I finally finished Gone With the Wind this week (so now everyone in my immediate circle can stop hearing me talk about it). Since it is a 1500 page book, instead of devoting ten blog posts to the important literary themes, I will condense into one fragmented post. Read at your own risk.
I picked up Gone With the Wind because, for some reason, I craved the guidance of a strong female character. I read it once before, when I was probably 12, and it is amazing how a few years of life experience and maturity can completely change your perspective. I remember Scarlett O’Hara being a very likable heroine. I remember ‘the great love story’, when Rhett sweeps Scarlett off her feet and they fall madly in love with each other. And, I remember the majesty of the South, the ability for her people to pick themselves up after the war ended, and the presumptiousness of Melanie Hamilton.
But actually, the novel itself is none of these things. One of the reasons I love reading novels is because novels attempt to expose the harsh realities of the world. Unlike Disney movies, novels rarely have happy endings and they always try to reveal the injustices, the painfulness, and the raw, shallow, unattractiveness of life. I remember Scarlett O’Hara being a likable character, but in fact, she is incredibly flawed. While she illustrates some admirable qualities, such as her strong willed temper and dedication to herself, she is also utterly selfish, immature, and apathetic. She is solely motivated by money, will crush anyone who stands in her way of success, including her own husbands, and frankly, doesn’t give a damn about her reputation. Tragically, it is not until it is too late that she realizes how lonely she truly is, and how those who shielded her from the atrocities of the world have been pushed away. As much as I hate to admit it, I don’t think I would be friends with Scarlet O’Hara; she is not quite the heroine I sought out to read.
Additionally, I did not find this ‘great love story’ that Gone With the Wind promises to portray. Of course, there is a love story between Scarlett and Melanie–how incomprehensibly loyal Melanie is to Scarlett, and how Scarlett finally appreciates her friendship towards the bitter end of Melanie’s life. And, there is a love story between Scarlett and her Irish roots to Tara; everything Scarlett does–the mills, the store–is dedicated to preserving Tara and ensuring she always has this sacred place to come back to. But, a love story between a man and a woman, I am not sure Gone With the Wind has. Certainly, there is no love story between Scarlett and Charles, because she marries him to make Ashley jealous. And, no love story between Scarlett and Frank, because she marries him for his ‘money’. A slight love story between Melanie and Ashley, but we, as readers, never quite know much about their relationship. Certainly no love story between Scarlett and Ashley, because Scarlett basically, pathetically, spends 1400 pages trying to chase Ashley, seduce him, get him to divorce Melanie, and resigns her own happiness for him, until she finally realizes that he is of a different breed than she and he will be a dead weight on her for the rest of her life. There is a short love story between Rhett and his daughter, Bonnie, but it is also kind of disturbing how spoiled he treats her and definitely has some kind of Electra/Oedipal complex going there. The only slight love story present is between Scarlett and Rhett Butler, which, of course, they don’t end up together in the end anyways so that is also tragic and not the kind of fulfilling ending I hoped for.
Thus, I have been contemplating what draws people to this award winning novel. I think the argument can be made that the things prominent in pop culture reflect values of the time. Pop culture influences our attitudes and opinions because people are attracted to their interests and things that relate back to their own lives. Much like 50 Shades of Grey (yes, I cannot believe I am comparing that to a literary classic), I think part of the appeal regards a strong, untamable protagonist who succumbs to submission only by one person (I personally am not mature enough and therefore have never read 50 Shades of Grey, so my conclusions are based on what I have heard from other people). There is something intriguing to Rhett Butler, who is able to laugh cooly at Scarlett’s outbursts and disregard her temper completely; he is the only man who is able to corral her wild, independent, fiery spirit, and for some reason, being in submission and under someone else’s control is attractive to American readers. Perhaps it fulfills some kind of unconscious desire for us to be held in the same ‘captivity’.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I lived Gone With the Wind for the month it took me to read; it sparked every conversation I had, changed the way I looked at my life, and made me consider the strength of people’s characters. I began categorizing people I knew in my life as Scarlett’s, Rhett’s, Melanie’s, Ashley’s, Ellen’s, Gerald’s, etc. I appreciated Margaret Mitchell’s dedication to the South–while we can all agree slavery is a terrible, horrible, no good institution, she does an excellent job of portraying the reality of the Southern way of life and how the entire structure of the South was uprooted after the Civil War. It is a harboring tale. She says, “If the novel has a theme it is that of survival. What makes some people able to come through catastrophes and others, apparently just as able, strong and brave, go under? It happens in every upheaval. Some people survive; others don’t. What qualities are in those who fight their way through triumphantly that are lacking in those who go under…? I only know that the survivors used to call that quality ‘gumption.’ So I wrote about the people who had gumption and the people who didn’t.”
And that is exactly what Scarlett O’Hara has. Gumption.