Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind is an American epic, a novel of psychological depth, grand scope, and historical ignorance. It is colloquial in its outlook, national in its effect, and now devoid of its prominence. It is full of tragedy, sacrifice, justice, and profundity of character. And yet it is hardly read in classrooms, hardly talked about in terms of “great American literature.” This, we might reasonably surmise, might have to do with its gargantuan length, but Moby Dick is a long book and its professors abound. No, I suspect the dismissal of Gone With the Wind has to do with its very problematic viewpoint, antithetical to so much that many academics or intellectuals would consider comfortable or inoffensive. It strikes me, however, that great books are not for the faint of heart. They should not be as opium for life’s hardships; they ought to rouse the reader to cope with philosophies he does not espouse, questions he would prefer not to ask; great books should make the reader uncomfortable in their attempt to grapple with life, and, in the end, comfort him that others, too, share in his struggle. In this way, great books shatter the conventions of nationality or race, and remind us of our common humanity. Let us delve into this offensive, uncomfortable, but thoroughly fantastic work of American fiction.
Several themes pervade the book: the lost cause of the noble Confederacy; the world fought for, shattered, and annihilated amidst the permutations of history; the ability of the most tenacious, ruthless, practical people to survive regardless of circumstance; the importance of what we today would call genetic predisposition in the makeup of one’s character; the conflict between honor and pragmatism, as well as that between the mask and the real person; the advance of woman’s equality; the misrepresentation of Southern slavery by Northern propaganda; the solipsism of men’s minds…We shall delve into a few choice ones, and leave the reader free to agree, disagree, or abstain–so long as he forms his opinion based on a firsthand sampling of the work, rather than on the Wikipedia article alone.
The first half of the book is dedicated to the prelude and duration of the American Civil War, a conflict that saw the largest number of American dead of any of our wars to date, the vast expansion of Federal power at the expense of the individual states, the ideals of the Declaration of Independence trumping the letters of the Constitution, and–as the focus of this book–the ruination of the Southern Way of Life. Plantations were razed, families traumatized, and an entire economic system was thrown into the void. The fighting itself is mostly relegated to expositional dumps, but it is at least dimly present, if only via juxtaposition, throughout Scarlett’s social machinations.
As the title makes plain, this book is more than a chronicle of the death of the South. It is a lamentation of a social system cast away forever. The characters of the book come to the painful realization that despite their best efforts, their former way of life is dead. They must adapt to a new world, an industrial world, a world of racial equality. Some, like Rhett and Scarlett, adapt ruthlessly and successfully. Others, take Ashley and Frank for example, fail utterly, living their lives as shadows waiting to dissipate or dying in futile attempts to regain a world now lost. This is in large part a story about change and adaptation, about the human desire for things to stand still when they are perceived as pristine (even though this lack of motion always leads to stagnation). It should also be noted that such desire often only comes in hindsight. Scarlett, annoyingly but not without purpose, spends much of her ignorant pre-Reconstruction existence complaining about what we know to be irrelevancies–lacking new dresses, having to care for her child, etc. Indeed, she only comes to realize her love for Tara (her ancestral home) when it is nearly at the furnace’s door.
The impact of nature on a man’s personality plays some psychological role as well. Blacks are generalized as child-like, simple, but also loyal and hard-working. The Irish are considered hot-tempered and good-natured or drunk and foreign, by turns. Southerners consider their pedigree a mite bit superior to their northern counterparts, and that is without mentioning the gradation of perceived quality found in their own rigid socio-economic hierarchy. Men and women, too, have their specific, iron-clad roles to play. All of these characteristics take no regard for a man’s development. They adhere to him at birth. One chief conflict of Scarlett’s life, therefore, is her natural inclinations towards temper, indignation, narcissism, and practicality clashing with the roles and duties thought natural to her class and gender. There is the additional struggle, in her case, between trying to be the daughter her mother raised and falling into the daughter her father sired purely by genetic accident. Her mother counseled kindness and tact; her father acted on impulse and courage. In the end, Scarlett chooses, or falls into, the latter mold. She is more interesting, and more frustrating, for it.
