Book #5: Gone With The Wind
- Gone With The Wind has sold more than 30 million copies since it was first published in May 1936. The book was an instant blockbuster and remains one of the best-selling novels of all time.
- In fact, the book was such an overnight success that all of the employees of Macmillan Publishing, Gone With The Wind’s publisher, received an 18% bonus in 1936.
- The book won the 1937 Pulitzer Prize and inspired the 1939 film that won ten Academy Awards and became the highest grossing movie in Hollywood’s history.
- Ashley Wilkes—one of the main characters in Gone With The Wind—is thought to have been based on Doc Holliday, who was a distant cousin of Margaret Mitchell.
- The house in which Margaret Mitchell wrote Gone With The Wind is located in midtown Atlanta and is a popular tourist destination and museum.
- Mitchell was killed in 1949, at the age of 48, when she was struck by a taxi while crossing Peachtree Street—a main thoroughfare in Atlanta and a prominent location in the book.
- The word “frankly” was added to Rhett Butler’s iconic line from the Gone With the Wind movie. In the book, it simply appears as “My dear, I don’t give a damn.”
The Opening Line
“Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it.”
If Gone With The Wind was the 1995 O.J. Simpson trial, I would’ve been a good juror. It was said that it was practically impossible to find an impartial jury for Simpson’s criminal trial because everyone on the planet knew about the case.
How does that relate with this beloved book of the south? Well, I knew practically nothing about Gone With The Wind before undertaking this 101 book journey. Literally, all I knew: the book contained a character named Scarlett O’Hara, a character named Rhett Butler, that the two had a thing for each other, and that it was set in the Civil War era.
That’s it. Even though I grew up 45 minutes from Margaret Mitchell’s house, even though I lived in Atlanta for most of my life, even though I’ve been down Peachtree Street hundreds, if not thousands, of times, I knew nothing about Gone With The Wind. How shameful. So when I started this book, I was about as ignorant of the plotline and critiques as a reader could be.
So where does one even start when discussing a 1,037 page epic? I don’t really know, so I will let my ADD guide me.
Unless you are under the same rock that once covered me, you know the plot: Scarlett Loves Ashley. Ashley marries Melanie. Scarlett marries Charles out of spite. Charles dies in the war. Rhett eyes Scarlett. Sherman trashes Atlanta. Tara is spared. Reconstruction begins. Scarlett is broke. Scarlett marries Frank for money. Scarlett takes over Frank’s sawmills in Atlanta. Scarlet still loves Ashley. Rhett still eyes Scarlett. Ellen and Gerald die. Frank is murdered. Scarlett marries Rhett. Scarlett gets wealthier. Rhett and Scarlett have Bonnie. Bonnie dies. Melanie dies. Ashley is broken. Scarlett realizes she doesn’t love Ashley anymore. Scarlett loves Rhett. Rhett doesn’t love Scarlett because she always loved Ashley. Scarlett goes back to Tara. The end.
So there: I spared you from having to read 1,037 pages.
The plot is as linear as a novel can get, taking you from point A (Scarlett at 16) to point B (Scarlett at 28) over the course of the book. You won’t see a lot of literary technique here; maybe that’s why the academic types hate this book. Everything you need to know is right there on the surface.
Over the course of the book, Scarlett transforms from a spoiled southern belle into a driven woman who will do anything to save herself, no matter the cost. She scoffs at the female social mores of the time: she marries three times; when slaves leave Tara, she works in the field herself; she works outside the home (she doesn’t bake or sew, acceptable for southern ladies); she travels alone…the list goes on and on.
Throughout the book, she is driven by two things: money and Ashley Wilkes. When she loses everything, other than Tara, after Sherman’s march through Georgia, Scarlett vows never to be poor again. She keeps that promise and becomes wealthy once more. But she can never win over Ashley Wilkes, who is married to her sister-in-law, Melanie.
In the end, Scarlett’s self-obsession drives everyone away—even Rhett—who she realizes is the only man she really loves after witnessing Ashley’s pathetic pansiness following Melanie’s death.
The book is, at times, an uncomfortable read. Every derogatory name you could call an African American is in Gone With The Wind. Mitchell laid the mid-nineteenth century southern culture out there for everyone to see. Everyone other than the poor whites had slaves—even the slaves had their own slaves in some sort of strange heirarchy.
Scarlett’s slaves are blindly loyal, staying with her even after they have an opportunity for freedom following the war. For the most part, they are treated as children—ridiculed when they misbehave and rewarded (e.g. given a watch) when they do well.
