I’ve decided to start my novel reviews with a controversial one. In some circles these days, admitting you’ve read GWTW–much less liked it–is tantamount to donning white robes and grabbing a pitch fork. I don’t have a pitch fork but I do have a keyboard so for that of you that read on, I’m going to discuss what works, what doesn’t, and of course we’ll address the elephant in Margaret Mitchell’s room. Caveat–this review isn’t for people who haven’t read the novel. There’s no plot summary. There are spoiler alerts. I know it’s mind boggling that some people may be unaware Rhett Butler doesn’t give a damn, but stranger things have happened.
To start, I’ve got a soft spot for GWTW. It’s the first adult novel I read at the age of eleven. It took me four days and I was proud of my accomplishment but it really isn’t for children, as evidenced by the end of the novel where I was stunned to learn Rhett Butler truly loved Scarlett O’Hara. Of course when I reread the novel in my twenties before turning to Scarlett: The Sequel to GWTW I wasn’t a few hundred pages in before giving a great big DUH!!! on the subject of Rhett’s obsessive, unrequited love for Scarlett.
What works for GWTW is it’s a fantastic, event ridden novel. Miss Mitchell was truly gifted when it came to putting her readers in the universe she created. You can smell ribs simmering at John Wilkes’s barbeque. You feel the brutal sun beaming down on your hatless head as Scarlett drives her rickshaw wagon through the countryside after fleeing Atlanta. You struggle to swallow the same lump Scarlett has in her throat when she tells Rhett nearly every boy in the County died at Gettysburg.
Margaret Mitchell had an amazing (and to this writer, enviable) ability for making history come alive. I owe my eighth grade A in History to GWTW. Because I was on the edge of my seat during the siege of Atlanta, because I tore the page in my frenzied hurry to learn if the Yankees managed to burn Tara or Melanie and Scarlett put the fire out in time, after I finished the novel I got several biographies and history books from the library about the Civil War.
That’s what works–bringing the Antebellum South and Reconstruction to life right down to sucking in your breath before putting on your whalebone corset and that brings to mind another asset the novel has–its wardrobe. Remember the bonnet Rhett brought Scarlett from Paris to lure her out of that icky mourning get up? Dark green taffeta lined with water silk of a pale-jade color. Sigh. Convent-made undies– I didn’t know they existed but apparently it was the Antebellum version of Victoria’s Secret. Bonnie’s blue taffeta riding dress that Rhett allows over Mammy’s protestations little girls where black broadcloth to ride. I could go on and on, just as Miss Mitchell did for a thousand pages.
What else works? Romance scenes that were steamy but not graphic– 50 Shades of Grey can’t hold a candle to Rhett Butler’s kisses making Scarlett feel hot and cold at the same time. Kisses that nearly made her swoon on several occasions in the novel? Rhett Butler can carry me up the stairs anytime!
Now let’s get to what doesn’t work–it’s not the elephant in the room, not yet. GWTW is an event driven novel deprived of any event in the last two hundred pages. The Civil War’s been fought, Reconstruction is coming to an end and Jim Crow has yet to rear its ugly head. Without an event, the last part of GWTW turns into a soap opera–a boring soap opera at that.
Without a siege or greedy scalawags trying to take Tara from Scarlett, all the novel has its love triangle–Scarlett, Rhett, and Ashley. Yawn. I’ve always thought the novel should’ve ended with Scarlett and Rhett’s marriage. Will it work? Will Scarlett finally move past her teenage infatuation for Ashley? Will Rhett just beat the snot out of Ashley and get him out of the way? How much better for readers to imagine scenarios than the enormous disservice Margaret Mitchell did to her characters!
For the last two hundred pages, Rhett should’ve changed his name from Rhett Butler to Rhett Snowflake. What a wimp he turned into! First, he’s all butt hurt when Scarlett demanded separate rooms after their daughter Bonnie was born. Why not tell her no? Why not stand up and demand your marital rights or a divorce is forthcoming? Rhett was such an iconoclast I can’t imagine a divorce would’ve bothered him.
