Gone with the Wind June 1st- June 19th

on June 20, 2013 in Books, Journal

Gone with the Wind

The American Civil War, if I can be forgiven by my neighbors for referring to it thus owing to the fact that the terms War for Southern Independence and War Between the States are simply not as well known, has lately taken center stage in my reading life. Considering myself, among other things, to be a southerner I quickly found myself immersed in the infinitely complex and volatile society of mid nineteenth century America. This trend began with my recent reading of Bruce Catton’s book The American Heritage History of the Civil War which, due to the fascination with this subject that this extremely well written work instilled, led immediately to my moving on to James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom which I am still currently reading. However I have a tendency, if not out and out habit, of coupling factual historical readings with historical fiction set in the same time. This has presented me with the perfect opportunity to finally sit down and read Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. Even though Ms. Mitchell was born thirty-five years after the end of the war, on my birthday no less, it is the setting of her novel that makes it suit my purposes so well in the same way that Kenneth Roberts’ Arundel accompanied David McCullough’s 1776. Because of the scope and length of Ms. Mitchell’s work I’ve decided to comment in turn on the parts as they are read in order to keep their elements fresh in my mind. Though I’m sure I will not succeed entirely I hope to minimize my opinions as to the war and its repercussions on the world in which I now live, those who know me well know I have a poisonous strain of editorializing in me. Here I wish simply to write, for my own sake and any interested, to record my experience with this book.

Part 1

Before I can begin any in depth discussion of this book I must acknowledge the influence of the 1939 movie. Luckily I have only seen it once so my memory of it is limited to single moments and a very sparse outline of the plot. I will say that the description of Rhett Butler in the work seems so uncannily similar to Clark Gable, the actor who portrayed him, that I have suspicions that the character may have been written with the actor in mind.
The novel opens by presenting one of the most infuriating characters I have ever had the pleasure to read in the person of Scarlett O’Hara. Nearly everything she thinks or does is so perfectly antagonistic to anything I would consider even remotely attractive in a human being that it takes real effort on my part to calm my desire to just shake her, though I do try to make allowances, small ones, for her age and the society in which she was raised. Ms. Mitchell sets up her characters with great skill against the backdrop of southern plantations in the dawn of the 1860’s and despite the slow measured pace of the first chapters I felt I was in a real, if a bit idyllic, place. I say idyllic in that the picture painted of a master that treats his slaves well, goes out of his way to unite slave families, and is unwilling to use corporal punishment, while I don’t doubt that this scenario happened, I likewise believe it was far from the standard practice. However, that aside, the attitudes of the southern aristocracy and their mannerisms seem to coincide fully with the historical accounts from both Mr. Catton and Mr. McPherson. It is the strange contradictory nature of this setting which I believe is so engrossing about the opening of this work. The mix of the hereditary high mindedness of the old world monarchies and rough and ready brawlers, drinkers, gamblers, and good natured country folks is so unique that when the historians refer to “southern civilization” it isn’t hard to see why that distinction needs to be made.
Ms. Mitchell seems to draw the most attention to her characters when she is having them contradict societal norms. Scarlett is unique in that she doesn’t hold to any of the notions of how a lady should behave, a code of conduct that seems to have been quite strictly adhered to by all the other women of the county, and Rhett stands out for similarly having a less than universally southern worldview. Scarlett is spoiled and selfish while Rhett is a scoundrel suspected of a cardinal sin of northern sympathies and ways. There is very little of Rhett seen before the close of part one so as to prevent a more accurate evaluation, however for Scarlett there is sadly more than enough.
Scarlett’s motivations, in a fury for being rebuffed by Ashley Wilkes, turn to spite, vengeance, and selfishness. All of these things could perhaps be overlooked in time but she does them with the intention of causing pain. Perhaps Charles Hamilton deserved what he got when he fell for all the wrong parts of Scarlett O’Hara, and for certain his short life after the marriage spared him from having to see her in any real light, but it is harder to forgive Scarlett as soon as the terrible wake of her selfishness begins to include her son for whom she has little affection. I cannot begrudge her the frustration that comes with the very strict regimen that constrained widows in the south at that time, seeing as she only even remembered her few months husband as a doe-eyed stutterer who worshiped her blindly, but to punish the child because she was foolish, a fact she admits even to herself, is a cruelty beyond words. She is free with her hate and resentments as well as fiery, passionate, and self assured. For all her faults though she is also very compelling and a strong driving force that propels the narrative into the next part and the onset of the war years.

