Sunday, July 14, 2013

Gone with the Wind (Margaret Mitchell)

The dang Quest! Perhaps more than any book I have thus discussed on this website, the way I reacted to this book has shocked me. For years I have seen clips of the movie, have heard people talk about how much the movie, and I felt infuriated--Scarlett O'Hara just seemed so stupid, so irritating and overdramatic. I, with much hesitation, decided to read Gone with the Wind because it seemed like a book designed for me to loathe with my entire being. So what a pleasant surprise that I, well, loved it. Yes, I loved Margaret Mitchell's Pulitzer-Prize-winning Civil War epic debut/only book she ever wrote and I don't care who knows it. And I even teared up near the end! How about that.

It seems silly to offer a brief plot synopsis as I usually do because I feel like lots of people have, at the very least, seen the movie and therefore know the plot. But that's my formula, so: Scarlett O'Hara is a Southern belle living in Georgia at the huge cotton plantation known as Tara. The book opens up immediately before the Civil War as Scarlett's heart is breaking--though she has kept many beau close to her, teasing them to gain their affections, her "true love" is Ashley Wilkes, who announces his engagement to his cousin, Melanie Hamilton.  The day the announcement comes, Scarlett tells Ashley about her feelings, convinced that doing so will make him change his mind. He admits that he feels the same, but that they cannot be together because they won't be happy.

She, of course, is devastated, and doubly so when she realizes the devilish Rhett Butler has overheard their entire exchange. As a form of revenge, she decides to marry Charles Hamilton, Melanie's brother. Shortly after their wedding, the Civil War begins. Charles, a soldier in the Confederate Army, dies (of measles) and Scarlett, now widowed and a mother to Charlie's baby, moves to Atlanta with Melanie and her aunt Pittypat.

I feel like I have explained the plot for a long time, but I've only covered the first 150 pages (of 950, in my edition, at least). This is why I earlier used the word "epic", which is frequently used to label really long books but sometimes is misapplied. This is not the case with Gone with the Wind, which chronicles the Civil War in its entirety and beyond, a tale that chronicles the fall of the kingdom that was the South, a story about love and war and feminism and slavery and so many things. The scope of the novel is astonishing.

And the characters! The characters are so clearly defined and well-created that they dominate everything--they are the aspect of the novel that controls our attention. In fact, they feel a little archetypal--the way that Stanley and Blanche appear in some form or another in all of Tennessee Williams' later works, it feels as though Scarlett and Rhett are the archetypes for later Southern belles and rascals, for two strong characters that fall in and out of love (I am amused by this statement because Vivien Leigh brought both Blanche, herself a Southern belle, and Scarlett to the screen). The total soapiness of their relations (my secret favorite thing in the whole world) is alluring and gripping.

In the back of my edition, there's a one-page about the author. At the very end, a snippet of an interview with Mitchell is included where she says that the book is about survival. Of course, she nailed it (she wrote it, duh). The book is an emotional roller coaster ride of suffering and survival. I have said  many times in the past how much I hate narratives of suffering: I had to read too many books prior to this one about big issues like the Holocaust and slavery and civil rights where the only apparent goal in writing the book was to guilt me into feeling terrible for those that suffered and grateful for my own security and freedom in modern times. So to read a book that is so blatantly about suffering and not feel scorn for the author is a testament to the author's ability.

It works as a historical novel, too--Mitchell has a way of capturing old Southern society so exactly that it feels like a set of customs I myself grew up with. The hyperaccuracy is a double-edged sword, however--it means that Margaret Mitchell is presenting the ideas of the South about things like the Union and slaves as fact, ideas that are backwards and frankly wrong, beliefs that slaves wanted to remain in slavery, that they believed themselves too stupid to do anything else. As a person having grown up in the modern-day Midwest, these ideas chafe and are uncomfortable to hear. The way they sometimes force themselves to the fore of the novel are that manner of politicizing that I loathe most of all, by which an author uses her characters as parrots for her own agenda. At times, it's almost extreme enough to feel like a response to Uncle Tom's Cabin, a book that vilifies all slave owners as brutal, sadistic creatures (and this even comes up in the novel--Scarlett gets very annoyed with Northerners who took Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel as fact).

The parts of Gone with the Wind that detail the battles between the Union and Confederate armies or the process of Reconstruction are dull, equivalent to the discussions of farming technique in Anna Karenina in the way my attention quickly wandered. The moments where the focus falls away from the characters are dreadful moments indeed, but the book is so long and packed with Scarlett and Rhett that it's easy to forget about their existence.

I'm just so shocked to be saying that I loved this book because I never thought I would. If you have time, give it a chance. It will likely surprise you. Or not, if you've seen and loved the movie. I haven't seen it  yet, so I can't compare. But I have a feeling my loyalty will lie with the book.

My rating: 4.5/5
Gone with the Wind on Goodreads
See what I've been reading lately!

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