fit the image of Ellen we’re given, or the few scenes in which she appears, to think that all three of her girls would be raised to think they would eat bon-bons all their lives. Ellen certainly isn’t like them, and neither is the Tarletons’ mother. It’s almost as though all three O’Hara sisters were raised by (and to become) Aunt Pittypat, but I can’t work out why. If Mitchell’s doing something here, she’s awfully subtle about it…I feel more like it’s a slip on her part. Anyway, that’s an addendum I was thinking about after I posted tonight, and it didn’t feel worthy of a whole post, so here it is in commentville. 🙂

    • Jillian ♣ says:

      Maybe the “spoiled” thing skips a generation? Ellen wasn’t pampered, so she wants a softer world for Scarlett — sort of thing. Scarlett’s kids are fairly ignored, so they’ll probably pamper their kids. Rhett actually addresses this later.

      I can’t say I agree with your views on Rhett and Scarlett’s swift-turning decisions. I don’t care to sound out why — just that they are both spontaneous and it makes sense they’d make sudden decisions. In the heat of the situation, it makes sense (to me) they’d be a bit erratic.

      I’ve always viewed Prissy as quite intelligent. I assume she is play-acting to get out of work (and who wouldn’t pretend to be stupid, in her situation?)

      Mammy too seems wise and very intelligent to me.

      Eh, I don’t feel like arguing it. Just putting in a word. 🙂

      • jwrosenzweig says:

        I’m willing to believe there’s a good explanation for Ellen—skipping a generation is at least plausible—but I wish there had been a hint or two along the way about this. It’s one thing to “want something better” for your kids, but it seems pretty obvious that Ellen wanted “exactly the same thing” for her girls, that is, to marry a plantation owner like Gerald and settle down in relative comfort (but with the obligations Ellen had). If she wanted them to marry Atlanta bankers or something, it would make more sense to me. Anyway, we’ll see what comes down the pike.

        I don’t think Rhett is at all erratic—it’s about the last word I’d associate with his character in the first 400 pages of the book. To the contrary, he seems remarkably studied, very self-aware and deliberate about what he will and will not do or say. If he strikes you as erratic, I have to think it’s based on events later in the book, unless I fell asleep for a chapter. Scarlett, I’ll grant you, is erratic, but I’m finding it odd that she’s being erratic about this whole “let’s be responsible” thing when it’s been the one thing she studiously tried to avoid. I’m willing to cut her more slack, I guess, but I still find it weird and not very believable. Rhett’s decision is flat-out bizarre to me, and I can’t work out how Mitchell will convince me otherwise. I guess we’ll see.

        Hey, if I could believe that Prissy or Mammy are intelligent, I’d love to—I really wish there was anything in the novel thus far that could make me believe it about them. But I just don’t see it: play-acting to get out of work would make sense in some contexts, but in the contexts I’ve seen thus far, it just makes her look like an overwhelmed 4 year old. It’s fine not to argue this one, of course. 🙂 But I will say, I think I’m doing my best to be open to these things: I was really positive in my last blog post, and I’d have been really glad if there were some nice positive details about the slaves and some well-established decisions by characters I find interesting and appealing. I just don’t know how much more generous a read I can give Mitchell—at some point she has to meet me half-way, and in this section I’m just not seeing it. But tomorrow is another day, and we’ll see what it brings. 🙂

        • Jillian ♣ says:

          If he strikes you as erratic, I have to think it’s based on events later in the book, unless I fell asleep for a chapter.

          What? I don’t mean erratic as a character. I mean Atlanta is burning, the Confederates are dying around them yet still trying to fight, and it stands to reason Rhett might have an erratic moment.

          I have to say, I don’t think I understand what you’re talking about with Scarlett, either. Maybe because I’m not reading along with you. I wouldn’t call her epiphany-like moment “let’s be responsible” or an act in self-reliance. More like animal instinct, which she has shown throughout.

          Whether I understand or agree of course is moot, since it’s your read, not mine. So have fun (or not?), and cheers. 🙂

        • jwrosenzweig says:

          Ah, okay, I follow a bit better now—still, you set me up with the statement that Rhett is “spontaneous”, and I still don’t think it fits the Rhett in my head. But I do take your point that it’s plausible that the increased immediacy of the war has had an impact on him…I just wish I had seen any little indications in his dialogue that the man was having a change of heart before he makes a pretty enormous decision (and one that’s at odds with the way he’d been throughout the book thus far).

          Hmmm, I think re: Scarlett, the staginess of “as God is my witness, as God is my witness”, etc., makes it seem for all the world like Scarlett, at least, wants us to believe she’s having an epiphany. And certainly I do see a lot of changes in her thereafter that imply she’s had some kind of conversion experience. But I will grant that somebody had to get Tara organized and the plot has left Scarlett as the most plausible person to get that done. Maybe that’s all Mitchell was after with the scene—letting me know Scarlett’s going to have to take charge as an act of almost feral self-preservation—but it didn’t land that way for me. I think her command of the novel is getting a bit shaky (which happens to plenty of talented first-time novelists when they’re this far into this big of a book), but again that’s just my impression based on the number of “Huh?” moments I’ve run into recently.

          I wouldn’t say your thoughts on the matter are moot—certainly I’m taking them seriously, anyway! But I do feel as though you and I are destined to different reads of the book. For a host of reasons, you are more generous to Mitchell’s work than I am—maybe principally because you’re so well-informed about her as a person and it sounds like she was a really wonderful and virtuous person—and I think the novel’s slips are occurring in ways that for whatever reason clang louder in my ears than yours. To each his/her own, I guess. 🙂 I’m doing my best to have fun, and there’s still a lot of fun, but with a long way to go still I’m hoping Mitchell can get back on the track where I was having a great time. Cheers back, and happy reading!

        • Jillian ♣ says:

          It’s true: you are definitely reading her from a different perspective than I, who would roll out the red carpet and throw magnolia blossoms if I ever met her, ha! 🙂 (Sorry for the delay! This comment never appeared on my notifications, so I missed it. Cheers, and I hope all is going well!)

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