When the Civil War tears through Margaret Mitchell’s romanticized vision of the Old South, a noble civilization is burned to ash and swept away by the Yankee army. The weak whither and fade in the dust of their lost world, but the strong rise from the ashes and reclaim the land that was their own.
Before the war, Scarlett O’Hara is the belle of the county, desperately in love with Ashley who—despite his love for Scarlett—has chosen to marry the more practical Melanie. Scarlett marries his cousin to spite him, but the war leaves her a widowed mother, impoverished, and compelled by her love of Ashley to help support his wife and child. Realizing that money is the only thing that matters, Scarlett is prepared to lie, cheat, steal, and kill to build her fortune again. The only person that she can’t seem to dominate is the infamous blockade runner, Rhett Butler, whose ego, sarcasm, and impropriety make him both attractive and infuriating.
Although I grew up loving the film, every time I eyed the 1,000 page tome on which it was based, I balked. I don’t usually enjoy long books; I often spend half the time slogging through painfully verbose descriptions, wondering when the action will. Additionally, I don’t usually enjoy romance novels, and romance certainly features prominently in Gone With the Wind. But when a fourteen year old boy told me that Gone With the Wind was one of the best books he had ever read, I was so intrigued that I picked it up. And from that moment, I could not put it down.
As much as it is a romance between Scarlett and Rhett, Gone With the Wind is a romance between Margaret Mitchell and the Old South. She wrote the book in the 1920s and 1930s based on stories told to her by her grandparents’ generation, and her romanticized fiction should not be mistaken for historical fact. Deeply entrenched, lingering racism and classism is present not only in the thoughts of the characters but also in Mitchell’s omniscient narration. But it is easy to see how the audience that read Mitchell’s book when it was released in 1936—people who had lost so many loved ones and sacrificed so much in a Great War of their own and were then living through a horrible period of economic uncertainty—found the story of the courage, pride, and survival so compelling.
And the well-written, heartrending story still captures the imagination today. The world Mitchell creates and destroys is so beautiful yet flawed, and her account of the ups and downs of the war so agonizing, that even knowing how it would end, I couldn’t put the book down. But it is the characters that truly drive the story forward. Scarlett’s self-interested passion and determination is a foil to Melanie’s quiet, selfless, and commanding strength. Far more than in the movie, Captain Butler’s deep goodness shines through the mask of his weaknesses and vices. It is difficult not to both hate and pity Scarlett for failing to see through his studied nonchalance to the love he conceals out of fear that she will manipulate him, as she does all other men.
If you love the movie, you must read the book. The movie is a good adaptation, but even 4 hours of film cannot capture the depth and nuance of this 959 page novel. Additionally, Hollywood’s added “I love yous” and eliminated references to sex and pregnancy cause subtle yet important changes to the Rhett-Scarlett-Ashley love triangle. Be prepared for a glimpse into the racism of the Old South (and the 1930s South), but also for a perhaps not-entirely-inaccurate view of the hypocrisy and ruthlessness of the Yankees. And be prepared to watch in agony the slow demise of a relationship—and a civilization—due to foolishness, pride, and miscommunication.
Thank you for the recommendation, Max! I will second your vote: this is definitely one of the best books I have ever read.