Rather than have it out with Scarlett right there and then, Rhett takes another bedroom (where he sleeps with their toddler, Bonnie, because she’s scared of the dark. Can anyone else say CREEPY) and leaves Scarlett alone until the town gossips bust her hugging Ashley. In our time no big deal–got to rehashing old times, cried for all the dead and a way of life long gone–but in the Victorian Era, hugging a guy who isn’t your husband you might’ve well been busted wearing nothing but high heels and a garter belt.
Well, Rhett forces Scarlett to attend Melanie’s birthday party for Ashley that night when she wants to hide in her celibate bedroom rather than face social disapproval. Correct me if I’m wrong, didn’t Scarlett stand down Sherman’s bummers when they tried to burn down Tara and became a career woman when woman weren’t even supposed to be able to spell career? I can’t see her turning into a whining blob over what the neighbors would say.
After what I can only imagine must’ve been the most uncomfortable party ever (Happy Birthday, Ashley!) Rhett takes Scarlett home and goes out to get his drunk on. Comes home blotto, angry and proceeds to take Scarlett upstairs; knocking the sheets off that touch-me-not bed.
For awhile you’re like Woo-Hoo! Way to grow a set, Rhett. But instead of sticking around, after doing the dirty, Rhett runs right back to his favorite whorehouse. Turns up three days later to tell Scarlett he’s taking Bonnie on vacation. Then he screams at her when Scarlett demands how does she know her daughter won’t wind up in a cathouse with him? Rhett, you just told Scarlett that’s where you were. You went from your wife’s bed to a ho’s bed. You didn’t have the guts to stick around after a night that made the earth move and try to put your marriage back together. Don’t blame Scarlett for being mad and thinking you’re not exactly Father of the Year.
Well, Rhett goes to Charleston for ten pages or so, returns and picks yet another fight with Scarlett; the result being she falls down the stairs and has a miscarriage. At the end of the book, Rhett tells Scarlett he realized it was all over between them when she didn’t “call for him” while she hovered between life and death after the miscarriage. Um, the woman was delirious and I’m sure nice Dr. Meade was giving her laudanum for the pain. I had surgery, and in my morphine haze afterwards asked my husband to please put our laptop in the laundry. Thankfully, he didn’t base our future relationship on anything I said during my opiate haze like Rhett Snowflake did. Did Rhett have a brain in his head?! He said the relationship was over basically because Scarlett didn’t welcome him with open arms when he returned from the whorehouse and forgot to call for him on her near deathbed. You kind of want to go all Ren & Stimpy, slap him and say, “You Id–I-ooottt!”
Now Rhett’s wimpiness is nothing compared to the vivisection Miss Mitchell did to Miss Scarlett’s character. All throughout the novel Scarlett is at times a vixen, at times a liar, at times an out and out bitch but after marrying Rhett she becomes a real C U Next Tuesday.
Margaret Mitchell seems to forget her own heroine’s background. After Sherman’s Bummers came through, a nineteen year old girl had near crippling burdens to shoulder. Her mother was dead, and her father lost his mind. She had to save Tara from burning and then learn how to manage a plantation; buying cotton, planting it, doling out food and I’m sure she wasn’t given much education on those tasks before hand. She mastered them and then tricked old-maid Frank Kennedy into marriage so she got tax money after the scalawags unfairly hiked her taxes. After marriage, she learned how to operate a sawmill. This woman single handedly took care of her dad, her sisters, the servants, Miss Pittipatt and her children. Way to go!
Did working these tasks make her mean, short-tempered? Absolutely, but who wouldn’t be snappish under such circumstances? Scarlett knew she was being mean and told herself she’d behave better once she had money enough to feel secure. So why after marrying Rhett did she become nastier? Also, where did the vulgar taste come from? Scarlett grew up in a beautiful plantation home, she wore pretty clothes throughout the novel–why did marriage make her the Tammy Fay of Reconstruction?
Then there’s the way Scarlett spoke to Rhett after Bonnie died. Quick aside, that was yet another soap opera trick. A child’s pony stumbling over a six inch bar and all of a sudden Bonnie’s neck is broken? Donald McCaig rightly pointed out that foible in Rhett Butler’s People–most children don’t die when they fall of their horse.