Part 2

There is a subtle skill in the execution of the second part of this work that I think may be hard for me to precisely explain. With the narrative changing scenes from the country plantations of Tara and Twelve Oaks to the newly christened city of Atlanta Ms. Mitchell deftly draws a number of parallels that simultaneously highlight her characters and vastly widen the scope of her work. Scarlett is spoiled, selfish, and annoying, but it wasn’t until a fuller picture of Rhett Butler, of whom only a glimpse was given previous, was provided that I began to see what was so frustrating about the atypical southern belle. In a word, hypocrisy, it is Scarlett’s utter disinterest in the rules of the society in which she lives coupled with her crippling dependence on the good opinion of that same society that is the lynchpin of what drives me crazy about this girl and never is this hypocrisy more apparent than when she is foiled against the scandalous blockader.
Rhett has the same disdain for southern social norms that Scarlett does, however his feelings are not disguised. An open war profiteer, gambler, and social outcast Rhett found an immunity to the slings and arrows of an indignant population by simply being necessary. So in this way, as he did with Scarlett, Rhett exposes the contradictory nature of the things around him. The matriarchs of the city could curse him for a thief in and out of their parlors and bazaars while Dr. Meade could attack him in print, but their indignation was never such that his business ventures seemed to suffer. The outraged southerners still bought his silk and hairpins and other luxuries only further assuring that trinkets of this nature would remain the list of his blockade running in effect choking off the last pipeline for the war goods they swore to be in so dire need of. Buying his tea and his sugar at exorbitant prices and then berating him for the actions they support is laughable in the darkest and most realistic ways. This is the society that won’t accept charity from a prostitute but it will buy useless luxuries from a food speculator. In the interest of equanimity I must acknowledge that as a man Rhett has much more freedom to buck social trends than Scarlett does and it is only because as a reader I have an omnipresent view of her motivations that I know her acquiescence stems more from her want of adoration than it does from fear of reprisals.
Ms. Mitchell presents a much changed south in part two. Where once there were exuberant soldiers gladly running off to war with the gallant tears of the victory assured families they leave behind streaming after them, there are now defiantly optimistic rebels and a population that refuses to admit it’s own war weariness. Beneath this grand backdrop, which looms over the work and the characters in it though is only indirectly experienced through letters and the effects the war is having on the home front, there are several relationships that take on even greater significance in this section. The first, and clearly most prominent, is that of Rhett as he consistently challenges Scarlett’s stubborn adherence to the conventions he hates. However, I think the secondary relationships between Rhett and Melanie, Scarlett and Melanie, and Ashley and Scarlett are all the more telling. Rhett’s softness towards Melanie seems to come from his genuine respect for her owing to the fact that she is naturally the great lady that all of the southern women pretend to be. This hints that perhaps it is the pretense of the society rather than its fundamentals that he is so antagonistic towards. Scarlett on the other hand struggles with her intense jealousy of Melanie for her possession of Ashley, the one thing Scarlett wants most, and a begrudging respect that appears whenever Melanie’s great quality of character cannot be denied. She wants desperately to hate her rival but never seems quite able to dismiss Melanie’s heroic elements, at least until the announcement of Melanie’s pregnancy at which point Scarlett’s jealousy truly usurps her restraints. And through all of this Scarlett steadfastly clings to the certainty that she and Ashley were in love and, but for his stubborn attachment to the cause and his families desires that he should marry Melanie, would be together someday prompting another confession of her feeling just as he leaves to return to the war in Virginia from his Christmas furlough.
It is interesting that the novel is less than half way finished as Ms. Mitchell sets the stage for the final months of the war.