The fall of the Confederacy is enacted in miniature within each character in the book. Scarlett has her external universe ripped from her before the book is half finished; but she is far more devastated by the destruction of her internal cosmos. The disintegration of her mental sun, Ashley, nearly throws her into cosmic chaos, and it is only by gravitating towards the familiar–the pursuit of another man–that she maintains any kind of cohesion. In Rhett as well, we see the collapse of a mental universe, personified in the death of his beloved Bonnie and again in Scarlett’s broken ribs. Unlike his wife, however, Rhett recognizes the finality of the termination and attempts to move on to something else. Ashley thought that his world revolved around Scarlett, and it took the death of Melanie (his wife) for him to realize the warmth he felt was not from Scarlett but from the star of his wife; her death leaves him aimless and dependent upon Scarlett simply through lack of resolve. Finally, it is in Melanie that we see the ideal, a woman who throughout the book maintains her world, right to the end. No doubt is entertained, no misgiving communicated, no dishonestly recognized. In her undoubt, often so contrary to external reality, her internal world finds an undying center of gravity, holding everything in place until her planet withers and dies of its own accord, its natural cycle having come to a close. She is the Confederacy idealized and personified.
Like any book of such length (easily stretching to over 1000 pages), Gone with the Wind is possessed both of great strengths and profound weaknesses. Let us do charity to the courageous author and cover the strengths first.
The author has a lot to say, as our thematic analysis ought to have demonstrated. Art need not have a point, but great art must needs be grappled with; and an opponent must have a point of view, so as to provoke a fight from him. This book certainly does. The South is the great protagonist, and the characters–well-formed, realistic, and psychologically profound–take us on a tragic journey through the destruction of that nation. It is the Iliad from the perspective of the Trojans. It thus appeals to that (often and increasingly hypocritical) American sense of rooting for the little guy in the face of overwhelming odds. And the book does not shirk from reminding the reader of the inevitability of the Confederacy’s defeat, noble though their cause was (or thought to be).
The book shines brightest when the author’s themes are voiced by the characters themselves, or through narration that clearly bespeaks the perspective of a single psychology. When Scarlett thinks upon the ruination of Tara and its vibrant, red soil; when Rhett bemoans the idiocy of Southern honor only to spend the last eight months of the war fighting for the Confederacy; when Melanie talks of national honor and the will to persevere, the reader cannot help but find himself at least compelled, if not outright enthralled, by their earnestness, their depth of soul, the reality of their convictions and perspectives.
But because the author has something to say, she sometimes takes it too far, other times loses her balance. After hundreds and hundreds of pages, the reader finds himself fatigued at the repetitious pastoral depictions, the characters reminding us again and again of their various motivations, the minutiae of the lumber business in post-war Georgia… We humbly submit that Mitchell could have done with a vigorous, if understanding, editor, and cut at least a fifth of the work from its final form.
More important than the long-windedness of Gone with the Wind is the historically unbalanced portrayal of Reconstruction and the Southern way of life generally. The book is predominantly concerned with the wealthiest members of Southern society. Therefore, its characters are particularly affected by the defeat of the Confederacy. And when the characters themselves speak of this catastrophe, few problems arise. When, however, the narration takes a step back from the characters and enters a more general tone that fairly can be ascribed to the author herself, the unmerited representations of the North, the ignorance of the dark underbelly of the South, and the polemical attacks upon the Yankee occupation all leave a bad taste in the mouth of one who knows better.
Obviously Reconstruction was imperfect, and obviously both sides acted with less than Christian charity, kindness, or love; but the black and white narration of the author is less easy to stomach when not from the mouth of a character who would have little interest in historical objectivity–and indeed little access to such information as was available in the first decades of the twentieth century. Mitchell spent more than a decade writing this book. It would not have been too much to ask for her to have researched the topic with such thoroughness as to at least lighten the bias against the North. It was still too soon to have expected a positive revision of Reconstruction, but Mitchell’s insight into the depth of her characters’ minds failed her when she turned her attention to men who actually lived, who actually acted, and who actually failed.
