Friday, January 17, 2014

Gone With the Wind

At long last I've come to the first Pulitzer-winner that I'd read prior to beginning this challenge: Gone With the Wind. Margaret Mitchell's classic occupied a good chunk of the summer that I turned 13 and now that I've read it a second time I admit there were vast portions of it I didn't remember at all. Perhaps my original memory of the book has been eclipsed by the movie, but it's also possible that I skipped over entire sections - the spine of my 21-year old paperback copy was suspiciously pristine. I vividly remembered the first 40% of the book and the last 10% but the middle part was a bit foggy. I believe this may have improved the experience of re-reading the nineteenth novel to win the Pulitzer, since I got to see it with fresh eyes.

Gone With the Wind is the only novel that Margaret Mitchell, a native and fierce Georgian, ever wrote. To this day it remains one of the bestselling books of all time, having sold more than 30 million copies worldwide. As such, there is a substantial amount of criticism and scholarly research available to interested parties, as well as an abundance of reviews, summaries and analyses from lay readers. And then there's the equally (or more?) popular film adaptation from 1939, about which there is just as much criticism - both professional and amateur - available. Being a nerd, I did some research for this blog post. Not wanting to write the same old, tired take on such a well known story I tried to find an angle. I found two and couldn't choose between them, so you get them both.

1. Is Scarlett a feminist?

The debate over whether or not Scarlett is a feminist was thought provoking. On the one hand she seems decidedly ahead of her time, consistently opposing her society's expectations of what a proper Southern woman ought to be. In the beginning of the novel she is critical of the way the requirement to be beautiful and ornamental prohibits her from acting the way she would naturally. As she matures she eschews the institution of marriage despite marrying three times, is uninterested in having children and largely disdainful of those she does bear, and she is resentful of the idea that she must depend on a man - any man, whether it's her father or a husband - for her security and livelihood.

On the other hand, she has many negative characteristics that make modern day feminists cringe. She is selfish, always seeking Scarlett Power specifically rather than Girl Power generally. She gets what she wants, often at the expense of other women, some of whom are her friends - or even her own sisters! While she's got an aptitude for numbers and finance, she is largely uneducated and not particularly interested in improving her mind, thus her natural intelligence remains grossly underdeveloped. And most egregious of all: she is racist.

Scarlett believes in her own equality with men of her class and race, but she doesn't seem to believe in equality of all women with all men. She feels superior to lower class whites. And Yankees. And while she demonstrates genuine affection for a number of black characters in the novel, particularly those she considers to be members of her family (Mammy, Uncle Peter, and so on), she clearly does not consider them her equal in any capacity. She expresses outright contempt and disgust at the vast majority of black Americans who are now legally free from the bondage of slavery, and in her mind, to their own detriment.

So. Can Scarlett be feminist and also be racist? Can a person believe in the equality of the sexes and simultaneously believe in inequality of races? I think ultimately the answer is probably not, you either believe in equality or you do not. And yet, it is sometimes possible to appreciate a character's good qualities while still condemning their flaws. This is how you can still love that racist and/or sexist 95-year old grandfather who was born in 1918. To dismiss Scarlett's progressive ideas about her own place in society (which is, of course, a rich, white woman's place) because of her selfishness and racism is unfair. Scarlett's racism is an expected character trait given the time and place of the story, but her resistance to follow the social customs laid out for young women is not.  If Margaret Mitchell had been born north of the Mason-Dixon in 1960 instead of south of it in 1900, Scarlett O'Hara could easily have been Carrie Bradshaw.

2. Does racism ruin this book?

In the 20 years that elapsed since I first read Gone With the Wind I somehow forgot the degree of extreme racism that is espoused by Mitchell:
"Aided by the unscrupulous adventurers who operated the Freedman's Bureau and urged on by a fervor of Northern hatred almost religious in its fanaticism, the former field hands found themselves suddenly elevated to the seats of the mighty. There they conducted themselves as creatures of small intelligence might naturally be expected to do. Like monkeys or small children turned loose among treasured objects whose value is beyond their comprehension, they ran wild - either from perverse pleasure in destruction or simply because of their ignorance."
That is but one of many, many examples.

In the film adaptation, director Victor Fleming and screenwriter Sidney Howard definitely reduced the emphatically racist opinions of Margaret Mitchell to make the story more palatable for the silver screen. And yet the distorted depiction of Southern Reconstruction remains, which becomes truly problematic when you consider the global reach of the book and movie. The book's description of how voting rights were affected by the various acts of Congress in the late 1860's is grossly inaccurate. When contrasted with a book like Stribling's The Store which, despite being a work of fiction, is an unflinching and brutally honest portrayal of the South in the years immediately following Reconstruction, Gone With the Wind is filled to the brim with Mitchell's own racial bias and historically incorrect conclusions about the Civil War and Reconstruction.

For me this tarnishes the book but does not ruin it. I'm still able to appreciate Scarlett's feisty nature and uncanny ability to survive everything life throws at her - which is a lot. And I can certainly appreciate Rhett, who is basically passion personified. Some folks on the Interwebs agree with me, others don't. I'll leave you to draw your own concluisons. I think my opinion of Margaret Mitchell - both as a person and as a writer - is damaged more by the book's racist passages and errors in historical fact. Perhaps it's a good thing she never wrote anything else.

To sum up: I loved this book. I laughed, I cried, and I yelled out loud. I stayed up too late (on more than one occasion) finishing just one more chapter. But the absolute best part of this novel is not Scarlett O'Hara. It's Rhett Butler. I didn't love Gone With the Wind because of Scarlett, but because of Rhett. And I loved him so, so much. I loved him for being an ungentlemanly rascal. I loved him for being kind in unexpected moments and utterly wicked the rest of the time. I loved him for knowing himself so well. But mostly I loved him for knowing Scarlett better than she could ever know herself, for loving her because of her flaws and not just in spite of them, and for finally walking out the door after she'd treated him so terribly for so long.

If you decide to read Gone With the Wind, do it for Rhett.

Further Reading:
  • Frankly My Dear: Gone With the Wind Revisited, by Molly Haskell
  • "Scarlett O'Hara as Confederate Woman," by Katharine Lane Antolini , Department of History, West Virginia University, Morgantown, WV
  • "A Critic at Large: A Study in Scarlett," by Claudia Roth Pierpont. The New Yorker, August 31, 1992, p. 87

No comments: