Gone with the Wind is a novel by Margaret Mitchell, first published in 1936. It was adapted into film by Victor Fleming, featuring Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable three years later. Set in American South, it tells the story of a young woman’s struggle during the American Civil War and Reconstruction era. I had never heard a voice from ‘American South’ before. It was a revelation to learn what the ‘American South’ was, what the ‘American Civil War’ signified, and what ‘the Reconstruction’ meant, from something other than a textbook.
I read line by line, page by page, holding my breath and wholeheartedly hoped the author would be kind and give them a happy future. I wanted to ride into Scarlett’s world and shake her hard and warn her before it was too late. I cared and waited for a thousand pages. But there is no happy ending and I’m terribly sad.
It’s what I class as an epic story in the traditional sense. The type that has strong characters and clear plot lines. The type you can retell to a friend and have a satisfying discussion. It’s over 1000 pages long and not a dull line. I especially enjoy every conversation between Scarlett and Rhett before they get married and the development of the relationship between Scarlett and Melly. Scarlett is the most fortunate girl to have those two in her life if she has the wit to see. But she’s a fool.
It’s hard to imagine a woman so brave and strong, yet at the same time so selfish and spiteful. She’s manipulative, deceitful, cold-hearted and foolish. Her delicate figure contrasts with her brutal force and will. But I cared for this awful person’s life and future. I wished fiercely that she would change and become a better version of herself, to love her faithful friends and cherish her husband. I guess that’s the genius of Margaret Mitchell.
“I’ll think of it tomorrow” is the sentence Scarlett repeats throughout the book. I loved it when she first started saying this, as a sign of practicality. There are things she cannot change by dwelling on and crying over. She just gets on with what she can do in the moment. But chapter by chapter, the ambience has changed. The sweet and innocent girl is ‘gone with the wind’. But her honour and integrity are ‘gone with the wind’ too. That same sentence turns into an excuse to avoid doing what is right while muting her conscience. And I hated her saying it so much. The same sentence invokes the opposite feelings. That’s the genius of Margaret Mitchell again.
Melly ends up my favourite character. I couldn’t believe it. She was so plain and insignificant at the beginning, sickly and shy most of the time. I despised her through Scarlett’s eyes and therefore took her side. But chapter by chapter I was amazed watching her grow and rise, from an insignificant seedling into a towering tree “providing food for all, giving shelter to the wild animals, and having nesting places in its branches for the birds”.
The Old South gathers around her in hardship for comfort. She’s the most faithful and supportive wife. She’s the listening ears and soothing voice when Rhett is helpless like a trapped animal, and when strong Mammy is reduced to tears. She trusts and harbours homeless murderers and treats prostitutes with respect as fellow human beings. She loves and defends Scarlett in everything without doubt or falter, however outrageous and unpopular Scarlett is. Melly is a burden on Scarlett’s shoulders at the beginning. She becomes her shield and fortress at the end.
Melanie Wilkes represents the perfect South: its loyalty, courage, grace and kindness. But Melly has to die because the South is also ‘gone with the wind’.
Race Relations & History
I know very little about American history, and Gone with the Wind has challenged my understanding of slavery and race relations at that time. Some of the things Scarlett thinks and says about black field workers and house servants are clearly problematic from today’s point of view. But the relationships between the plantation owners and the slaves portrayed in the book are nothing like what I had previously seen or heard. There is much affection, bond and trust. As I said, I know too little about history and I haven’t read a heap of academic research so I don’t know how much the novel speaks the truth. But it does give the impression that a different voice is not heard in the textbooks and the winner writes the history, not just about slavery, but also about the Civil War and the Reconstruction.
Overall, Gone with the Wind is worth reading, to enjoy the epic story, to hear the other side of the story about the American Civil War, to feel the intensity of love and hate that seldom exists in our lockdown life, and ultimately to meet Scarlett O’Hara.