I kind of don't want to give this book 5 stars. I'm going to, because it was epic
. Seriously, it's a really, really good read and Margaret Mitchell was a fantastic storyteller. She captures the feel of a lost generation and a bygone world and makes it real, pulsing with life and bittersweet memory and pride. Her characters are wonderfully vivid and complicated and conflicted, larger than life archetypes symbolizing the different elements of society each one represents. And the story is sweeping and grand. If you've seen the movie and thought it was gorgeous and epic, Hollywood only barely did justice to the source material. Gone With the Wind
is deservedly one of the greatest Civil War novels ever written.But
... there is a really big "but" here.
Here was the astonishing spectacle of half a nation attempting, at the point of bayonet, to force upon the other half the rule of negroes, many of them scarcely one generation out of the African jungles. The vote must be given to them but it must be denied to most of their former owners.
There are a few things that Hollywood rather prudently left out in the cinematic version, like the fact that every white male character joins the Klan to oppose Yankees and freedmen in the period of Reconstruction following the war. And this is described in approbatory terms by the narrative viewpoint. In the book, unlike the movie, Scarlett finds Rhett Butler in jail because he killed a black man, for being "insolent" to a white woman. And this is treated as an example of how shocking, lawless, and hateful the Yankees are: they actually put a white man in jail just because he killed a negro!
Indeed, throughout the book, Mitchell compares African-Americans to monkeys, apes, and children, describes slavery as a benevolent institution in which kind slave owners took care of their "darkies," and when the slaves are freed, society crumbles because black people are destructive children who can't function without white people telling them what to do. Reconstruction (in which the South learns that yes, you really aren't allowed to own slaves anymore and yes, you really did actually lose the war) is a horror beyond enduring, but we're meant to mourn the lost world of balls and barbecues attended by rich white plantation owners and their loyal, happy slaves.
Now, you may be saying, "Well, sure, the characters are racist, of course former Confederates are going to be racist." And that's true, I wouldn't have a problem with the characters being racist and flinging the n-word about. That would be historically accurate. But the authorial viewpoint makes it very clear that Margaret Mitchell shared
the POV of her characters.
Aided by the unscrupulous adventurers who operated the Freedmen's Bureau and urged on by a fervor of Northern hatred almost religious in its fanaticism, the former field hands found themselves suddenly elevated to the seats of the mighty. There they conducted themselves as creatures of small intelligence might naturally be expected to do. Like monkeys or small children turned loose among treasured objects whose value is beyond their comprehension, they ran wild - either from perverse pleasure in destruction or simply because of their ignorance.
Everything about the antebellum South (except its sexism, which is treated with satirical amusement and thoroughly lampooned by Scarlett in everything she does) is glorified and painted in a rosy hue. All sympathy is with rich white Southerners when Reconstruction destroys their world. Their former slaves? The author takes pains to describe how much happier and better off most of them were before being freed. Black characters are all
offensive racial stereotypes who are constantly described (not by other characters, but in the narrative POV) as apes, monkeys, and children.
"Gawdlmighty, Miss Scarlett! Ah's sceered ter go runnin' roun' in de dahk by mahseff! Spose de Yankees gits me?"
I don't think you have to be overly "politically correct" to find Gone With the Wind
to be a hard book to get through at times, with really glaring evidence of the author's Southern sympathies and unquestioned racism.
And yet I'm giving it 5 stars. I suppose in the interests of political correctness I should knock off at least a star, but I have to be honest: I was just enthralled by this long, long novel from start to finish. Even while I was sometimes gritting my teeth at the racist descriptions and all the "Wah, wah, poor plantation owners, the Yankees took away all their slaves, life is so hard for them now!" I wanted the story to keep going and going. I wasn't bored for one moment.
The protagonists, of course, are what make this a timeless love story. Note that's "love story," not "romance," because there's very little romantic about Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler.
