“It was this happy feminine conspiracy which made Southern society so pleasant. Women knew that a land where men were contented, uncontradicted and safe in possession of unpunctured vanity was likely to be a very pleasant place for women to live. So, from the cradle to the grave, women strove to make men pleased with themselves, and the satisfied men repaid lavishly with gallantry and adoration. In fact, men willingly gave the ladies everything in the world except credit for having intelligence.” (p. 163)
The Resolution Project: For my New Year’s resolution this year (that being 2011), I decided to try and read all one hundred of the novels picked by Time Magazine as the best since their inception in 1923 to the list’s publication in 2005. I exempted myself from reading ones I’ve already read, leaving some eighty-six or so to read before the end of this year. Some spoilers may lie ahead, so be warned if you’re the type to be bothered by that.
Scarlett O’Hara is a young member of Georgia’s landed gentry in the waning days of the Confederacy. As such, her life revolves around balls, barbecues, dancing and dresses. She loves a young gentleman named Ashley Wilkes, who, strangely enough, would rather read a book than drink and ride horses like the rest of the men his age. But trouble’s a brewing in the land of King Cotton. The War Between the States looms as Scarlett moves to Atlanta, encountering along the way Rhett Butler, a scandalous man whose spoken thoughts resonate in Scarlett’s mind somehow.
I’m enjoying Gone With the Wind a lot more than I thought I would. As such, I’m going to end up devoting two posts to it, also because it is pretty long. Anyway, I think I had some misconceptions about the book coming in. I thought it was a sort of trumped-up romance novel, notable mostly for its massively successful film adaptation in 1939.
I was wrong, though.
While the romance element in Gone is still a pretty big part of it, it’s closer to that found in something like Jane Eyre or an Austen novel. While the main narrative thrust of the novel is “who will Scarlett end up with?”, it uses that as a base to examine Confederate society, and specifically women’s role in it, far more than your average bodice ripper does. Consider the way being a widow is treated. I had no idea just how intense it was at this point in time.
“A widow had to wear hideous black dresses without even a touch of braid to enliven them, no flower or ribbon or lace or even jewelry, except onyx mourning brooches or necklaces made from the deceased’s hair. And the black crepe veil on her bonnet had to reach to her knees, and only after three years of widowhood could it be shortened to shoulder length. Widows could never chatter vivaciously or laugh aloud. Even when they smiled, it must be a sad, tragic smile. And, most dreadful of all, they could in no way indicate an interest in the company of gentlemen. And should a gentleman be so ill bred as to indicate an interest in her, she must freeze him with a dignified but well-chosen reference to her dead husband.” (p. 144)
That sort of stuff is fascinating to me, and while I haven’t really researched the veracity of this description, it feels real to me. That’s why when all three of Scarlett, Ashley and Rhett chafe under the yoke of a society this calcified, I really started to empathise with them.
Another thing I’m enjoying is the main characters’ attitudes towards the Civil War. Again, I don’t really know what I was expecting here, but one thing I wasn’t expecting was for all three of them to have different, well thought out problems with the ideological underpinnings behind the conflict. Ashley Wilkes is a self-made scholar, and as such would rather stay home at Twelve Oaks than go out and die for his newborn country, even though he eventually does do so as he is one of the best riders in the County. He objects to the war on the same moral basis that sensitive people usually do, he just hates to see human life wasted for any “Cause”. Still, his love for his country gets him mired in the battlefields North of Georgia, as he is not able to reconcile his somewhat pacifistic nature with the danger posed by Yankees who would do away with the lifestyle that fostered it.
Rhett Butler, on the other hand, is an opportunist who sees in the War a chance to make a killing (not literally). He thinks the idea behind the War is a stupid one, as the Confederacy has not got the resources to fight the industrialized North for any great length of time. That’s why he stays back home and runs the blockade to bring supplies to Southern towns, as he knows the conflict’s not worth risking his own skin over. While the South runs high on valour and excellent commanding officers, it lacks factories to make things like boots and guns, aka. the very materiel needed for any modern conflict.
Scarlett has perhaps the most honest reason to hate the war, if not the best thought out. She hates the inconvenience it brings to her, she hates how it plucks marriageable men away from the County she lives in and spits them back shell-shocked and minus some limbs. She hates how the simple amenities that any Southern belle of her stature takes for granted are made much more difficult to come by in wartime, as well as more expensive.
So yeah, I wasn’t expecting all of the main characters in the book to see through the hypocrisy of the War so soon, so that was a good surprise. One thing I figured would be difficult for me would be the treatment of Black people throughout the book. It is, suffice it to say, somewhat regressive, especially coming in the wake of my having read The Confessions of Nat Turner and Beloved earlier on in this project. I’m going to try and talk about this subject at more length in my next post on Gone With the Wind, though.
I’d also like to compare the film version of Gone With the Wind to the book next time. I’ve actually been surprised, almost shocked a few times while reading the book by some of the things that happen, so I’d like to see if a Hays code-era film was able to bring some of these things to the screen. From what little I know about the movie, it’s that Clark Gable gets some pretty sweet lines and that the burning of Atlanta sequence is pretty well done, so right there that’s two things the movie and the book did equally well. I hope that the film version of Wade Hamilton is better than he is in the book, because I’d like nothing better than to smack that kid every time he shows up in the text. He’s annoying, and makes me think that Margaret Mitchell never came in contact with a real human child before deciding to write about one.
“Then you aren’t a nice girl, Scarlett, and I’m sorry to hear it. All really nice girls wonder when men don’t try to kiss them. They know they shouldn’t want them to and they know they must act insulted if they do, but just the same, they wish the men would try … Well, my dear, take heart. Some day, I will kiss you and you will like it. But not now, so I beg you not to be too impatient.” (p. 301)
– Rhett Butler
For the second part of my review of Gone With the Wind, go here.