“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.

14 comments on ““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.”

  1. Donna says:

    Some have viewed this novel as particular to the time it was written, that is, during the Great Depression when men could not get work and were shamed that their women were supporting the household. Also, that it could not have been written at any other time between Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement. How does that framework help with your thoughts on this book. The treatment of the slaves and then former-slaves-now-citizens is quite appalling. Mammy and Rhett are the most interesting people in the book, and the smartest.

    I was a particular devotee of this novel as a teenager (in the early 1970s), but the last time I read it (a few years ago) I was particularly taken aback by Scarlett. Why can’t she see the vapidness of her “ideal”.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Donna, thanks for the comment! I’ll think about the Depression angle, which is a new one on me. I’m sure that, on some level, it is a product of its time, as all literature is, and that it will be good for me to try to put the novel in that context. I’m not sure it will really rehabilitate the novel for me, but maybe I’ll glimpse what people see who fall in love with the work.

      And as noted, my current take on Scarlett isn’t very positive—I can’t work out how to see her in a way that lets me enjoy her presence in the book. I think the frustration with Scarlett’s ideal is part of that, but I feel like it goes further into her personality…I may never be able to articulate it, though.

  2. bybeebooks says:

    I think Scarlett is front and center because Margaret Mitchell absolutely loved Vanity Fair. She internalized it. I didn’t realize this until I read VF. I was shocked at the similarities between Becky Sharp and Scarlett O’Hara.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      An interesting idea—I’ve never read Vanity Fair. Maybe I will someday, and see if I get the parallels you’re suggesting. 🙂

    • Jillian ♣ says:

      Margaret Mitchell said she had never read Vanity Fair before writing Gone With the Wind. She read Thackeray’s novel after publishing GWTW because so many thought Scarlett was inspired by Becky Sharp. Mitchell saw some similarities but says she wasn’t inspired by Vanity Fair.

      I’ve read the first two thirds of Vanity Fair and cannot say I find Becky Sharp any more similar to Scarlet than Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina, or Edna Pontellier.

      Charlotte Bronte, however, loved Vanity Fair and dedicated the second printing of Jane Eyre to William Thackeray. They ended up friends. 🙂

      (James, in case it went to your SPAM folder, I answered your email a couple days ago. No need to answer — I understand you’re busy. I just didn’t want you to think I’d ignored it.)

      Cheers!! 🙂

  3. graham says:

    to be fair, if you don’t demand, you definitely strongly prefer likeable characters.
    which I can see, (and I never plan on reading “Gone with the wind,” so this is perhaps irrelevant) but perhaps more people are willing to ignore/go with/forgive traits of a character with which they disagree.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Graham, this is totally a fair point to raise—I think the reason I’m dwelling on it is that so many of the novel’s fans explicitly talk about loving the character of Scarlett (and even identifying with her), and I’m finding either emotion almost impossible to understand (which is not to say that I’m arguing with anyone’s take on the character). But again, yes, I think I do prefer characters with whom I can empathize—I think “likeable” may take it too far, though I’m willing to believe I’m not being perceptive enough about my preferences—and that limits the scope of what novels I’ll get into. It’s interesting, though—this weekend, for example, I watched a number of episodes from the BBC’s Office series (featuring David Brent—not a likeable man), and rewatched a movie called “Notes on a Scandal” which features Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett playing two pretty seriously unlikeable characters. Are my interests different between films and novels? I can’t imagine why they would be, but maybe they are. Food for thought, anyway!

      • Jillian ♣ says:

        Scarlett is a horrible woman. But she is incredibly courageous. She “never says die.” She’s like that scene in The Last Samarai where Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) is in the rain and being challenged by the guy with the sword (Ujio), and every time he’s hit, he just keeps getting back up, over, and over, and over. Scarlett is steel, and because she is steel and was raised to manipulate men to get what she wants, she is incredibly warped. It’s like Mitchell explains (through Grandma Fontaine, if I remember) – buck wheat bends. Scarlett doesn’t bend. A horrible bi-product of the genteel Southern belle class that had no idea what it was getting into when it taught a “never say die” personality that it’s okay to lie and cheat to get your man. She is willing to do anything to win. Which would be awful if she was just sitting around twiddling her thumbs through life. But unluckily, she was tossed into a war. And where most Southern belles would faint and swoon and give up under the pressure, she stands, she survives, she does whatever it takes not to die. Yes, she breaks every possible rule of civility. (Including that women shouldn’t be business men in her era.) But she lives. That’s why people love her, find her intriguing, are inspired by her incredible courage, and can’t imagine being her best friend.

        — # —

        • Jillian ♣ says:

          I think the “buckwheat” metaphor is in reference to bending with the times, by the way — not bending as a person. I think Grandma Fontaine is saying that Scarlett does bend because she doesn’t whine about the old days and try to keep everything the same as the way it was last year. If you can’t bend with the changing times, you won’t survive, is her point. I was referring to the fact that Scarlett won’t bend her will, which in reflection has nothing to do with the buckwheat reference in the novel. So ignore that part in my comment. 🙂

          — # —

          “Well, this is the reason. We bow to the inevitable. We’re not
          wheat, we’re buckwheat! When a storm comes along it flattens ripe
          wheat because it’s dry and can’t bend with the wind. But ripe
          buckwheat’s got sap in it and it bends. And when the wind has
          passed, it springs up almost as straight and strong as before. We
          aren’t a stiff-necked tribe. We’re mighty limber when a hard
          wind’s blowing, because we know it pays to be limber. When trouble
          comes we bow to the inevitable without any mouthing, and we work
          and we smile and we bide our time. And we play along with lesser
          folks and we take what we can get from them. And when we’re strong
          enough, we kick the folks whose necks we’ve climbed over. That, my
          child, is the secret of the survival.” And after a pause, she
          added: “I pass it on to you.”

        • jwrosenzweig says:

          Jillian, as always, I’m glad to have your take on Scarlett—I just don’t see the “incredible courage” angle, much as I’d like to. I’m not bothered by her breaking rules of “civility”: I’m a fan of her desire to break out of the iron straits women are placed into in her society. I’m bothered by her hypocrisy, her jealousy, her cruelty, and her absolute unwillingness to extend to anyone else the grace that has been given her. But I’m not really complaining that I don’t like her—as noted, there are characters I enjoy watching that I don’t like. I’m complaining that I don’t enjoy watching Scarlett, and I’m hanged if I know exactly why. I keep trying to work it out, but mostly I just keep running into admitting that I just don’t enjoy reading about her, unless she’s engaged in conversation with one of the characters who does feel alive to me (like Rhett or Grandma Fontaine). It may well be a gendered thing—I like strong women characters, but maybe there’s something about this particular kind of strong woman that isn’t connecting with my experiences as a man—and that’s worth pondering.

      • graham says:

        Yes, but in The Office, especially the british version, we’re explicitly asked to laugh at, not with, David Brent, and we’re given Tim as the world-weary voice of reason.

        • jwrosenzweig says:

          Graham: fair point, although I think there is something resonant about Brent (that’s a long sidebar, though, and I may be wrong—I do think that on some level Gervais, and to a lesser extent Merchant, want us to connect with Brent, despite his many visible flaws). But to turn to my other, admittedly more obscure example, the movie I mentioned has no “voice of reason”. Neither does “The Great Gatsby”, the literary example I used in my post. Maybe I’m just kidding myself, but I think I do connect with art that has no likable characters. That’s why I’d like to work out what it is I really do and don’t like about GWTW, since I think my tastes are more complicated than that. But it may be that I’m clinging to a few “exceptions that prove the rule”, and than in all honesty my tastes aren’t all that complicated. Potentially a topic for another “How I Read” post, I guess. 🙂

          Side note: Tim and Dawn’s relationship is, in my opinion, maybe the best depiction of an actual relationship between two human beings in sitcom history (if not television history). Martin Freeman is such an extraordinary actor.

  4. graham says:

    I did not read the Great Gatsby, largely because I do not care about rich people.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      It’s always so hard to tell if you’re being sarcastic or not, Graham. 🙂 If you’re being serious, I do think it’s a shame, since I think the novel is a great exploration of what wealth does to Americans (or can do), and I think it’s also a really interesting look at longing and desire and the idea of the ideal. But I also recognize that lots of people don’t care to pick up Gatsby for exactly that reason, and heck, there’s no shortage of interesting books in the world, so skipping this one is hardly a loss of any major proportion. 🙂

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