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.