Thoughts on Gone With the Wind

(I wrote most of this a few days ago offline, but now have peppered it with a bunch of quotations from the text)

As I’ve already written in earlier posts, I considered not having read this iconic work a serious gap in my ‘cultural literacy’ – one that has now thankfully been rectified.  At 959 pages, it took me maybe 20 hours total to read (at my age, that’s a pretty big time investment that I don’t make lightly)

I enjoyed the leisurely introduction of the characters in this book, the sheer length of which I suppose allows Mitchell this luxury.  Rhett Butler, for example, doesn’t even make his first appearance until after page 100.

To me, Gone With the Wind is the story of four people and how they dealt with the ‘end’ of the southern culture and the trauma of the Civil War. Agreed, the book has one protagonist, the infamous Scarlett O’Hara (-Hamilton-Kennedy-Butler), but her interaction with one or more of the other three (Rhett Butler, Ashley Wilkes, and Melanie Hamilton Wilkes) is continual throughout the work.

Rhett Butler is the opportunist, who sees the fall of the South as a way to enrich himself.  He is a social ‘outcast’ who refuses to let an earlier ‘indiscretion’ (at least by society’s standards) ruin his life.  He is imminently practical and often mentions how one can make money during the emergence of a civilization, but also during its dissolution, and that money can be made more quickly during the fall.

(regarding Scarlett’s thoughts of him) “But somehow, unbidden, she had a feeling of respect for Rhett Butler for refusing to marry a girl who was a fool.” – chapter 6

“It was almost as if he overdid his courtesy because his contempt for everybody present was so great.”

“He could no more resist pricking the conceits, the hypocrisies and the flamboyant patriotism of those about him than a small boy can resist putting a pin into a balloon.  He neatly deflated the pompous and exposed the ignorant and the bigoted, and he did it in such subtle ways, drawing his victims out by his seemingly courteous interest, that they were never quite certain what had happened until they stood exposed as windy, high flown and slightly ridiculous.” – chapter 12

Ashley Wilkes
is the ‘obsolete’ Southern Gentleman, who ‘does his duty’ and fights in the war, even if he knows in his heart it is a lost cause, merely because it is his duty as defined by the society which has created him.  Scarlett has a “deep, abiding love” for him throughout almost the whole book, although she is actually in love with an idealized version of him which doesn’t truly exist.  She realized this too late, only after she has “lost” Rhett.

“For Ashley was born of a line of men who used their leisure for thinking, not doing, for spinning brightly colored dreams that had in them no touch of reality.  He moved in an inner world that was more beautiful than Georgia and came back to reality with reluctance.”

“Ashley’s a good man in a pinch.  He keeps his head.” – chapter 37

“You see, I never wanted to get anywhere at all.  I’ve only wanted to be myself” – chapter 53

Melanie Wilkes, who Scarlett initially hates – because Ashley has married Melanie instead of her – seemed to me to be the only character with a constancy of character that I really liked throughout the whole book.  She is frail, but strong, as many people rely on her character.  Her death near the end of the book was actually quite moving (and I am not an emotional reader).  Her constant loyalty to her husband and to Scarlett (of whose true nature she is blithely unaware) is admirable.

“What Melanie did was no more than all Southern girls were taught to do – to make those about them feel at ease and pleased with themselves.  It was this happy feminine conspiracy which made Southern society so pleasant.”  – chapter 8

(Rhett, speaking of Melanie) “If I am ‘nicer’ to Mrs. Wilkes, it is because she deserves it.  She is one of the very few kind, sincere and unselfish persons I have ever known.” – chapter 12

Ashley (speaking of Melanie): “She is the only dream I ever had that lived and breathed and did not die in the face of reality.” – chapter 62

Scarlett herself:
What can one say about her?  A friend told me that she is portrayed in the movie as a ‘spoiled brat,’ and that the book paints a more complete picture.  I would prefer to describe her as a survivor.  A self-centered survivor, I’ll admit, but one that’s tough as nails.  I think her transparently ‘honest’ self-centeredness actually is what attracts Rhett to her, but in the end also drives him away.

Some favorite quotations:

“…for she could never long endure any conversation of which she was not the chief subject.” – chapter 1

“she was constitutionally unable to endure any man being in love with any woman not herself.”

“To her, all women, including her two sisters, were natural enemies in pursuit of the same prey – man.” – chapter 3

“I’m tired of saying ‘How wonderful you are!’ to fool men who haven’t got one-half the sense I’ve got…” chapter 5

“she could endure the hospital with equanimity now because it was a perfect happy hunting ground.  The helpless wounded succumbed to her charms without a struggle” – chapter 12

“She though hard but Thermopylae meant nothing to her.” – chapter 16

“Dear Scarlett! You aren’t helpless.  Anyone as selfish and determined as you are is never helpless. God help the Yankees if they should get you.” – chapter 23 (Rhett)

I think all four characters could be argued as representatives of the South, and the different ways in which it has dealt with the war and its aftermath.

Other favorite quotations:

“the planting and the picking were the diastole and systole of the red earth” – chapter 3

“Mrs. Merriwether was a tall, stout woman and so tightly corseted that her bust jutted forward like the prow of a ship.” – chapter 8

“Sherman was circling the town like a wrestler seeking a fresh hold on an opponent’s body”- chapter 18

“Bright lights and wine, fiddles and dancing, brocade and broadcloth in the show big houses and, just around the corners, slow starvation and cold.  Arrogance and callousness for the conquerors, bitter endurance and hatred for the conquered.” – chapter 37

There is a lot about the book, historically, to recommend it as well.  I’ve blogged before about my 2010’s “Project: Civil War” and having read something already about the war helps me appreciate this book as more than just a ‘novel.’  The town’s waiting for the ‘casualty lists’ from Gettysburg was something that seemed particularly vivid to me.

Overall, I enjoyed the book very much and am glad I have finally read it.  I’m also interested in finally watching the movie now as well (that’ll be another four hours of my life spent…<sigh>)

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4 Comments

  1. Jade said,

    March 19, 2010 at 7:22 pm

    This book is one of my very favorite books. I remember the exact moment I picked up the tattered copy and it changed my life forever. I was in sixth grade and while all the other students were in age appropriate reading groups, I was placed in the higher level. Which meant I was able to choose my own book. I chose Gone with the Wind. It was the best thing I could have ever done. I like your take on the book, but for me, it took me to another place and time and I aborbed the characters as if they were real. The story took hold of my heart and I truly love this book! Oh, the movie is great too 🙂

    Like

  2. stentorpub said,

    March 19, 2010 at 8:06 pm

    Hi Jade,
    Thanks for your comment. You are not the first person I’ve encountered who has very strong feelings about this book. In fact, it seems to be the norm for those who have made the commitment to read it. (I guess this should not surprise me, considering its popularity) I’m especially impressed that you read it as a sixth-grader. I’m not sure what worthwhile books, if any, I was reading at that age.
    -JC

    Like

  3. peter said,

    March 19, 2010 at 10:06 pm

    I love the description of Wilkes as the obsolete Southern gentleman.

    Who killed RHETT BUTLER? No one has written it until NOW! http://www.deathofrhett.blogspot.com

    Like

  4. Christopher said,

    March 21, 2010 at 5:09 am

    I finally watched the movie a couple years ago. It’s got such a reputation as a chic movie/book. I haven’t read anything from Jane Austen yet either for the same reason. But, I know I should. The movie was intense and enlightening and the books are always better than the movies. Pretty soon I’ll make that leap.

    Like


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