Gone With the Wind
As much as I enjoyed Gone With the Wind for its insight into Southern society before and after the war, I had so little love for Scarlett by the end that the last hundred pages felt a bit of a chore. Despite this there are scenes in the book so full of pathos:
Civil War Casualties
As the casualty lists from Gettysburg come in, the residents of Atlanta crowd the streets for word of their loved ones. So many of the lovely boys interested in Scarlett before the war are dead. The most moving parts of Gone with the Wind deal with the loss of Southern boys and men.
In A Strange and Blighted Land by Gregory A Coco countless eyewitnesses tell us of the unthinkable suffering after the battle at Gettysburg:
“Oh how they must have struggled along that wall, where coats, hats, canteens and guns are so thickly strewn; beyond it two immense trenches filled with rebel dead, and surrounded with gray caps, attest the cost to them. The earth is scarcely thrown over them, and the skulls with ghastly grinning teeth appear, now that the few spadefuls of earth are washed away. In these trenches one may plainly see the rise and swell of human bodies; and oh how awful to feel that these are brethren – deluded and erring, yet brethren. Surely no punishment can be too great for those, whose mad ambition has filled these graves!”
Close to 4000 Confederate boys and men were killed at Gettysburg. Close to 19,000 men were wounded (some mortally) and nearly 6000 were reported missing ( all in a town with a population of about 2000). We all know that even now most young men who go off to war do so for many different reasons. All of my family fought for the Union but at least one fought for the small pay that he sent home in hopes of helping his impoverished parents buy a house. Oh! How naïve to die for such a thing, but he did. [see WALDO POTTER]
Since we also know that only a tiny percentage of Southerners had slaves we must give these young dead space enough to say they probably had many mixed motives. Even still their cause, so aligned with an institution the civilized world was trying to rid itself of (however slow and stumbling), makes it hard for some people to feel in the least sorry for the men buried in shallow graves.
I suggest we fly above our national history which is no more savage than any other and at least momentarily feel sorry for the families left behind. Imagine not knowing – never knowing — where your 18-year-old, farmer-boy son with freckles over the bridge of his nose and a lovely sense of humor lies buried! Imagine not knowing if he had been left out in the rain and sun for days until his sun-bleached hair slipped from his skull and the buttons from his jacket you had sewn were clipped off as souvenirs by tourist “ghouls.”
Imagine the weeks after when bodies still awaited burial in some spots and the stench of rotting horses forced people to carry peppermint oil on their persons and keep their windows shut on hot summer nights. And there your son waits and never stops waiting to be discovered. Imagine hoping that your boy was only missing, only recovering, only something other than what Matthew Brady’s pictures showed.
Imagine seeing your son decomposed in a photograph.
Melanie’s long wait for the return of Ashley is so poignant. She insists on nursing straggling men as they travel by foot for miles through the burnt out South on their way home. She hopes that there are other women nursing her husband and the men of the county elsewhere. The reader knows that despite good intentions thousands of men suffer and die utterly alone. After Gettysburg men and their body parts are thrown into wells. Bones are collected for the new medical museum being organized in Washington, D.C. Photographers and curiosity seekers are dragging and poking and posing corpses for better shots.
I’ve seen people online worry about enjoying Gone with the Wind because of its depiction of slaves. It is a self-imposed book banning of the mind when one feels frightened to speak about books with uncomfortable subjects. I find this terribly sad because it suggests that it is impossible to imagine a different world from our own. It suggests that a certain segment of modern society presently holds the moral high ground in all things and the rest of us are too weak-minded to be exposed to ideas that are not our own. It’s why I strongly oppose banning people with “outrageous” views from social media.
I will confess that I found Margaret Mitchell’s slave voices written in dialect difficult to follow as I read and sometimes just passed them right over. But I do think that it would be far worse if she had made all the slaves (who were purposely left under-educated back in the day) speak as if they’d attended Harvard. In no way does this mean that I endorse keeping people uneducated slaves and feel a bit depressed that I have to make that clear.
Knowing that even the slaves had a strict sense of hierarchy within the black community is sort of comforting in the sense that humans, no matter the color, tend to pride themselves in being better than others. I’m comforted every time I see that the human heart so full of pride and arrogance is just that — a human problem.
Whether Margaret Mitchell was racist or not I do not know but some of characters certainly are. Yet, often the black characters have more compassion and decency than Scarlett and if I were back in my Irish militancy days I suppose I would make a strong case for an anti-Irish sentiment in the book but I won’t because I’m so past race politics and the baiting that goes with it.
What Makes A Real Man?
How you answer this question says a lot about the way you see the world.
This is a basic list of values dear to the planter class of the South in the 1860’s.
Early in Gone with the Wind, Scarlett’s father Gerald O’Hara warns her that Ashley Wilkes (who embodies the list) comes from a “queer breed” and won’t make her happy.
Ashley Wilkes: Manhood (looking back)
If your image of Ashley comes from Leslie Howard’s weak portrayal, please read the book. Ashley is an Adonis, an ideal. He is the South’s dream of perfection and Scarlett’s too (though she utterly fails to know him for who he really is – an imperfect man struggling to live under the burden of a strenuous moral code). Ashley is the Christian ideal. Yet he is also the Christian walk in all of its unfaithfulness, stumbling, and hypocrisy. He is the man people point to derisively and say, “Ha! But look he keeps slaves! — and lusts after Scarlett!”