Part 3

If the war was a far off spectre in the first and second parts of this work Ms. Mitchell brings it barreling into the forefront with the third. It is easy for a student of history to be caught up in the battles, the troop movements, the political theory, and all of the things that make the memory of war entertaining and gallant and picturesque, and it is often this opaque prism through which wars are viewed that turns generals and politicians into history’s heroes. With uncanny skill Ms. Mitchell polishes that rearward looking lens and shows, as best as one can in writing, what we’d rather not remember about the awful nature of war. With the army of General Sherman slowly creeping towards Atlanta, the believed impregnable fortress and lifeblood of the Confederacy, it is hard not to feel real ache as first the luxury, then the comforts, and lastly the safety of the city are eroded away page by page. It is amidst the bloody wreckage of the beleaguered southern army, where the women of Atlanta toiled tirelessly, that I began to see the outlines of a slowly changing Scarlett O’Hara from the one I had known to this point. She still harbors the silent disdain for the war and the cause that are depriving her of all the things she loves about life, yet she still works in the hospital. By this point she had already been openly flaunting her disregard for the old rules of social propriety, which were crumbling every bit as much as the confederate cause, so it is hard to define her dedication to this task as merely an attempt to purchase the good humor of the court of public opinion. She was becoming sharper and colder, but she shows this interminable stubborn strength. It is in this strength that Ms. Mitchell seems to finally couch the lance of a hero, however tragically flawed. Despite her internal rants about Melanie and her baby and everything else that hampers her life Scarlett can never bring herself to leave them or send them away. It is almost as though even with all her promises to do otherwise she time and again cares for those she claims to have no need of.
I think the moment Atlanta finally falls and Scarlett is forced to flee the city is the true turning point for her as a character. She may not hold the weight of responsibility as gracefully as her mother had, but there is nothing lacking in her determination, willpower, and fortitude. She is clear headed and resourceful and, though she longs to rest herself in the protection of someone who will tell her what to do, finds a way to do what nothing in her life had prepared her to accomplish. From leading the household back to Tara upon fleeing Atlanta, to resurrecting in part the once grand plantation she found that the entire responsibility for every life there rested with her alone. Scarlett had always been cold, selfish, and ruthless and these traits grate on the nerves of a society at peace (my nerves were no exception) however, these are the very same traits with which she, and I think I don’t overstate my meaning in using the word, valiantly clings to life. At this point I think it’s important to look into two parts of Scarlett’s character, what she thinks and what she does. Throughout the trials of being driven from Atlanta, saving Tara from looting, and struggling to see that her family is fed and clothed her mind still shouts the constant wishes to be free of the freeloaders and those who look to her for guidance, to find a way to shed herself of Melanie and Beau her baby, and even bemoans the presence of her own son. But if it weren’t for my intrusions on her secret thoughts I would no doubt have the angelic view of Scarlett that Melanie has. This makes me wonder even to the lengths of what makes good and evil. Is he who fights and believes somehow more righteous than he who fights yet does not believe?
Both Rhett and Scarlett are stripped of their engineered detachment from the war and the south and I feel that I was presented a defenseless view of them both. Rhett was confronted with the actions of the ordinary soldier, not the politicians and generals for whom he had such disdain, and I think even after all his show to the contrary was truly ashamed of himself. Not because he didn’t believe in the cause, but because he had no attachment to his fellow man which he saw in its purest form as the soldiers helped each other flee the city. Scarlett, for her part, realizes the truth in what her father had told her many times before, that she had a great love for Tara, and the steely resolve that was forged in those months of tribulation hardens into a determination to do much more than persist, but to thrive. Every bit as strong as her love for Ashley she sets herself to move any mountain, defy any convention, break any law to keep and hold the ground so dear to her and for that I cannot help but admire her and fear for her enemies of which I am sure the coming years of the reconstruction will be chief.

