Classics Club: Gone With the Wind

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.

Devils Den sharp shooter

Devil’s Den Sharpshooter by Alexander Gardner

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.

Slavery

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.

A_Visit_from_the_Old_MistressKnowing 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.

  • Courage
  • Justice
  • Mercy
  • Generosity
  • Faith
  • Nobility
  • Hope

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)

IMG_8520If 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?

IMG_8465

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.

LINKS:

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.”

 

 

 

Classics Club Review: The Count of Monte Cristo

Vengeance is sweet. Is it really?

Personal admission: I’m too lazy to be vengeful. I get angry, feel slighted, plot revenge and then forget about the whole thing. Well, not quite forget …

Granted I’ve never been wrongly accused of plotting against the government. I’ve never been sent to prison for years. And I’ve never lost a great love to a  friend/enemy.

Sometimes a classic book opens a new world to its readers. I’m usually easily led into these worlds. The count’s world left me cold.

Maybe my standards for leading man have been made too high: #Prince Andrei. #War and Peace

Over tea at my favorite coffee shop my sister and I debated the merits of Edmond Dantes (The Count of Monte Cristo). She adores him and can not understand my lukewarm opinion.  She doesn’t mind that Edmond’s great love is named Mercedes (I don’t like the name) and has zero personality.

Edmond is wrongly imprisoned. A chance friendship while incarcerated transforms him. Upon escape he becomes not only wealthy but highly educated. He also becomes a master of disguise. This is where the book truly loses me.  In a series of coincidences and unbelievable turns of events Edmond (now the Count) appears to every last character left behind at the time of his imprisonment.  He disguises himself with British accents and capes. I’m over thirty years out of high school but when I visit my home town I see the guys I had crushes on. They look  a little heavier, but I still recognize them.

There’s poisonings and secret potions to revive the dead, there’s tons of perspiring for some reason (every character wipes their forehead of sweat at least once in the book), and  there are perfectly executed acts of revenge. In the hands of Shakespeare these sorts of things don’t bother me a bit.

In the end Edmond engineers  his revenge but realizes it’s not always so sweet. He doesn’t even get his Mercedes back (not that she deserves him).  As a final slap in the face to the reader, Edmond travels away with his pathetic little Greek slave girl. Is this his reward? He treats her as his angelic, exotic child. The line between sensual love and childish affection blurs and off they go into the sunset.  Can I just say I hated Haydee the slave girl? Also hated the relationship between Haydee and Edmond.

I can usually relate to something in a novel, but I just couldn’t here. Because I’m obsessed with readers liking the characters in MY NOVELS, reading books about characters I don’t connect with is, in a way, comforting. My sister and a few friends have been recommending THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO for years. Dumas obviously strikes a chord with many people but not me. Books are like friends. It’s impossible to like everyone or to be liked by everyone.

How about you? Anyone love this book and think I’m crazy? What’s the one book you were expected to like but didn’t? I’d love to know!

Featured Image: Józef Mehoffer, The Strange Garden

 

Scarlet and Black: Classics Club Review

 

“Every one of our hero’s first steps, for all he thought himself so cautious, were, like his choice of a confessor, careless blunders. Led astray by all the overweening confidence natural to a man with imagination, he took the will for the deed, and thought himself past master in hypocrisy.”

And so it is with pride. A confession of my own before delving into the missteps and frailties of Julien Sorel, the hero of Scarlet and Black by Stendhal: I feel a very strong kinship to Julien. It’s hard to really know if everyone is led by the rules of hypocrisy and pride in romance. Am I worse than most? Certainly I am not as foolish as young Julien. But then I remember my reasons for marriage long ago to a man I never loved. I had convinced myself that friendship was the same as love. A feminist professor (a new form of cleric) told us that romantic love was a social construct.  This learned theory about human relations gave me the excuse I needed to blunder (cautiously) into a bondage that briefly looked like safety.

Wasn’t it cunning of me to accept the adoration of a man I was ambivalent about in order to avoid work outside the home? The bitterness of producing children with a man I little respected seemed a natural price to pay for that elusive thing called safety. In a cynical world of transactions it felt like a noble and practical thing to brush off the feelings of passion I hid in my heart for my husband’s brother. Once this brother asked me how it felt to be married to someone not as intelligent as I was. This brother was always very competitive with the man I married. Hypocritically I denied this truth. I lied. I knew I had betrayed my heart.