But after the (contrived) death of their child, Scarlett tells Rhett it’s all his fault; he murdered their daughter. At that point, Scarlett isn’t believable anymore. She’s a caricature–vicious, angry, shrill. Rhett, too, is a cardboard figure; drinking himself to death and making poor Pork the butler put him to bed and change his clothes. Frankly, my dear, I stopped giving a damn about the people in this novel long before Rhett did.
Now for the elephant in the room–slavery. Not so much slavery as Margaret Mitchell’s take on slavery. No unhappy slaves here–nope, they sing Swing Low, Sweet Chariot while they pick cotton, go home to comfy slave cabins and feel proud to belong to quality white folks. And that’s just the field hands. The highest caste of slaves–the house servants–are not only proud of who they belong to but feel themselves superior to poor white trash, such as those shiftless Slattery’s who live on Gerald O’Hara’s charity and pay it back by killing Mrs. O’Hara when she nurses one of them through typhoid only to die when she contracts the illness.
Is this view of slavery infuriating to a 2018 reader of GWTW? Absolutely. Should the book be banned or reviled because of it? Absolutely Not.
Margaret Mitchell didn’t come up with this perspective on slavery in a vacuum. She passed on what her grandparents, great-grandparents had to say on the subject. Such opinions were still the prevailing opinion even in the Thirties in the Deep South. That opinion was that Emancipation ruined the coloreds. (and don’t bark at me; no one would’ve said African American in that time period.) Slavery was so much better; they had good homes, were looked after in sickness and old age. Again, do not snap at me–I’m stating what people thought in that time. Do I think slavery was grand? Of course not, but what saddens me isn’t GWTW saying that it was; it’s that it still exists in corners of the world to this day.
Now as for GWTW I say it should stick around and be read for two reasons–One, being a student of history means learning not just about the Battle of Wherever but why people thought the way they did, what propelled them into a war in the first place. Why did Henry VIII think it was okay to behead two of his wives? Philippa Gregory’s novels, The Other Boleyn Girl and The Boleyn Inheritance will help you out there.
Just as GWTW will help you understand why the South was willing to fight the Civil War and how Radical Reconstruction shaped a New South where Jim Crow played such a prominent role. During Reconstruction, Miss Mitchell writes that awful Freedmen’s Bureau filled the former slaves’ ears with tales of whippings and brandings that made the duped ex-slaves turn on their former owners. She writes that’s when “hate and suspicion began to grow.” But reading between the lines, you see this “hate and suspicion” was on the part of the former slave owners, feeling betrayed that their slaves ran the first chance they got, but for a few. You weren’t happy? Hah, we’ll show you real unhappiness now; we’ll form the Ku Klux Klan.
Again, this is the perspective Margaret Mitchell provides–that the KKK sprang up to save helpless white women from ex-slaves gone drunk and vicious with freedom. Do we feel that way now? Of course not and interestingly enough, I don’t think a great deal of people felt that way in the Thirties. MGM, the studio that produced GWTW, agreed to do so on the proviso the Ku Klux Klan would not be mentioned, especially in any positive context. So it seems as early as 1939 when the film version of GWTW came out, the times they were a changin’.
Why should I have to understand this perspective you say? For one thing, to see what people do when they feel disenfranchised. For another to see the story from someone else’s side and this is what the PC crowd can’t seem to understand when they push censorship. No one is telling you to like this perspective, no one’s even telling you to feel sympathy for those that had that perspective. Perspective is about seeing events through someone else’s eyes. Also, perhaps in understanding, in remembering at one point people truly felt this way, history won’t repeat itself.
Just an aside for GWTW fans, I have to wonder if Miss Mitchell herself was leaning towards a new perspective, one that would’ve developed had she lived long enough to write other novels. Antebellum Atlanta (as opposed to the scalawags and Radical Reconstructionists swooping down after the surrender) holds a lot against Scarlett–dancing in public a year after her first husband’s death, going to work during Reconstruction, marrying Rhett, etc. But it seems her biggest faux pas (to them, at least) was leasing convicts to work in her sawmills. During Reconstruction, the state of Georgia finding themselves bankrupt, leased out prisoners to work in labor camps; chain gangs. Scarlett avails herself of this service and watches her profits skyrocket now that the Freedmen’s Bureau isn’t looking over her shoulder, making certain she treated freedmen well.
