Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Giving a Damn

22. Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Tears came to my eyes while reading Gone With the Wind. More than once. I didn't actually cry, but it was still quite a feat. I feel like this is one of those books nearly everyone is expected to have read, but I read it this week for the first time. I avoided it, thinking it would be racist and Confederate-glamorizing and generally uncomfortable for a Northern soul like myself. It was undoubtedly racist and unashamedly proud of the Confederacy, and, even, something not even I suspected, rather supportive than not of the Ku Klux Klan.

I absolutely loved it.

Mitchell wields her powers of description like a sword, sometimes too heavily, but often with just the right thrust. Scarlett O'Hara, our tempestuous heroine, braves the Civil War and the Restoration with her simple-minded devotion to the survival of herself and those she loves most, her childhood home Tara and her childhood sweetheart Ashley. Mitchell reiterates Scarlett's character in so many words, in so many passages, again and again. She is almost never-changing. It occurred to me that Scarlett could be the archetype of the anti-heroine. To my mind, she can be admirable, even pitiable, but never, never likable.

That is why Mitchell gives us Melanie. She is Scarlett's foil, her best friend, and her bitterest enemy. Melanie is married to the incomparable Ashley. Like him, she is quiet, bookish, and the epitome of Southern honor. Scarlett is a young vixen, who will later be officially dubbed a Scallawag. I adored Melanie. Not because she is kind and gentle, but because she demonstrates a strength and loyalty I fervently hope I possess. She never endorses various accusations of Scarlett's feelings for Ashley and loves Scarlett passionately, with the excuse of Scarlett's brief, vindictive (against Ashley) marriage to Melanie's brother Charles. Characteristic of the South, their world is a tangled web of close family and neighbors.

I must say a word about the "darkies" as Mitchell typically calls the slaves and later, freed men and women in the book. Other, less wholesome words are used as well. I was frustrated by the dialect in which she has them speak and the diatribes comparing them to children and monkeys, and insisting upon their sterling treatment and care at the hands of their Southern masters. Yet, for all her generalizations, some of the most intelligent and strongest characters are slaves. Scarlett's Mammy is brilliant, a true lady-in-waiting if ever there was one, and much more of a fine lady than Scarlett herself. And Uncle Peter is the man of the family who practically raised Melanie and Charles after their parents died, and solicitously looks after their childlike Aunt Pitty.

And how could I write a word on Gone With the Wind without mentioning Rhett Butler? The quintessential bad boy looks like a pirate, and acts like it, he is a blockader during the war, and shamelessly profits from the Confederacy's ruin. Rhett is without a doubt the most complex character, and the one who evolves most over the course of the novel. He is, naturally, Ashley's foil, and notes himself with his wry irony that they started as similar men with similar opportunities, only Ashley chose to value his honour over such chances. But Rhett is so much more than that. In the beginning, I, like Scarlett, was disgusted as much as fascinated with him. But though she comes to appreciate him only because she wants his money and appreciates his acceptance of her grasping nature, he seduced me with his distance, his propensity to amuse himself at his own expense as well as others', and, no matter his other faults, his essential honesty.

In the end, it's all about Mitchell's ability to build anticipation for a rich love story. Rhett dips in and out of Scarlett's life, infuriating or salvaging her as needed. He corrupts her slowly, encouraging her love of finery and material gain, and patiently tutoring her not to care what the neighbors think. His kisses, when Mitchell indulges us, are scintillating. I thought I would die for such kisses. And finally, finally, when they marry, after Scarlett has buried two other husbands, he initiates her into the realm of carnal pleasure. And it is not until years later she experiences the full force of it. Rhett is unpredictable, the reader must always wonder what he will do next.

I wanted Rhett, like in the movie, to have the last word, but Mitchell gives us a last glimpse of Scarlett's indomitable spirit instead. Everything but that is, unfortunately, gone with the wind. Though I would give much more than a damn for some more.

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