Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

A relative of mine from South Carolina lent me her copy of this book, her favorite. It was clear that she has read it many times by the state of the broken binding on the copy she lent me. Having grown up as a Yankee from central New York state, I’ve never read this book. And if she had not lent me her copy, I’m not sure I ever would have. I am sincerely glad I did.

The story is primarily a love story. It starts out with Scarlet at sixteen on her family’s plantation south of Atlanta just as the US Civil War is about to begin. It follows her life through the war and the Reconstruction years after the war. She is a very selfish, pragmatic, and determined young woman. She is in love with Ashley Wilkes, but he is set to marry someone else. The bulk of the novel surrounds how she manages the reality that the man she considers the love of her life is married to someone else. But the story is about so much more.

It is also about Scarlet’s naivete and immaturity. Being pragmatic and determined, she is a survivor above all else. But she continues to pine away about Ashley even though at sixteen he told her that they were too different and would be miserable together. She deals with this the same way she deals with all other things in her life that she doesn’t understand and that make her unhappy. She just decides not to think about them “right now”, determined to think about them later. But she never does. She never grows up and learns to consider anyone other than herself.

The story is also a perspective on the Civil War from the Southern point of view. This is problematic to say the least. This perspective is racist and promotes white supremacy. Despite that, I feel that it is valuable. It provides a view on how being on the losing side of that war must have felt. History is taught by the victors. As such, we learn that the Civil War was a noble war fought to free the slaves. But we are never taught what that must have felt like for those who fought for the Confederacy. They lost family members just as the North did. Their property was destroyed as was their way of life. Then, during Reconstruction, Washington sent soldiers to run their governments and give equal rights to African Americans that those Southerners saw as ignorant and inferior. That must have been infuriating.

And the “Lost Cause” mythology permeates the novel. This I have much less compassion for. Yes, the characters in this book, and I suspect many Southerners after the war, longed for their old way of life and social order, especially the upper class of land and plantation owners. It was a life of ease and luxury. But that way of life depended on the enslavement of other human beings! This is even acknowledged in the novel. The justification for this better old way is that the enslaved were treated like family and cared for in their old age. This is essentially Rudyard Kipling’s argument of the “white man’s burden” and is utter nonsense. Would any white Southerner have changed places with one of their well-cared for slaves? I think not.

Despite these problems, the story and characters are compelling. In addition to Scarlet and Ashley there are Rhett Butler, a scoundrel and conniver with a very similar world view to that of Scarlet, and Melanie Hamilton who marries Ashley. She is the epitome of the great lady of the South for her dedication and loyalty and love. Indeed, she is one of the best characters in the novel. Personally, I couldn’t stand either Scarlet or Ashley, mainly because they didn’t know themselves and didn’t seem interested in self-examination at all. Rhett was my favorite character. He may have been a thief and a Scalawag, but he always knew who he was and why. And he was always honest about who he was. The interaction and growth of these four characters is the soul of the story and what makes it great.

Should you read this book? If the racism and white supremacy and revisionist history would be too much for you, no. If you can see past those very significant shortcomings to have some understanding of the plight of the Southern condition during and after the Civil War, then the interplay of these characters in that background are well worth your time.

My rating: 4/5

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