This flaw proves nearly fatal to the work when it comes to the depiction of black people. Not that blacks have no representation in the book; several prominent, if secondary, characters are black. The problem is that the book goes to great lengths to make slavery seem the preferable option to emancipation. We never meet a black person happy to have his freedom. The only blacks with sustained speaking roles are “house slaves,” who would have been comfortable enough on a plantation with “decent” white folks overseeing it. We never really get a psychologically deep or honest portrayal of what the house slaves refer to as a “field nigger,” one who broke his back picking cotton, tending crops, doing all the work that, halfway through the narrative, the main characters find themselves (despite their social status) forced to do.
Indeed, the “free-issue” blacks are generally depicted as unreliable, lazy, brutal. And if they are not looked upon with scorn, it is with pity, as political pawns of the nefarious and money-grubbing scalawags and Republicans. Again, when a character speaks of free-issues or Republicans with scorn, derision, or pity, little issue can be found. Of course they would feel that way. But the fact that over the course of 1000 pages the author found no room for even a hint at the brutalities of slavery, or of the benefits of emancipation; that she never addresses the hypocrisy of a society that fights for “freedom” on the backs of the unfree; that she commits all her important black characters to unquestioning loyalty to the social system destroyed by the Civil War…these are not mere literary flaws of structure, pacing, or characterization. They are historically disingenuous, morally repugnant, deeply unsettling sins from an author who clearly researched her subject matter.
Most damning of all, her portrayal of blacks perpetuates conventional barriers between supposedly superior and supposedly inferior branches of humanity. The most fully formed black characters, Mammy for instance, show a depth of understanding and a preternatural loyalty to their masters. But at the same time, the white characters never come to the realization that they are the equals of the blacks. Their darker counterparts are loyal, yes, but ever childlike. They are strong to be sure, but only in the way a horse is strong. The loyalty and strength of the blacks is not equivalent to the white examples of those characteristics. The white characters are conveniently discriminating in their praise and defamation of the black characters, and the detached narrator falls prey to this discrimination when she admits of no free black who even suggests that he is equal to his former masters, nor of a single white character who even whispers the possibility. That she was so thoughtful in every other respect, concerning the history and psychology of her characters, as to completely overlook this severing of man from man, so blatant and so cruel, is strange indeed. It bespeaks the enfeebling power of mental prejudice, that wellspring from which our ideas flow, and by which they are channeled.
Finally, one must ask the question: did the Old Guard of the South really suffer irrevocable defeat at the hands of the invading North? When the Republicans ran out of steam by the 1870s, the Democrats regained supreme control of their states. Blacks were at first hampered and then later all but completely barred from the political process. Indeed, even in the 1930s, when the book was published, blacks–especially in the South–were anything but equal to their white counterparts. And we should all be well aware of the vastly improved, but still irritatingly imperfect, status of blacks in America today. A foreign observer would have noticed large differences between 1860 and 1870 to be sure, but to say that the social hierarchy that ruled the antebellum South was annihilated never to return seems something of an overstatement, one that men like Booker T. Washington certainly would have taken issue with.
The skill of Mitchell’s writing, the depth of her characterizations, the variety of her settings, the sweeping scope of her narrative ultimately overcome these shortcomings. And we are left with a deeply troubling but deeply profound piece of American literature. It is the supreme accomplishment of the Southern Mind, a work as grandiose and hypocritical, as passionate and loyal, as delusional and bitter as the people from whence it came. While we of the North might with justice criticize the particular faults of our Southern compatriots, we would do well to remember that we share the same blood, the same common humanity. Their flaws are our flaws, their strengths our strengths. The manifestations change; the people remain remarkably alike.
It is a pity, then, that this challenging work seems thoroughly unrepresented in literary circles. In some respects this is not surprising. Consider the movement to extirpate each instance of “nigger” from Huck Finn, for example, and one quickly realizes that challenging literature is not popular. No, society seems to prefer literature that pretends to challenge, that deals with issues that the majority is comfortable talking about. Such literature deals in platitudes, not in profundity.