Gone with the Wind (1936) – Margaret Mitchell

Title: Gone With The Wind
Author: Margaret Mitchell
Date published: 1936
Publisher: Pan MacMillan
Star Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Margaret Mitchell wrote only one book. She wrote an historical novel that is so epic I believe she need not have been concerned in writing another as this one is a pure masterpiece. This is not to say that the novel is perfect and without fault, however Gone with the Wind (1936) was extremely ambitious from the onset.  Considered one of the Greatest American Novels it has been both a ‘classic’ and a ‘bone of literary contention’ for decades. It’s depiction of slavery is probably the most likely culprit in its constant battle to remain relevant.

I knew I was going to have a little bit of an issue writing a review for this novel. I am giving it 5 stars because I believe it to be brilliantly written. I believe it has incredible characters and I believe it to be as historically accurate as is possible from its certain point of view. This in no way means that I believe it accurately represented everyone. I was gripped from the first page, and there were many, many moments where I angrily put the book down and wondered how it ever got published. I would pick the book up again several hours later only to question how there can be so many people on the planet that have never read it. I was constantly torn between its literary brilliance and its historical horrors.

Set in the Deep South of America within the confines of the county Georgia, and the city of Atlanta during the American Civil War (1860’s) the story revolves around the life of Scarlett O’Hara a native of Georgia who lives with her family on a cotton plantation called Tara. Scarlett lives with her parents Gerald O’Hara of Irish descent who won their land in a poker game, her mother Ellen, a Southerner born and bred, and her two sisters Carreen and Suellen. Scarlett and her sisters live a life of Southern privilege going to barbecues and balls and entertaining all the local bachelors (referred to as beaux). Their plantation is worked on by the numerous slaves the O’Hara’s own. Besides Ellen, it appears that the real matriarch of Tara is Mammy, an elderly black slave who has been with the family for generations and is able to control the household with threats and demands that no one is ever really able to dispute. The ‘Mammy dynamic’ and the general representation of slaves in this novel have been discussed by many people, and most of those people are a lot more equipped to discuss it than I am. What I will mention is as shocking as the novel was I can only hope that it remains as relevant in our society as the history books because we cannot rewrite history, nor can we right wrongs, however being knowledgeable of atrocities in the past allows us as a society to develop the empathy we desperately need right now.

Scarlett is conceited, selfish, unaware of those around her and extremely manipulative. Despite all these negative aspects about her she is also unbelievably strong, independent and serves as a brilliant example of a woman going against the grain. Unlike her contemporaries Scarlett does not dream of marriage and babies, and quite (un)happily remains in love with another woman’s husband, the dreadfully dull Ashley Wilkes, for many, many years. Ashely, however marries the mousy Melanie, and Scarlett out of pure jealousy and frustration marries Melanie’s brother Charles just before all the men rush off to war. Just before the war claims all their men the people of Georgia are introduced to the mysterious and unscrupulous Rhett Butler whose continued presence in Scarlett’s life keeps our heart racing and our frustrations high as time and time again Scarlett spurns his friendship and love.

Now this is a war that the Confederacy believed they could win. It is also a war that was won by the Yankees, and was responsible for a huge loss of human life, but also responsible for the abolishment of slavery. The men of the South became so desperate that they sent their young boys and old men to try and save the day. Scarlett and Melanie’s time spent in Atlanta helping with the wounded soldiers creates a break in the novel: that of those now living temporarily in Atlanta and those remaining at Tara. Scarlett’s love for the excitement and luxury of city life never seems to completely deter her from her inherited love of the land. This love is described perfectly in a very emotional scene at the beginning of the novel when her father Gerald is speaking to a young Scarlett, who has not yet known the struggles of war and poverty. In anger Scarlett claims that she wants nothing more to do with Tara, and Gerald’s response is such:

“Land is the only thing in the world that amounts to anything,… for tis the only thing in this world that lasts, and don’t you be forgetting it! Tis the only thing worth working for, worth fighting for – worth dying for.”

When tragedy strikes in Atlanta and Scarlett and Melanie are forced to return to Tara she begins a whole new battle of her own. Not only the torment of losing loved ones to the war and its aftermath, but also to fight for land she never knew she wanted amidst the difficulties of being a  women in a world that did not , strictly speaking, have anything resembling middle or working class. At the time one was either a lady or a gentleman, or you were considered ‘white trash’. This is where it gets really fun because now I will discuss our hero, Rhett Butler.

Gone with the Wind has always been described as ‘a classic love story’. Whether this means it’s original intent was to let us believe it is simply only between Scarlett and Rhett, or whether it being marketed as an atypical ‘love story’ was simply a way to sell a story that just so happened to involve two very strong characters. Both Scarlett and Rhett seem to live on the periphery of social norms and decent propriety. While Scarlett still attempted to keep her reputation intact, Rhett in the beginning does not care about society’s moral concerns. He does not consider himself a ‘gentleman’, and he most certainly does not consider Scarlett a ‘lady’. Throughout their years of knowing one another, and through marriages and children and the war, and making businesses work, Rhett remains a constant in Scarlett’s life. When she spurns the gossip mongers in Atlanta and becomes a successful business owner despite the dangers, Rhett is one of the few people who continue to support her. She loses interest in society’s opinions right around the same time that Rhett develops his and in turn those in Atlanta lose respect for Scarlett and embrace Rhett.

I like to think that Scarlett’s friendship with Melanie is also a great ‘love story’ on its own. Despite their different backgrounds and despite being ‘in love’ with the same man, it is each other that they are able to ultimately rely on. Scarlett’s love for Tara is also of great significance. Her love for the land and her home however does not make her a dreamy fool. She is practical and aware of what must be done to keep her home and in later years, keep her in luxury. Her loyalty towards her home does not always extend towards the people in it (though she is fiercely loyal to the few people she actually really loves) and she often tramps over others to get what she wants, or rather what she believes she deserves. For some reason as a reader I never lost respect for Scarlett’s dreams, and even though her methods are questionable her ambitions are admirable, even if she can’t quite love Rhett the way we all want her to.

This is a novel of great depth. It is about love and loss and great pain. It is about the American Civil War and slavery and freedom and injustice. It is about family and the love for our homes and our people. It’s mostly about friendship though, and that is universal.

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