“After several months of incessant application, Julien still continued to look as if he thought.”

Julien Sorel, a handsome, young Frenchman, is beaten at home by his father and brothers for having intellectual pretensions. Julien’s family sees his ambitious memorization of Scripture in Latin as a useless endeavor until a local priest obtains for him work as a tutor at the de Renal family estate.

Julien dreams of glory. He wishes he’d lived to be a soldier in Napoleon’s day, but understands that in this present era of hypocrisy his only chance at material success is through the church. He little believes in the actual faith of clerics and common folk and sees the practice of religion only as a vehicle for his successful escape from poverty and the derision of those lucky enough to be born into nobility.

I wonder if we imagine the university of our present age in the same way—as a sort of necessary conscription into the cult of societal norms.  So many students (and some with far less ambition than our hero) trudge off to college because it’s what’s done. Even dim-witted students obsessed with video games and make-up routines travel to faraway locales to experience college life. Hypocritical and sometimes delusional professors are the cult leaders. They teach students to despise truth, to focus on ancestral sin and to expect monetary gain as a right.

Julien, like many college students, sees the hypocrisy of the cult but, instead of rebelling completely, he seeks to understand and use the hypocrisy of the age for his own gain. Julien’s superior intelligence is a curse. Mediocrity hates minds like his. Even in the best houses Julien is treated as a plebian necessity, a curiosity—certainly not equal to the men with illustrious genealogies and sprawling estates. Julien is too cunning to wear his beliefs on his sleeve. His grasping is done in secret. His misery is in knowing his true position in life despite his superior mind.

Students at college who are blind to the learning gaps of their youth sometimes seek courses in victimhood after they find they are unsuccessful on their first term papers. Their hearts, if not their minds, find an outlet in childish studies of blame. Julien succumbs to self-pity at times, but his real flaw is one so common to children of abuse: a destructive desire to be loved at any cost.

Passion has its place but so often it leads to derailment of a student’s worldly ambitions. Julien falls in love with the pretty wife of a powerful man. He uses his mind to consider the many ways he will rise above his station to be with her, but it’s an illusion. He is sent to seminary to avoid scandal and finds that his very mannerisms and his ability to think original thoughts make him hated among the other students. Julien briefly dumbs himself down in a vain attempt at fitting in but finds only more misery.

I remember deciding to become popular with the cheerleaders at the private school I attended. It was easy enough with the smallest amounts of cunning and hypocrisy to be invited to sit at the popular table, but after a week, I felt my soul dying. Vapid girls gossiped all the day long with smiles on their faces. How often that week did I nod with false enthusiasm as they discussed Snoopy merchandise? These girls, considered the most cultured and desirable in eighth grade, survived on unremarkable mediocrity and seemed happy!  After a week I longed for the awkward silences of the nerd table.

In high school I determined to be popular again but only in order to get the best boys. I smiled and giggled, told outrageously stupid stories and pretended at compassionate friendship with the most popular girl in my grade. Whenever her boyfriend cheated on her, her popular friends froze her out of the group until she forgave the boy. During those times this girl sought me out for my listening skills. Little did she know I used her as much as she used me. There were many moments of hollow victory in high school. Every move I made was false. Each false move was rewarded.

Julien Sorel, after years of studying the society he despises yet yearns to be a part of, betrays himself. Early in the book we witness his father’s hatred and brutality against his bookish son. Yet the father knew better than the son that the tragedy of being too smart for his station would lead to misery. Julien rightly distrusts the hearts of others yet fatally falls in love when cunning and hypocrisy would have served him better. And that is the way of the human heart, isn’t it? Some of us think we have the skills to protect this vital organ, but it’s impossible to become a complete brute if you are not one.

Julien longs for heroic times and actions. He plays his heroism out, not on a battlefield but in the house of a proud girl who sees in Julien a vision of France’s heroic past. Do we do the same when we fall in love with followers and likes on our social media accounts? Do we convince ourselves that there is something more meaningful in re-blogs than there is? Or do we pretend not to care what people think at all? Do we all secretly wish we were Napoleon? How cunning are you in life? How self-seeking? How courageous are you in love?

Julien Sorel will not be mourned by me in the same way I still mourn Prince Andrei in War and Peace. Andrei met God on the battlefield only to realize the glory of God and the emptiness of his own glory seeking. Poor Julien, so abused and misled by his own mind, finds only himself. As he waits to die in prison Madame de Renal reassures him of her love but given the social constructs of class and reputation her love is less than satisfactory.

