Chapter 35: “Gone with the Wind” by Margaret Mitchell (1937)

“Perhaps—I want the old days back again and they’ll never come back, and I am haunted by the memory of them and of the world falling about my ears. ”

There’s really nothing I can say that hasn’t already been said about Margaret Mitchell’s 1937 Pulitzer-winning novel, Gone with the Wind. It is a fantastic work of fiction—a soaring and mesmerizing novel with bigger than life characters that are so unbelievably believable human beings.

I have to be honest—I didn’t think I was going to enjoy Gone with the Wind. I really didn’t. In fact, I was actually kind of dreading it (which, besides its length, is one of the reasons Joshua and I chose it to be a monthly reading challenge book). A soap opera set in the South against the backdrop of the Civil War—? Please. Spare me.

However, Saint Joseph Pulitzer—once again—proved me wrong; I really enjoyed this one.

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That being said, I must say, I wasn’t a big fan of the storyline. That is my one complaint of the novel. It’s not that the story isn’t engaging, or not well told, or not well written, or boring, or anything like that—it is all of those things. It just wasn’t my cup of tea, that’s all.

And if my one complaint of a 1000+ page novel is that the genre isn’t my favorite, that’s really not much of a complaint. So, on with the praises!

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With this novel, Margaret Mitchell has two things really going for her: 1) her writing style, and 2) her characters. Mitchell is an absolutely wonderful novelist who really knows her way around great long form literary construction. As I said, this story wasn’t really up my alley—it’s, in essence, a soap opera. It’s a romance novel, but with a lot more intrigue and conflict going on. That conflict, namely, is the American Civil War.

Mitchell did a really good job of walking the delicate line between romance novel and war novel for the better half of Gone with the Wind. In the hands of a lesser writer, the story would have been unbalanced—but Mitchell is an expert literary craftswoman. She was able to write her love story long enough to keep the romantics interested, and, at the same time, writes about the Civil War in extremely factual detail long enough to keep history buffs interested. I was very engaged with the novel until the war ended, actually. Once the North won, and life returned to “normal” at Tara, I became a little disinterested. I was even more bored once Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler get married, but Mitchell brings it all the excitement back at the novel’s conclusion with an intense encounter between Scarlett and Rhett.

Which brings me to my next point—the characters in this novel are among the most interesting I have ever encountered. And the most realistic, or true to life. There are so many novels that have characters that just seem to be caricatures of real people—somewhat believable people that have one dominating personality trait that puts them a little over the edge of realism. Then, of course, there are characters that are entirely unbelievable (i.e., almost everyone in Lonesome Dove). In Gone with the Wind, however, the characters are developed so well that you almost forget you’re reading a fictional work.

This was particularly true of Scarlett and Rhett.

Rhett is the archetype of a Southerner, in my opinion. He’s smooth, genteel, debonair, charming, handsome, and a little bit narcissistic. But for all the good-boy qualities he possesses, there’s that bit of daring-do and mischief in him that makes you wonder if you could ever really trust him. He’s the man every girl wants to bring home to their parents, and the man that inspires every parent to lock their daughters up. But, really, for all his mischief and (literal) rebel-rousing, deep down, he just wants the love and affection of Scarlett. And when he finally obtains it, and when Scarlett beats his character to a pulp, he becomes an empty shell of a man. He loses his personality, his renegade good looks, his boyish charm.

And Scarlett… Scarlett is the fictional embodiment of my own mother. This is the only thing that made the book difficult to get through—I could not, for the life of me, separate Scarlett from my mother; fiction from reality. When I read Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge (2009), I thought that Olive was the most original character I had ever read. Now, after reading Gone with the Wind, I have to give that award to Scarlett O’Hara. She is at once the most good-natured and the most ill-intending; the most well-meaning and the most malevolent; the most beautiful and the ugliest; the strongest and the fragilest; brutally honest and hideously manipulative. In her times, Scarlett was the most revolutionary of women—she was strong, courageous, bold, and fiercely independent. She knew what she wanted and she knew how to get it (namely, wealth and men, respectively). She was a capitalist entrepreneur in a time when women were just above slaves in social ranking. These traits made her wildly different from her female counterparts. However, at the same time, she was weak, lonely, fragile. She acted like a big strong woman, but really she was just a scared little girl putting on a facade to protect herself.

And, at the end of the novel, we find that these two characters—after getting everything they wanted (Scarlett, for Rhett; power, for Scarlett) and after going through life together—we find that these two never really changed. In the end, Rhett gives up on Scarlett and Scarlett, after spurning his love, begins plotting a plan to win him back.

As a side note, I must say, the conclusion of this novel perfectly summarizes Scarlett O’Hara—she finally realizes how awful she’s been to Rhett and all but throws herself at him to convince him that she really does love him, and when he turns her back on her and calls for a divorce, she immediately begins devising a plan to win him back. In one swift motion, Mitchell shows the reader Scarlett as the scared little girl who is terrified of being alone and the manipulative femme fatale who will stop at nothing to get what she wants.

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Gone with the Wind is an incredible novel that I will recommend to anybody. It doesn’t matter if you’re a woman or a man, a hopeless romantic or a cynical pessimist, etc., etc., etc.—you will love this book. Like I said before, it has a little bit of something for everyone and Mitchell writes it in a fashion that will keep you turning the pages. Despite its 1000+ page heft, I managed to finish the book in about a week because it really is engaging.

As far as its relevance to National Women’s History Month goes, Margaret Mitchell was a top-notch female author that truly deserved to win the Pulitzer Prize for this novel. And Scarlett O’Hara, whether you love her or hate her, is every woman you’ve ever known and truly original.

Gone with the Wind is one of the defining moments in women’s literature.

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