What Melanie did was no more than all Southern girls were taught to do: to make those about them feel at ease and pleased with themselves. It was this happy feminine conspiracy which made Southern society so pleasant. Women knew that a land in which men were contented, uncontradicted, and safe in possession of unpunctured vanity was likely to be a very pleasant place for women to live. So from the cradle to the grave, women strove to make men pleased with themselves, and the satisfied men repaid lavishly with gallantry and adoration. In fact, men willingly gave the ladies everything in the world, except credit for having intelligence.
Scarlett exercised the same charms as Melanie but with a studied artistry and consummate skill. The difference between the two girls lay in the fact that Melanie spoke kind and flattering words from a desire to make people happy, if only temporarily, and Scarlett never did it except to further her own aims.
Scarlett is an evil, conniving drama queen who if she had been raised in a society where women were actually allowed to do things would rule the world
, but since she wasn't, she just learned to wrap the world around her finger and tell it to go to hell. She is absolutely the most self-centered character you will ever meet: in her mind, she is literally the center of the world. She sees nothing, understands nothing, and cares about nothing that isn't of direct and immediate importance to herself. And yet within her narrow, blindered view of the world, she's brilliant and adaptive and resourceful and unstoppable. The destruction of that glittering world of ball gowns and parties and negroes waiting on her hand and foot, in which she was raised to expect the world to revolve around her, is harrowingly depicted in her trials during the war and after it, and in her downright heroic accomplishments keeping not only herself but her extended family alive. Never mind that she never actually cares
about anyone but herself, she does what has to be done, which is largely why her sister-in-law, poor Melanie Wilkes, believes to her dying day that Scarlett is a wonderful, noble, loving sister, even while the entire time Scarlett hates her and covets Melanie's husband Ashley.
Then there is Rhett Butler. The most brilliant Byronic rogue ever. Rhett kicks Heathcliff and Rochester's prissy white English arses. He is a first class scoundrel and anti-hero with a dark, brooding swoon-worthy heart. Because he's ruthlessly pragmatic and mercenary, smart enough to know right from the start that the South has started a fight it can't win, and he makes millions as a "speculator," enduring the wrath and hatred of his peers and gleefully, smugly giving them the finger, and yet in the end he goes off to be a hero. And survives, and becomes a (very, very rich) scoundrel again, and his reputation keeps going up and down throughout the book. He is the only man who is a match for Scarlett, because as he points out, they are so much alike. Like Scarlett, he's awesome and caddish and hateful and the best character ever.
Scarlett and Rhett's relationship is so much more tempestuous, conflicted, and compelling than in the movie. Every time they are together, it's like watching two grandmasters drawing knives and sparring. They were truly made for each other, they deserve each other, they could be happy together, and yet how could it end in anything but tears?
Oh yeah, I loved this book. Parts of it are so offensive, it will not bear scrutiny to modern sensibilities (it was pretty darn offensive when it was written, even if they did make a toned-down Hollywood movie based on it a few years later), and if you can't stand reading Mark Twain and all his uses of the n-word, then Gone With the Wind
will probably make you want to throw the book against a wall (which will make a big dent, because this is a big book). But it is powerful and moving, the drama is grander than any epic fantasy doorstopper, the romance is definitely there, and the characters are fabulous and melodramatic and you care about every one of them, even (especially) the African-American characters, despite Mitchell's offensive treatment of them.
This is certainly not the only "problematic" book I've ever enjoyed, but never have I so enjoyed so problematic a book. If it weren't so damned racist, I'd give Gone With the Wind
my highest recommendation. If it weren't so damned good, I could castigate it as a well-written but really offensive book whose author misused her gifts. But it's both, so I recommend it, but my recommendation comes with a big fat warning label.
There was a land of
Cavaliers and Cotton Fields
called the Old South...
Here in this pretty world
Gallantry took its last bow..
Here was the last ever to
be seen of Knights and their
Ladies Fair, of Master and of
Look for it only in books,
for it is no more than a
A Civilization gone with