Part 4

The aftermath of the war, as I suspect is true of all wars, was rife with all of the strange hypocrisies peculiar to the inescapable oppressiveness of human society. The north had forbidden the south, through force of arms, from forming their own country which is a harrowing thought for a nation that to this day disbelieves itself capable of this type of tyranny of thought. That is not to say that allowing the existence of a country in which slavery persists is not an inherent evil, but the abolishment of that institution is sadly where the righteousness of the north ends. I will leave the bulk of my discussion on this issue for my closing remarks and it is only here mentioned because it is the early years of the reconstruction that is the centerpiece of much of the fourth part of Ms. Mitchell’s work. With the end of the war Scarlett, and the rest of what had been the confederacy, were confronted with the harsh realities that defeat in war has never been historically associated with leniency from the victor. Georgia had become an occupied territory and many of its white citizens were denied the right to participate in a government they were forced to be a part of. During this occupation pushes her “at any cost” mentality to a new extreme when she is immediately confronted with the stark reality that Tara is in just as much danger from the reconstruction as it ever was from the war. Carpetbaggers and Scalawags begin coming out of the woodwork to build fortunes on the ruins of southern civilization and those who had been a part of the confederacy had little recourse to stop it. The imposition of a new three hundred dollar tax, levied at the behest of the twice disgraced Jonas Wilkerson, threatens to bury Tara and the O’Haras once and for all. It is in the light of this threat that Ms. Mitchell shows the lengths to which Scarlett will go to prevent such an inconceivable tragedy. Casting off what was left of the tolerance of southern society Scarlett is willing to turn Yankee sympathizer, thief, and even prostitute in order to stave off the wolves at Tara’s door.
Here, during the reconstruction, Scarlett’s single-mindedness begins to have consequences she never intended. Her every action thus far has been to secure two goals, one to keep and rebuild Tara, and the other to keep Ashley near her. Until this point her relentless pursuit of these goals has been nothing but a boon to her family and for the most part overlooked by society. However, with the ending of the war the tolerance of her socially unacceptable behaviors dries up along with whatever credit the good will of the Sainted Melanie had bought her. Scarlett forfeits everything in her flight from the two things she fears most, fear and uncertainty. She takes control of Frank Kennedy’s store, after stealing him from her sister with a lie about Suellen’s unfaithfulness, and begins to ruthlessly apply her business savvy to work building a fortune which she believes to be the only reliable weapon against her fears. She colludes with scalawags, carpetbaggers, union soldiers, and republicans, purchases and operates lumber mills with the aid of a tyrannical foreman and convict labor, and deals fast and loose so far as honest and the quality of her products are concerned. This is all an extension of her earlier take no prisoners, at all costs, attitude that asserted itself in her desperate struggle for survival after the fall of Atlanta, but there is also something very different about it. Where defending Tara from a looter at the end of a pistol seemed the righteous act of a woman determined not to let the tide and times snuff her and hers out of existence, her fast dealing and near idolatry on the subject of money and material wealth begins to blur the lines of morality. Ms. Mitchell’s creeping, and I think inevitably tragic, masterstroke of asking, “What are the limits of morality with regard to survival?” in two vastly different scenarios and frightening the reader into the realization that the answers can be far from congruent.
I do not believe that Scarlett is responsible for the deaths of Frank Kennedy and the other members of the Ku Klux Klan that rode into the night seeking a vigilante justice they felt pressured into by the occupying union army. The causality theories regurgitated by so many of my unfortunate generation are abhorrent to anyone who believes that personal responsibility can and must be one of the keystones of our society if it is to withstand the weight of its own humanity, so I do not count the death of Scarlett’s second husband amongst the list of unintended consequences of her actions. However, I believe Ms. Mitchell is setting the stage for a tragic final act where, in true Shakespearean fashion, the trait most responsible for our heroin’s perseverance will ultimately claim her soul. Where else can Scarlett’s mad scramble for wealth and security and engineered happiness lead but to disaster? As Scarlett finally falls into the arms of Rhett in a whirlwind of scandal and rumor it seems as though she’s about to get everything she ever wanted, and exactly what she has asked for.

