I finally read Margaret Mitchell’s masterpiece, Gone With the Wind. Apparently, every woman I know read it when they were younger and it had a big impact on them. So, after my wife and mother repeatedly expressed surprise that I had never read it, I took up the challenge.
And I’m glad I did. I really enjoyed it in the sense that one “enjoys” a LONG novel full of characters who are difficult and dislikeable. Also one that is controversial in some ways for what it has to say about the American South during and after the Civil War.
I’m glad I read it primarily because it is just an excellent story and very well written. Her obituary in the New York Times said that “Whatever posterity may decide as to its merits, Miss Mitchell wrote a book which was the most phenomenal best seller ever written by an unknown author of a first novel.”
But now I’m glad that I read it and can actually have something to say about what I still believe is a very important set of issues swirling around the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Lost Cause, and racism, and more generally just the human experience.
With that, here are 10 things I “hated” about Gone With the Wind. And please note, ** here be spoilers **.
1. That it overturned my pre-GWTW notions of what the story was all about.
I had never wanted to read this book, or see the movie, because I had an uninformed assumption that it was simply an apologia for the Lost Cause, that risible Southern attitude that the cause of secession was just, that the War wasn’t about slavery but was about states rights, that the South could have won if only … if only. None of which are true, but having read the book, I see it as Margaret Mitchell’s view of their world as it was to them, not necessarily as the world she wished it to be. The author’s note at the end explains that Mitchell grew up hearing Confederate veterans’ stories of the war and that she didn’t learn that the South had lost until she was 10 years old.
Nor can I view it, without deeper inspection of the literary criticism, as a piece of literature that somehow “spawned” anew the Lost Cause mentality in the South. That was already strongly present and had been since 1865 or even earlier.
2. That the slaves/freed-slaves’ words were written in dialect.
I really hated this. It’s a style of writing not used by contemporary writers, but was quite common generations ago.
Of related interest, the WPA Ex-slave Narratives, follow this same dialect approach in transcripts. And they were conducted at the same time as Mitchell’s book was overtaking the country (1936-38).
3. That the words “darkie” and “nigger” were used throughout without irony.
Now I know this was the manner of speaking during and after the Civil War, by both Southerners and Northerners, but to a 21st-centiury reader these are very fraught and archaic terms.
Thinking now about Mark Twain’s usage of the same … it doesn’t seem so “in your face.”
A question I ponder is whether Margaret Mitchell was comfortable in her own time period (she lived 1900-1949) using these terms or if she was just being a author true to the time of the characters in her story.
It is also interesting that Mitchell presents the hierarchy of ex-slaves much the way it was lived during slavery time: house slaves, skilled workers, field hands. Mammy and Uncle Peter, house slaves, have deep disdain for the “free issue darkies” and put them on the same plane as “white trash.” So, many interesting layers of social hierarchy at work in the novel.
4. That a small child who was fairly central to part of the story died.
I really hate it when that happens. I saw it coming as soon as Rhett latched onto Bonnie Blue and saw her as his redemption, his ticket back into society, the anti-Scarlett, even. The buildup scene to the moment of the accident was incredible.
5. That the protagonist, Scarlett O’Hara, was admirable and despicable at the same time.
I disliked Scarlett’s amoral bull-headedness, but I admired this quality, too. I hated that fact that she cared so little for her children (there were long stretches in the middle of the book when Wade, her first child, was never mentioned), but admired that she saw her whole clan through the war and immediate aftermath. I see her in some respects as a feminist for her time—she didn’t understand why a woman in her society could not run a business, and she said so.
In fact, for nearly all the characters—Rhett, Ashley, Melanie, even Frank Kennedy—the author created complex, fragile, strong characters all at the same time.
Melanie Wilkes, perhaps, was the most surprising of all. That Scarlett came to think of her, in the end, as her “sword” and “armor” was most interesting. And that Rhett explained that Melanie “never had any strength. She’s never had anything but heart” was really moving, especially considering the source.
