The name immediately evokes visions of the antebellum South, and of Scarlett O’Hara boldly declaring “I’ll never be hungry again!” For many Americans, Margaret Mitchell’s classic historical novel of the Civil War is inextricably linked to the epic 1939 film starring Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh. In both its paper and celluloid forms, it’s a story of love, war, decadence, and tragedy, as millions of viewers and readers have come to learn. After a fellow literature lover suggested I read the full novel, I promptly checked it out from the library.
“Gone with the Wind” is the story of Scarlett O’Hara, a flirtatious Southern belle with a consuming “love” for the seemingly unattainable Ashley Wilkes. But before she can put her romantic plans into action, the Civil War comes knocking on her doorstep. In a matter of months, she is forced to watch as her home and country come crashing down around her, thanks to Union General Sherman’s invasion of Georgia. Desperately trying to save her plantation, Tara, Scarlett hardens physically and emotionally – embracing a cold pragmatism that seems to offer dim hope for the future.
But “Gone with the Wind” isn’t just a history textbook – at its heart, it’s a story about people and their motivations. Throughout the course of the novel, Scarlett’s unreasonable passion for Ashley is offset by depictions of the true, sincere love between Ashley and his wife Melanie. And of course there’s the romantic scoundrel Rhett Butler, the one man who truly loves Scarlett for who she is…and the one man who eventually refuses to submit to her.
From a stylistic standpoint, it’s a masterful, sweeping epic that manages to balance romance and historical drama without coming off as hackneyed. Author Mitchell’s prose clips along at a rapid pace that never feels dull or sluggish. Despite the length of the novel (my unabridged version topped out at 1035 pages), “Gone with the Wind” doesn’t lag. (For the record, the movie adaptation is, for the most part, quite faithful to the book – but the book is definitely better.)
“Gone with the Wind” is told entirely from Scarlett’s viewpoint – a narrative choice that allows the reader to more effectively understand her motivations. Several cringe-worthy moments throughout the story leave one wishing they could warn Scarlett where her destructive behavior is leading…and the theme of actions breeding consequences is fully developed throughout. Scarlett’s single-minded pursuit of hedonistic self-interest leads to her alienation from respectable society – but there’s still a small element of reader sympathy that persists throughout the book, even during her worst periods. In this sense, “Gone with the Wind” is quite effective – it doesn’t portray her as a greedy, self-centered monster, but rather as a hardened spirit in need of redemption. (Whether or not that redemption ever takes place is an interesting question, and one that many readers and authors have tried to answer.)
The emotional core of the story is the love triangle between Scarlett, Rhett, and Ashley. Scarlett is obsessed with Ashley for the sole reason that she cannot have him. Moreover, he represents the lost ideal of the Southern gentleman – a sort of bewildered knight left behind by an evolving world. Sharply contrasting with Ashley is the dynamic Rhett – a scalawag who’s willing to do anything to survive. In this respect, he and Scarlett are evenly matched. They’re both determined to prevail against seemingly unbearable odds, and are willing to sacrifice principles in order to do so. Scarlett is obviously more compatible with Rhett, and by the end of the book realizes it…but her revelation comes too late.
From a worldview standpoint, there are some interesting aspects to “Gone with the Wind.” Early on, Scarlett expresses a longing for the quiet, serene faith of her deceased mother – but rapidly proceeds to behave in a completely different manner. Several times during the story, she expresses a brief interest in religion (primarily as a means of self-preservation…she fears that her actions will lead to eternal damnation). Whether or not she truly repents and reforms by the end of the book is left unclear.
So should you read it?
There’s a reason for this book’s enduring popularity. “Gone with the Wind” is a masterpiece of American literature, and highly recommended to readers of Civil War fiction or those who enjoy historical drama. While it’s undeniably a long book, its swift pacing, powerful characters, and insightful observations on human nature make it well worth your time.
A must-read for students of American literature.