What a journey. When I added Gone With the Wind to my Classics Club list, I did so with the same attitude that guided me in adding other books: I’ve heard it’s a classic, I knew I wanted to read it, I didn’t know what it would be like. At all.
I have not watched the movie, and everything I knew about this “great American novel” was a diluted version of second- or even third-hand opinions. It’s about Southern plantation owners and the Civil War. Scarlett O’Hara falls in love with Rhett Butler – it’s a romance, see. Something about walking through a burning city; also red-carpeted stairs. The film poster looks like a smutty paperback.
Oh no, my friends. OH NO. This is now one of my favourite books. And I have a few things to prove about it… It’s not a romance. It’s problematic, but great.
The following post & comments below may contain spoilers. They lurk in the most innocent sentences, hiding in synopses, and jump out from arguments no matter how vague. Reader, beware. 🙂
Let’s start with the stuff that’s hard to swallow. There are several problematic things in this novel, and let them stay as lumps in your throat because to ignore them would be to ignore the validity of these issues in real life. In fact, the novel’s status as the great American novel is something to be discussed because it doesn’t represent all Americans. Racism is a thing in the novel. I’ve seen some arguments that try to answer for this: the novel is told from Scarlett’s perspective & she, being raised in that social order, has internalized it to the point where she does not see that it is wrong. She loves and respects Mammy, Pork, and the others. BUT that doesn’t change the fact that there is some pretty terrible stuff thrown around regarding race, and the author fails to interject as a narrator to fix this even a little bit. (Not to mention that it kind of glorifies slavery & rejects the abolition movement as bogus.)
GWTW is sexist (sometimes). How can it be both fantastically feminist & occasionally sexist? There are sexist remarks thrown around, but the reader always knows they come from characters who just don’t know any better. Melanie embodies the cult of domesticity and is elevated above others for that (but she also defies it at times & paired with Scarlett, the two become a statement on femininity and whatever the hell that means). There is a very misogynistic character who killed his wife for cheating, and everyone’s chill about him. But all of that isn’t what bothers me most. What bothers me most is that Scarlett – the best heroine I’ve read in a while – still has to be “tamed” in order to find love. Damn it. Scarlett is happy with him (not Charles, not Frank, not Ashley) because he is the only one whom she cannot bully, read: he can tame her. *puke*
Rhett Butler is also abusive that one time. He spoils her, but also controls her to the point of deciding what kind of hairstyle she can and cannot have. And remember that bit when he told her he would crush her skull? Yup. Oh, and also the scene which people still debate was rape or not. (I don’t think it was rape, but I’d still slap a trigger warning on that thing.)
However, and I’ll say that again – HOWEVER! GWTW does so many things so right, and one of them – the one I love most & will argue till the ends of the earth is that Mitchell places female companionship above the romance.
I should acknowledge that the seed of this idea was placed in my head from a post by Corinne/Jillian which stated that the relationship between Melanie and Scarlett takes centre stage in the novel (or something like that!). The more I read on, the more I agreed with that analysis. By the end of the novel, I was willing to defend this thesis with all my heart. Here’s why.
Scarlett was brought up in an environment that instigated competition among women and taught them to dislike each other. The scramble for beaux which marks the opening chapters of GWTW is the perfect example of this terrible outlook. On top of that, Melly is set up against Scarlett as competition for Ashley’s heart. Scarlett’s bound to hate her, right? And that is how she feels towards her, at first. Despite that, Mitchell allows Scarlett and Melanie to bond during moments of struggle and misfortune. Melanie, who has all the reasons for jealousy, never treats women as enemies & treats Scarlett as a sister, constantly defending her. Scarlett finds support and strength in Melly (especially after her mother dies; and Melly is like a mother to her & Rhett & many others…). *SPOILER* Finally, Melanie’s death is a pivotal moment in the book; one that strikes hard at Scarlett & triggers her realization of everything that she failed to see before!!
GWTW is not a story of romance to me, though it does have romantic moments. It is a story of survival, as Mitchell herself stated, and it is specifically a story of women’s survival during the Civil War. Rhett Butler as a character is not present in the novel as often as Melanie. And although he is [almost] always there to save the day, it is Melanie who is a continual source of Scarlett’s strength. The end of the novel is not brought about by a Rhett-Scarlett reunion (repeat: THIS ISN’T A ROMANCE!), but by Melanie’s death which opens Scarlett’s eyes once and for all. The story ends with a proclamation of Scarlett’s gumption: this is her story & she is going to secure her happiness by winning back Rhett (another realization grâce à Melanie). But GWTW ends there, not with a satisfactory ending of romance, but with a conclusion of a great friendship & a promise of a new life.
I was going to bury you, Reader, in textual evidence, but I am too lazy to search for my annotations, so I will leave just one very powerful (& long) passage:
“ Behind that door, Melanie was going and, with her, the strength upon which she had relied unknowingly for so many years. Why, oh, why, had she not realized before this how much she loved and needed Melanie? But who would have thought of small plain Melanie as a tower of strength? Melanie who was shy to tears before strangers, timid about raising her voice in an opinion of her own, fearful of the disapproval of old ladies. Melanie who lacked the courage to say Boo to a goose? And yet––
Scarlett’s mind went back through the years to the still hot noon at Tara when gray smoke curled above a blue-clad body and Melanie stood at the top of the stairs with Charles’ saber in her hand. Scarlett remembered that she had thought at the time: “How silly! Melly couldn’t even heft that sword!” But now she knew that had the necessity arisen, Melanie would have charged down those stairs and killed the Yankee – or been killed herself.
Yes, Melanie had been there that day with a sword in her small hand, ready to do battle for her. And now, as Scarlett looked sadly back, she realized that Melanie had always been there beside her with a sword in her hand, unobtrusive as her own shadow, loving her, fighting for her with blind passionate loyalty, fighting Yankees, fire, hunger, poverty, public opinion and even her beloved blood kin.
Scarlett felt her courage and self-confidence ooze from her as she realized that the sword which had flashed between her and the world was sheathed forever.
“Melly is the only woman friend I ever had,” she thought forlornly, “the only woman except Mother who really loved me. She’s like Mother, too. Everyone who knew her has clung to her skirts.” (936-937)
So thank you Margaret Mitchell for giving us a wonderful protagonist, coarse and flawed so that she was real, a punch to the ideals of perfection. Thank you for giving us another equally heroic lady, though shy and quiet, to dispel the myth that strong women always have to be rebels. And thank you for giving us a female friendship powerful enough to outshine the romance. ❤