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 watching 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.
Gone With the Wind is the most problematic book I have ever read. It would be easy to decry it if it were all racist manifesto and easy to praise it if it were all enthralling love story. Unfortunately, it is both.
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. Long passages expound up on the “virtue” of slavery and the “inferiority” of all people of African descent. Although 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 mythology of the courage, pride, and survival so compelling, it is deeply troubling that the racist arguments she makes shaped society then and even today. I was horrified to realize that some of the racist ideas she encompasses in her pro-slavery thesis were taught to me in school in the 1990s and are echoed by white nationalists today. In that sense, this book is beyond bad. It is evil.
And yet … the love story is one of the most well-crafted, engaging stories I have ever read. It is a story of contradictions. 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 will love 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. BUT–and this is critical–be prepared to face the racism of the Old South (and the 1930s South). Do not go into this book blindly. I believe that reading this level of racism can be eye-opening and informative, illuminating racism we didn’t realize we had internalized ourselves, but only if we READ CRITICALLY. If not, this book will continue to perpetuate the racism that has permeated our country since its foundation.