The main characters were strong and best of all changed over time, or tried to change (Ashley Wilkes) and simply couldn’t deal with it.
6. That their society was so tightly bound in archaic notions of chivalry, of gender roles, of the “proprieties.”
How many times was the word “proprieties” used in the novel?! But the characters would be as shocked at our world as we at theirs. Mitchell really put me into that world, and many times I just wanted to shake the characters and scream at them, “stop pining for your lost way of life that was made possible by the unpaid labor of enslaved people.
7. That I almost, for a smidge of a second, felt sorry for the Atlantans as Sherman and the Union forces pillaged and burned the place to the ground.
Mitchell wrote that section masterfully, as the Confederate defenders kept falling back as Union forces advanced, and the Georgians continued to believe that their forces would prevail in the end, doped as they were on the mind-altering fumes of their cause. I appreciated that both Rhett Butler and Ashley Wilkes saw the effort as a true lost cause, but both had different reasons for fighting.
But I do feel like I should read more on the immediate post-Civil War Reconstruction period. I’m sure there were plenty of Yankee depredations, but the way Mitchell describes it in the book, it’s as if all Yankees and freedmen, Carpetbaggers and Scalawags, were rapacious, horrible creatures.
But sure, it was a tumultuous time. One side had just been beaten, and beaten badly, and the other side … well, who in this country ever had experience re-building and rehabilitating an entire treasonous society?
8. That the Georgians fought tooth and nail against Reconstruction, including joining the Ku Klux Klan, and were basically a pack of reactionary white supremacists.
I mean, really? You have to go hang people who attack your women, instead of letting the criminal justice system take action? Oho, but the criminal justice system was being run at the time by Yankees and shifty freedman! So what’s a noble Southern man to do? Nightriders!
I’m glad that Scarlett wanted nothing to do with Klan, nor did she want her men to be involved (but for her own selfish reasons). At the same time, I’m not sure that I particularly agreed with Scarlett’s way of doing things, either: choosing the quite amoral, relatively dishonorable path to achieve her goals. There was something to admire in her neighbors who would rather be poor and remain “loyal” to what they saw as the “Lost Cause” than be rich but be friends with Carpetbaggers and Scalawags. But then they were unreconstructed secessionists.
9. The Lost Cause.
I really hate the Lost Cause mentality that prevailed in the southern states then (and in some ways, today).
The Lost Cause was stronger, dearer now in their hearts than it had ever been at the height of its glory. It was a fetish now. Everything about it was sacred, the graves of the men who had died for it, the battle fields, the torn flags, the crossed sabers in their halls, the fading letters from the front, the veterans.
Fetish then, fetish now. Another religion, but fanatical and absurd. One problem is that Mitchell just gets the history wrong in many places, even though her father was a Georgia historian. But on the other hand, her job as a novelist is to tell a story from the POV of characters who are living the story. So, this passage really stood out in all of its ahistorical glory:
Here was the astonishing spectacle of half a nation attempting, at the point of bayonet, to force upon the other half the rule of negroes, many of them scarcely one generation out of the African jungles. The vote must be given to them but it must be denied to most of their former owners. The South must be kept down and disenfranchisement of the whites was one way to keep the South down.
But returning to the first point, I’m not entirely sure that this book can necessarily be seen as an apologia for the Lost Cause. Surely Mitchell understood the history better than this, but to her characters, this wasn’t history. (I will look into this later; I didn’t want to “infect” these musings with anything but my actual, pure reaction to the text.)
10. That it’s over.
Do you ever finish a novel and feel a little sad that you are done? The characters and the story linger and you kind of wish they could speak again? I felt that way. The final two things said by Rhett and Scarlett were quite moving. And you know what they are ….
I guess we’ll watch the 3+ hour-long movie and I’ll consider reading the two authorized sequels and the unauthorized The Wind Done Gone, told from the slaves’ POV.
So there you have it. Ten things I “hated” about Gone With the Wind. Truly one of the great American novels.
— Fred Dews.