This is a book I read when I need a moral lesson.
Scarlett O’Hara is, for me, a cautionary tale — and probably not for the reasons you’d assume. I adore Scarlett, and I see so much of myself in her — and so she is a cautionary tale about the high cost of pride, about wanting the wrong things, about not appreciating what has real value. But she also has a lot of traits I admire — and most of what she gets vilified for as a woman wouldn’t be blinked at in a man. I would love to say they wouldn’t be blinked at now, in the 21st century, but, well, women are still held to far different standards than men. She’d get further now than she got in the 1860s, though, and she’d have a lot more company. She’s ruthless and intelligent, and once she gets a taste for where that can take her, once she gets to liking independence, who can blame her for wanting to cling to it? She has charm and knows how to use it. She’s passionate and high-spirited and makes no excuses for herself. She has an iron core. She acts with plenty of self-interest, but she’s not nearly as selfish as she gets painted; if she were, she’d never take on the burdens that she does, she would never do the things she does for the people who are dependent on her. All of that, I adore her for.
I used to say the one thing I couldn’t forgive her for was the was she treats her children, but I’m softening even on that — it’s clear she’d be childfree by choice if that was, y’know, an option in the 1860s. She never wanted children, but at least hers are cared for and looked after — there’s always Melly and Mammy and others to give them love and affection, so it isn’t as though they’re growing up entirely bereft. And, she’s an idiot about Ashley and no mistake — but she’s also still very young, and what’s interesting is that you can see throughout the book where the cracks in her adoration begin to form. It’s just hard for her to admit that. I have a lot of sympathy for her there, and Ashley never does her the favour — as she points out at the very end — of setting her free from her own imaginative construction of him. The entire situation is one big tragic error, the consequence of people not looking deeply enough into themselves, or doing so but lacking the courage to face up to it.
I both love and hate Rhett Butler. He’s a magnificent character, and there’s no denying that. But the one thing I can’t get past, and that pisses me off a little more each time I read this book, is this: he’s the one who coaxes Scarlett into throwing away her reputation. He opens that door and practically shoves her through it. And then he blames her for following his lead. When he changes his mind, when he decides he’d rather be respectable, he doesn’t just change his own stripes — he shames her for having left that behind and not wanting to go back, once she realises how sweet freedom tastes. He absolutely throws her under the bus the first chance he gets. So too, he seems to blame her for not realising that he really loved her all along — and while, yes, it is pretty obvious, he also denies it at every turn. He outright refuses to say that to her, tells her doesn’t and couldn’t and won’t. So she’s to be blamed for taking him at his word? He demands honesty from her, but offers none in return. And I really can’t countenance that.
This book is billed as one of the greatest romances of all time, but the more I return to it, the central relationship is actually less and less about Scarlett and Rhett, and more and more about Scarlett and Melanie. The biggest shame of the story is that Scarlett realises too late what a tremendous friend she has in Melanie — but I think it’s in her subconscious. Scarlett’s biggest problem, in many ways, is that she is not reflective by nature, that she never examines anyone’s feelings, including her own, beyond the surface of what they present. And so she doesn’t really consciously notice when she starts to genuinely care for Melly — which is, I believe, in the final days of her pregnancy — or when she starts to genuinely think better of her — which is, I believe, when Melly takes up the sword with the intention of helping Scarlett kill the Yankee. Melanie really is a brilliant character — unfailingly good, but not stupid for it, nor even as impractical as her husband Ashley. And so loyal, so undyingly, wonderfully, defiantly loyal. Who doesn’t yearn for a friend like that, who will loop her arm through yours and dare the world to challenge her for it?
I feel as though I have to say something about the historical perspective this book provides, which is pretty interesting on a number of levels. You’re getting a view of the 1860s from the 1930s; we’re now further removed from Mitchell’s world than Mitchell was from the Civil War (weird thought). So, obviously, there are a lot of issues, mostly related to race but also related to class and education, that would never pass muster in a book today. It is, absolutely, a romanticised view of the Old South, and the tvtropes page sums up all of that fairly well. It glosses over the uglier aspects of slavery (in places outright attributing them to Yankee hysteria), implying that blacks were better off in slavery because they were taken care of. You get just about every Magical Negro/Mammy/Sassy Black Woman/White Man’s Burden/etc trope you can think of. This is all true, all morally unacceptable, and all a product of the book’s time — which is not an excuse, but an explanation. I don’t see these as reasons not to read the book; they are things to be aware of, especially reading it as a white girl from an upper-middle-class Virginian background. There are some ways, though, in which the book does have a few redemptive points on that score as well. Scarlett, for all her faults, treats the black characters better than just about anyone else in the book does (and better than she treats most whites); it comes from a position of condescension, but — well, she could be worse, so there’s that. She’s also the only character to call the KKK out for being a damned stupid idea. The book also touches, if briefly, on some of the other prejudices of the era — like how the women from New York don’t seem to register the Irish as full-fledged humans any more than the Southerners do the black population. So it is, if nothing else, instructive on the viewpoint from the 1930s.
I’ve read this book several times since I was fifteen, and different things stick out to me each time. There was some little stuff in this re-read — like remembering how some of my favourite characters (Granny Fontaine, Will Benteen) didn’t make it into the movie. But there are bigger things, too. I started out this review by saying that I return to Gone with the Wind when I need a moral lesson — but I wasn’t quite sure what it was this time. Sometimes it’s been about enduring hardships. Sometimes it’s been about thumbing my nose at the rest of the world. Sometimes it’s been about appreciating what I have. This time… I’m still not sure. What I’ve come away with most is the sense of unfairness in how so many of the characters treat Scarlett. The shame and scandal that gets heaped on her for doing what needed to be done is just monumentally unjust. Melanie alone, I think, actually sees Scarlett for what she is, for all so many characters talk about her blindness; she sees the iron core and does not judge for it. And both Melanie and Ashley give Scarlett more credit for goodness than the narration gives her, or honestly than I think she gives herself. I read her as someone whose better nature sneaks up on her, so stealthy that she’s hardly aware of it. But most people in the book, Rhett who loves her included, demand impossible things of her, and then shame her for the egregious fault of succeeding. That’s what’s sticking with me. I don’t know what moral lesson that gives me, but — being far more introspective than Scarlett — I’ll be contemplating it.