Brutish allegiance to mediocrity and hypocrisy is only easy for people who hate thought. Their passions play out with little self-reflection. Life is just a series of days preserved in mass produced scrapbooks. Misery comes with intelligence and ambition. David Foster Wallace worried about what his signature bandana said to the world even as he pretended not to care what the world thought of him.

David Foster Wallace killed himself and in a way, Julien Sorel does the same.

***Featured image  The Passion of Creation by Leonid Pasternak

LINK: MY OTHER CLASSIC CLUB REVIEWS

Classics Club Review: Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

I had many suitors. In the 1980’s we called admirers something else, but I forget what. Many a suitor wrote me letters. An Irish poet from Limerick with liquid, sensitive blue eyes I met one night on my travels sent letters across the Atlantic for months. I liked his poetry, but he wanted love and his eager, sweet missives hinted at it until he realized the friendship was only friendship.

I almost married another man from Ireland who lived briefly in Hoboken, New Jersey. He thought I was a feminist at first (he assumed all American women were) and dismissed my overtures at first. Somehow we started a correspondence when he moved back to embark on the life of an intellectual farmer. His letters started optimistic enough, but grew sad and bitter as he fought what he imagined to be the many gossips and naysayers of the tiny town he lived in. His father was a dead but well-known drunk who beat him mercilessly as a child. Though 6’ 4” this sad farmer was haunted by the shadow of a dead man. By the time I came to visit him, his depression was so profound that it scared me and I left him never to know what happened in the end.

My sisters and friends wrote to me when I went away to be a camp counselor and my father wrote to me before he died. This letter I kept hidden so it avoided destruction. When I read it even now I linger on the handwriting that somehow brings back my father’s voice, his hands as he wrote checks and his love for me.

I married a jealous man. Our ill-fated romance seemed like destiny at the time. I felt certain that my destiny was unchangeable. One night before our wedding my future husband finally convinced me that my precious box of letters was standing in the way of our happiness. He badgered me night after night about the letters.

I’d never met a person so relentless. I hardly defended myself against it. I shredded the letters.

The letters from the boy in my high school who died of cancer on the same day as my college graduation. We used to ride our bikes to the reservoir and dream of our lives as writers. He was a poet who had already traveled to Alaska and Egypt by senior year. We had sat next to each other in kindergarten.

The letters from an extremely handsome boy related to the famous Tiffany family who dreamt of being a journalist one day. I’d met him at a frat party in Scranton, Pennsylvania. I was sure I’d marry him until he said something ridiculous at a gathering that summer and it embarrassed me.

Elizabeth Gaskell’s book Cranford got me thinking about these letters. A sweet, old spinster living on little means decides one night to burn her family letters.

“I never knew what sad work the reading of old letters was before that evening, though I could hardly tell why. The letters were as happy as the letters could be—at least those early letters were. There was in them a vivid and intense sense of the present time, which seemed so strong and full, as if it could never pass away, and as if the warm, living hearts that so expressed themselves could never die, and be as nothing to the sunny earth. I should have felt less melancholy had the letters been more so.”

Written as a series of vignettes about a group of older women living, for the most part, without men, I found the book lacking in that very thing. Despite my checkered history with men, I miss them when they’re not around. I wondered as I read about these decent old women if literature (and life) needed the conflict and thrust of men to keep my interest.

Feminists would probably not like me to admit that the letters I miss most are the ones with the scribbled marks of masculine hands and hearts. Cranford women often concerned themselves with the romances of their servant girls. They feared the farm boys who lived on the outskirts of town marrying away their help. Like some feminists who despise women who want children and husbands, the Cranford ladies prefer women to be kept as they see fit.

Miss Matty is briefly reunited (if only by lingering glances) with a male suitor from her youth. He dies soon after. The deaths and absence of men define these women. When one finally escapes through a late and poor marriage to the town doctor who makes her very happy the comfortable circle of lonely women is upset. Slightly.

Regrets, lust and even the shredding of letters from better men will never convince me that men are expendable. Uncomfortable to be around sometimes, yes. But Cranford offers up a world without them and I think I’ll pass.

What about you? have you read Cranford? Do you have a favorite classic book? Please share. I’d love to hear from you!

MY CLASSICS CLUB BOOK LIST