Part 5

I don’t really know how to start summarizing my feeling about the closing section of this book. As I finished the last lines I immediately ran to the computer to begin writing and when I got here found myself a bit overwhelmed. Watching as Scarlett and Rhett teeter on precariously towards the breaking point is a heartbreaking sight and I think therein lies the real tragedy of the entire situation and it is the birth of Bonnie seems to be catalyst for the final schism of the Butler family. Even as Rhett moves Heaven and Earth to establish his daughter in the society he had so long derided, Scarlett is clinging to the false security of her association with what are slightingly called “new people” and her misguided belief that the reconstruction’s hold on the south would be as immortal as it was absolute. It is hard not to sympathize with Rhett; through all of his years of waiting for Scarlett to truly come to him and being so terribly afraid of revealing his feelings for her knowing what havoc she could wreak should she even suspect the depths of his love. It is devastating to know, whether Scarlett realizes it or not, that these two scoundrels who love each other so much should be kept apart by their perfect inability to trust one another. Neither one of them is willing to admit, even for a moment, the vulnerability required to take the first step towards openness, and by the time Scarlett belatedly comes to that realization it is too late.
The deaths of Melanie and Bonnie, the former being hard to bear even as a reader and the latter foreshadowing Rhett’s utter collapse, cut the last lines of defense for both of these characters. Rhett had poured all of his unrequited love into the little girl who so reminded him of the woman he felt he could never truly have, and Scarlett finally stumbles into the sad truth of Melanie’s greatness just as she was about to lose her. With the end of the war far behind them and the receding of the omnipresence of the reconstruction Scarlett is left to wonder at the house that her survival instinct built and how fragile it really is. Ms. Mitchell floods the final moments of this epic with an oppressive darkness with Melanie’s failing health, Scarlett and Rhett’s progressively worsening alcoholism, and the general sense that the fortunes and stability of everything they had worked towards and relied upon were dry sandcastles that would never survive real scrutiny. Not to be lost amongst the bevy of tragedies that fill the last pages of this novel Scarlett finally sees Ashley in the light that she had been denying for her entire life. Like all of the sadness that rains at the close of this work it comes just too late leaving any redemption that could be gained from this realization as hopeless as it is without remedy.
But even with such a dark and crushing finale the novel ends with a strange contrast. The novel explores not only the loss of the southern confederacy, but really the southern way of life. It’s greatest pillar, Melanie Wilkes, dies in defiance of the hand fate had dealt her, the apparently indestructible Rhett and Ashley are crushed beneath the weight of things they never had the strength the bear, and soon the homeland they had all known would fade into a memory barely more real than legend. However, despite all of this we are left with Scarlett defiantly unbeaten. She still has her eyes set on tomorrow with every intention of undoing whatever break Rhett had allowed in his love for her. Even without the two people who had been the bulwarks of her strength, Ellen and Melanie, she never appears truly lost though her thoughts fear that potentiality often. Her selfish, stubborn, and pig headed nature along with her uncanny ability to defer the objections of her conscience for her own ends are unendurably frustrating and had me alternating between being her ally and her enemy throughout the length of the work. Whatever else can be said about her I think that, whatever her methods, there is a redeemable quality in her staunch refusal to let anyone or anything break her leaving the only question being whether or not she was ultimately changed by the terrible events that closed the novel.

Final Thoughts

Having rambled for some time now I will try and keep this brief. It would be small of me to say something so trite as “I enjoyed this book very much”, but with the sting of its turbulence still hanging on me I find it hard to say much else. I thoroughly enjoyed Ms. Mitchell’s storytelling, her uncomfortably violent and starkly realistic characters, and the epic scope of what could have been little more than a tragic love story. I could feel the hunger during the lean years of the war, Scarlett’s desperation to forge a lasting security for her and her family, the heartbreak that lingered over Rhett throughout at his inability to break into that stubborn heart beating for a man she didn’t even know she didn’t love, I could even feel the oppressive sense of loss as an entire way of life died away. Some mention of the historical inaccuracies should be made of which I think the almost heroic depiction of the Ku Klux Klan might be the most egregious. I’ll not argue that perhaps there were a few members who saw vigilantism as their only recourse to a corrupt reconstruction government, but to paint the entirety of that type of organization with such a broad and generous stroke is a stretch even for historical fiction. This and other historical alterations, particularly involving the scope of corruption in restoration governments which I think have perhaps been exaggerated for dramatic purposes, and the portrayal of black characters, many of whom come across dangerously close to generalizations based upon stereotypes rather than fully fleshed out characters, should not be disregarded, but I also think that these licenses do not damage the true quality of this work and leaving me questioning my understanding of people and glad having read it. I can ask no more from a wonderful work of art.

3 Responses to “Favorite Music Pieces”

  1. Sarah VB says:

    I think I remember watching something on VH-1 (Behind the Music, probably) that said that Bat Out of Hell was originally intended as a rock opera for an updated Peter Pan storyline. Sometimes I wonder how that would have played out onstage.

    • Bowdoin says:

      I vaguely remember seeing that as well. I don’t think there is enough narrative in the Bat out of Hell trilogy to actually stage anything directly from the songs, but if there is some grand epic plot line that ties them all together I’d be the first in line to see that fireworks display.

  2. Fan #24601 says:

    “Bowdoin has a gift for choosing and arranging his words in an iambic pentameter-y way so that there’s a mellifluous flow to the words” – Devon Jackson. He’s not wrong there! However I don’t agree with this bit: “What was less effective was the music, which is a bit flat.” I thought that the music was lovely, and really enjoyed the it. In fact, on more than one occasion I have wished to myself for there to be instrumental versions of the song. Being 100% honest, it’s partially because I love the music, and partially because I want to do karaoke with the songs… 😀

Leave a Reply