Yes, I know this already but am able to transport myself in time and understand that his world is not my own. His loyalty to family overrides his desire for Scarlett’s body, but it’s not an easy struggle. If I say that Ashley is a “good” slave owner who plans to free his slaves when he can figure out how to without leaving his family and the slaves penniless – some will accuse me of defending slavery.
I need to keep in mind that slavery has always existed and still exists and is an evil that each one of us must wrestle with as we silently allow slaves the world over to clothe and entertain us with cheap goods. Yet I also know that if we were to suddenly stop buying cheap goods we would (at least temporarily make life much harder for some slaves).
Very early on we see that Ashley realizes his way of life has been a dream – one where books and good horses are enjoyed and valued. Where slaves are treated well and love their masters (and I don’t doubt that some slaves did love their masters). The institution of slavery has left scars all over the world throughout history. Yet sadly it’s also been commonplace – as are all forms of tyranny and misuse of power. (I think back to the cruelty considered fairly normal within my own family tree)
The demon of war takes the decisions out of Ashley’s hands anyway. He goes with Georgia not as an evil slave owner but as a man who believes there is no greater sacrifice than to die for a friend.
After the war when Scarlett hires prison laborers who are beaten and starved Ashley is appalled and refuses to use them despite losing money at the mill he (unsuccessfully) manages to please his wife. Some here shout: “Stop being such a wimp!” Yet Ashley sees that without Scarlett’s help during the war his wife and child would not have survived and feels indebted to her. It’s not glamorous to humble oneself. It’s not dashing or exciting. Only Melanie sees the value in it. Certainly Scarlett does not.
Rhett Butler: Manhood (looking forward)
When a swarthy but handsome new man arrives, old society whispers of his dark past and contempt for Southern manners. He’s really the new America birthed during the war. A new America full of self-centered, irreligious striving for personal gain played out in so many success stories of the coming Gilded Age. Rhett is “honest” in his appraisal of himself and Scarlett. He delights in Scarlett’s selfishness and survival instinct for a good while. Yet even Rhett has a heart beneath his bluster that leads to a bloated and bitter end.
What Makes a Real Woman?
Scarlett O’Hara: The Jezebel who leads men to their ruin …
I read somewhere that Margaret Mitchell was interested in what made people survivors. Friends of mind delight in Scarlett’s pluck and innate savvy, but for me she is all ruin. In every sense she is a man killer and worthy of the contempt Rhett finally throws at her. Survival at any cost comes at a human cost. Scarlett just doesn’t give a damn.
Melanie Wilkes: the Madonna
“Melly” has more power than any other character in the story but the power is spiritual. She is more formidable in her weakness than everyone else combined. Rhett senses it immediately. She is the epitome of that famous passage from Saint Paul:
Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are honest, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is any praise, exercise yourselves in these things. Philippians 4:8
Her sacrificial nature and her ability to see the best in people dog Scarlett’s conscience throughout but not enough to really bring about self-knowledge.
Scarlett reminds me of the many eyewitnesses who are shocked and disgusted by the fields so thick with human death and misery that finding footing becomes difficult. Scarlett walks over the dead but only cares because her slippers get stained in blood.
THE LITERATURE POLICE AND GONE WITH THE WIND
8 LESSONS SCARLETT O’HARA CAN TEACH ABOUT DATING
THE BATTLE OF GETTYSBURG IN PICTURES
THE TENAFLY ROAD SERIES
“Rich and colorful page turners. Morris has a fine sense of time and place and brings her memorable characters to life. She also tells a captivating story. You won’t find it easy to put her book down, and her characters will stay with you when you do. We can only hope she keeps writing and gives us more episodes in this fascinating chronicle.”
9 responses to “Classics Club: Gone With the Wind”
The problems about slavery existed in this country before we were a country, and the problems continue today because of so much cultural misalignment, social hypocrisy, political manipulation that still throttles the African American population. Still throttles this entire country. GWTW is a great book, showcasing a
range of human reactions to the Civil War or any war, but it’s hard to read it today without first cleaning our reading glasses.
I read it in 7thy grade . Even then I knew Scarlett was a self-centered b-tch, Rhett was an arrogant SOB, Ashley was spineless, and Melanie was an impossible angel. Never read it again.
LOL. My mother could not stand the book. My sister adores it. I fall in the middle. Certain parts I love. I’m still deciding if I really think Ashley is a wimp. I watched the movie this weekend and Ashley is totally pathetic on film, but I think he’s more complex than that in the book.
I think if humans were able to act like Melly the world would be a better place 🙂 A pipe dream of course.
Even with a two-part film, it’s impossible to capture the complexity of such an enormous book. But there was music, and costumes, and very pretty actors making us swoon.
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I really enjoyed reading this post with your musings on the characters, death in the war, etc!
Thanks, Lily. 🙂
Great post. I never liked Scarlet, either — understood her, but didn’t like her. Good analysis of what life is like — and absolutely we have to feel sorry for those who died on either side. I think the Civil War was a tragedy — and, through Sherman, it gave us the phrase, “war is hell.” And it was. A lot of those who fought were, like Lee, fighting for their “countries,” because until after the war, folks thought of the states as separate countries.
As for the discussion of slavery–are you familiar with the African American economist Thomas Sowell? He strongly supports your statements about slavery being widespread through both history and the world. Here’s a short video of Sowell talking about the impact of slavery. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V7gN2EYbtgM&t=9s
Thomas Sowell is BRILLIANT!!! Love that guy. Once again you prove us to be kindred spirits 😉 Recently my son asked me if I ever heard of him. I was so happy that he was exploring different viewpoints! I’ll awatch the video right now.
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Just watched! I love how he gets outside of the box. Thanks for sharing.
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