Eke! Scarlett hires a hideous specimen named Johnny Gallegher to get her lumber anyway he sees fit–if that means a few licks on hapless convict backs so be it. Miserable Ashley works the other mill making little profit off the convicts because he won’t “drive” them. That seems why old Atlanta is so scandalized–that she’d drive men so mercilessly to make a profit.
Scarlett rightfully points out “But you owned slaves!” Their rebuttal is slaves weren’t whipped or mistreated. Oh, yes they were. Even Margaret Mitchell had to admit one didn’t sell slaves south, for fear of what happened in states like Louisiana or Mississippi. So that meant slaves were badly treated, probably a lot worse than Scarlett’s convicts. Sorry, I’m not willing to let Atlanta off with It Didn’t Happen In My Backyard so therefore it doesn’t count and I’m glad Scarlett didn’t either.
The question is, did Margaret Mitchell do that deliberately? Was she pointing out Old South hypocrisy in that they weren’t angry about Scarlett driving men but that she was driving white men? Or was Margaret Mitchell upholding Atlanta’s viewpoint and despairing that her heroine bought convicts? It’s an interesting question.
Now, my other reason for feeling GWTW should persevere–it’s profound effect on American culture. Spike Lee named his production company 40 Acres and a Mule–a line right out of the movie. Malcolm X derided house servants–those that took the owners side post Civil War and chose to stay with them, scorning freedom–and he may well have learned about steadfast house servants from GWTW just like many of us did.
Also, the book inspired those not only willing to learn another perspective but than built their own perspective onto GWTW. The best example of that is Rhett Butler’s People, by Donald McCaig. Mr. McCaig rehabilitates characters and introduces them to twenty-first century perspective. The happy slaves refrains gets strongly retuned when Ashley Wilkes, sharing a drink with Rhett Butler, recounts a happy slave that played banjo and never seemed to work. Rhett, through careful questioning, makes him remember a sobbing slave woman watching her husband carted away in the seller’s cart.
Mr. McCaig also put the Ku Klux Klan firmly in place. The one character in his book that joins the Klan winds up committing suicide. The others seem to be learning a new perspective, finding their way into a new way of life. A place without slaves, where the former slaves will have their own jobs, their own lives. It’s best summed up when one character, asked to join the Klan tells his friend– “Andrew, I followed you into Hell. (prison they spent the end of the Civil War in.) I will not follow you into the Klan.”
Donald McCaig also makes Rhett and Scarlett far more than the one dimensional caricatures Margaret Mitchell wound up with. Rhett becomes an abolitionist of sorts, living with a freed colored family for awhile after his beastly father has a slave whipped to death merely for trying to save his wife from rape at the hands of the son of the overseer. In RBP, Rhett loves Bonnie, but not with the near pedophiliac love Margaret Mitchell imbued him with. They take a trip to New Orleans, all the more poignant because Rhett forgot to take Bonnie for a steamboat trip; a fact that haunts him after she dies. Scarlett finds her new author sympathizing with her frustration that wife and mother are the only acceptable roles in her world. Mr. McCaig also gives Scarlett vulnerability when Rhett leaves her. It’s that vulnerability, finally telling Rhett she needs him that draws her back to him.
Do I think Rhett Butler’s People is superior to Gone With the Wind? Yes, but it wouldn’t exist without GWTW. Like Dracula, a new world got born and people built on it–Anne Rice, Laurel K. Hamilton, all the way down to Trisha Baker, who might not have become a writer without stumbling over GWTW as well.
So that’s why I feel GWTW should stick around–the perspective it offers, and the impact it has and continues to have. Now my grade on the novel itself, just as a work of fiction? It had A plus event scenes and D soap opera scenes, adding up to B minus.
//ws-na.amazon-adsystem.com/widgets/q?ServiceVersion=20070822&OneJS=1&Operation=GetAdHtml&MarketPlace=US&source=ac&ref=tf_til&ad_type=product_link&tracking_id=ladybaldevar-20&marketplace=amazon®ion=US&placement=0446502375&asins=0446502375&linkId=065c6dc62abb86694d9e24d6bcc38993&show_border=false&link_opens_in_new_window=false&price_color=333333&title_color=0066c0&bg_color=ffffff Not profound, but a fun romance novel.