Blogging the Bookshelf

Blogging my bookshelf – one book at a time

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“Gone With the Wind”, Margaret Mitchell

August 18th, 2009 · No Comments · History, Trash

gonewindSynopsis: The world of Scarlet O’Hara, an intemperate, ruthless and self-centred plantation owner’s daughter is turned upside down by the US Civil War and further, by that scoundrel, Rhett Butler. It’s a hell of a story apparently – 30 million people can’t be wrong.

My Take: The things we do for those we love. When my future wife told me that “Gone With The Wind” was her favourite book, I thought the only appropriate thing to do was to head out and grab a copy as quickly as possible for my own consumption. Usually epics, especially those featuring ‘strong’ heroines, aren’t my style and as a result, I hadn’t even seen the iconic movie before being guided to the book by love. But “Gone With The Wind” did win the Pulitzer Prize in 1937 and has managed to sell more than 30 million copies to date, so I figured it must have something going for it.

And it does. To an extent. I’m glad to have invested the time to read GWTW and not just for reasons of domestic harmony. Margaret Mead has crafted an extraordinarily meticulous portrait of late 19th Century life in the US South in GWTW based largely on the first hand accounts she heard from relatives as a child. To the extent that you can ever trust accounts like this, I learnt a lot from the sheer volume of detail that Mead packs into GWTW. So I felt like I got something out of the book there.

That being said, you don’t read GWTW for a history lesson. Most readers who are drawn to this book pick it for the grand sweep of its narrative and its iconic characters. It’s here that I part from the consensus (and the views of my better half). Margaret Mead has described the main theme of the book as ‘survival’:

“…what makes some people able to come through catastrophes and others, apparently just as able, strong and brave, go under? It happens in every upheaval. Some people survive; others don’t. What qualities are in those who fight their way through triumphantly that are lacking in those who go under…? I only know that the survivors used to call that quality ‘gumption.’ So I wrote about the people who had gumption and the people who didn’t.”

Ok. I can see this. Scarlett is able to survive the societal cataclysm brought on by the war through her determination and stubbornness and Rhett is able to survive through his cunning and pragmatism.

The problem is that I didn’t much like Scarlet O’Hara despite her admirable perseverance and fortitude. While she had spunk, she was also self-centred and ruthless. While her independence and spunk are undoubtedly good examples for young girls, especially in the less enlightened times in which this book was published, frankly Scarlett consistently treated those who cared for her (particularly Melanie and Rhett) appallingly. There’s no truer line in the book that Rhett’s frustrated explanation for why he could never show his love for her:

“You’re so brutal to those who love you, Scarlett. You take their love and hold it over their heads like a whip.”

For a book this long, you’re going to struggle to keep me interested if I don’t particularly like the protagonist. This was partially offset by the strength of Rhett Butler’s character (a rake, a speculator, a blockade-runner and a social pariah – but a romantic at heart) but not enough to save the book to my mind.

I’ll finish by noting that what GWTW needed more than anything else was an editor. There was simply no real reason for this book to be the giant that it was. It would have been a much better read if it was half the length.

Highlight:

Rhett Butler on the imminent war:

“‘All wars are sacred,’ he said. ‘To those who have to fight them. If the people who started wars didn’t make them sacred, who would be foolish enough to fight? But, no matter what rallying cries the orators give to the idiots who fight, no matter what noble purposes they assign to wars, there is never but one reason for a war. And that is money. All wars are in reality money squabbles. But so few people ever realize it. Their ears are too full of bugles and drums and fine words from stay-at-home orators. Sometimes the rallying cry is ‘Save the Tomb of Christ from the Heathen!’ Sometimes it’s ‘Down with Popery!’ and sometimes ‘Liberty!’ and sometimes ‘Cotton, Slavery and States’ Rights!'”

“There’s just as much money to be made in the wreck of a civilization as in the upbuilding of one.”

Scarlett O’Hara in the ruins of Twelve Oaks:

“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.'”

Favourite GWTW factoid found while looking for background to this post:

(Margaret Mead) originally called the heroine “Pansy O’Hara”, and Tara was “Fontenoy Hall”. She also considered naming the novel Tote The Weary Load or Tomorrow Is Another Day

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