The dialect is almost unreadable at times. Whenever one of Mitchell’s slave characters spoke, I almost had to read letter by letter to understand what the character was saying. This disrupts the flow of the novel. One small example: “Lawd, Miss Scarlett, dey pasture dey hawses in de cawn an’ cah’ied off whut de hawses din’ eat or spile. An’ dey driv dey cannons an’ waggins ‘cross de cotton till it plum ruint, ‘cept a few acres over on de creek bottom dat dey din’ notice.” Huh?
Eighty years after the publication of the book, these characters don’t hold up well. To me, they seem to be horrible stereotypes. With the exception of Mammy, most black characters in Gone With The Wind are portrayed as stupid and childlike—Pork, Big Sam, Prissy, to name a few.
Was Mitchell’s portrayal of these characters over the top? I think so. That said, the book is set in a time period 70 years prior to when she wrote it. And I’m reading the book 80 years after that. A lot has changed in that time. But, regardless, a lot could be and has been written about race relations in Gone With The Wind.
What else? It’s fairly accurate to say that Scarlett was a feminist before feminism was cool. She left the house, got dirty in the field, took on a job, and generally did exactly what she wanted to with no regard for the etiquette and traditions of the day. That makes for good reading.
The tension of a woman who is willing to do all of that in a world where women stay at home, bake bread, sew quilts, and cower before their husbands is quite refreshing. It’s one of the main tensions of the novel—making Scarlett into the antithesis of the “Old Guard” and a point of gossip no matter where she travels.
For all her flaws, another redeemable quality of Scarlett is her willingness to move forward and not dwell in the past. When the world she knew totally collapses, she quite literally pulls herself back up while everyone else continues to live in the “old days.” Ashley, for example, could never get over the fact that his uppity, old life of fashionable clothes and ballroom parties ended when the Civil War came to the south. Scarlett adapted. Ashley couldn’t adapt.
She even carries this trait to a fault. One of Scarlett’s most often repeated lines in the book, “I will think about it another day,” shows her obsession with moving forward even when it means neglecting the realities of her current situation.
The book is a classified as a romantic novel, and that’s the main reason I’ve avoided it, and the movie, my entire life. But there’s so much more to Gone With The Wind than cheesy, Civil War era, romance. I’ve mentioned some of the themes—race relations and female empowerment—but the book touches on the ugliness of war, the power of land ownership and land itself, tradition, self reliance, and loss.
Obviously, there’s a lot to be said about a novel this thick. I’ve hardly even mentioned Rhett Butler. But I’ve got to wrap things up so I can start reading The Big Sleep.
The Meaning: “Gone with the wind” came from a poem by Ernest Dowson, a nineteenth-century English poet. The phrase “gone with the wind” is used in the book once. When Scarlett returns to Tara, her home, she wonders if it has been torched by the Yankees, if it has “gone with the wind which had swept through Georgia.” On a grander scale, “gone with the wind” is a way to describe an entire culture that evaporated overnight following Sherman’s march.
Highlights: When I wrote my review for To Kill A Mockingbird, I mentioned how Harper Lee seemed to effortlessly drop the reader into that time period. Margaret Mitchell does the same thing. Other than textbooks, I’ve never read much about the Civil War, so Mitchell’s portrait of this dark era in the South was eye opening. I could feel the southerner’s pain when their entire world collapsed under Sherman’s flames, when they had to reinvent themselves and learn new ways of life during Reconstruction. And I experienced their joy when Reconstruction finally ended and Georgia worked its way out from under the Yankee thumb. This was a great portrait of a bygone era in a region of the country that I’ve lived most of my life.
Lowlights: Could the book have been shorter? Yes! Did the book drag at times? Yes! Were slaves portrayed as blubbering idiots? Yes! Did I just read a 1,037 page “romance novel”? Yes!
Memorable Line: In my opinion, this line indicates the turning point in the novel: “Hunger gnawed at her empty stomach again and she said aloud: ‘As God is my witness, and God is my witness, the Yankees aren’t going to lick me. I’m going to live through this, and when it’s over, I’m never going to be hungry again. No, nor any of my folks. If I have to steal or kill – as God is my witness, I’m never going to be hungry again.'” –Scarlett O’ Hara
Final Thoughts: Would I read the book again? Probably not. Would I read a sequel, had Mitchell written one? Probably not, unless it had made this list. But the book, just because of its place in American culture, is worthy of Time’s list. Guys beware: Yes, it’s classified as a romance novel, but there’s so much more to Gone With The Wind than that. It’s a must-read for Civil War geeks and gives a great historical feel for that time period.
Up Next: The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler (only 200+ pages!)