Monday, May 9, 2011

Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell is a banned book group selection which I frankly didn’t want to read.  I mean, were we really going to suggest that Mitchell’s portrayal of slavery was accurate or would we agree with those who contested the book’s being on a school’s curriculum, declaring the novel racist?

I think the answer was pretty obvious and yet I was along for the ride so I read the novel.  Again.  Yes, again.  I had read it as a teenager and liked it.  A lot.  But mostly I loved the movie and because I loved the movie and this was before such things were available on video, let alone dvd, I read the novel the way some people watch a movie they like over and over again, even replaying their favorite scenes repeatedly.

And it’s important to me that, in this book review, I try to address a variety of things including my relationship with this book, such as it is.  Before I say anything further, I think it is outrageous that parents ever have to object to this novel being included in a curriculum for students because it is so obviously inappropriate that it is an insult to anyone’s intelligence that this novel should ever find space even in a summer reading list.

With that said, I cannot deny that this novel is well written.  The characters are wonderfully defined, multifaceted and complex.  Scarlett O’Hara, born in more contemporary times, would be a celebrity, a woman other women would admire for her business sense, her beauty, and her tiny waist.  But because she was raised in the South at a time when being educated was more a hindrance than a help, she seems silly, even foolish, all evidence to her intelligence and brutal common sense to the contrary.  Even Melanie Hamilton is a surprise as she unfolds on the page.  Not quite as daring or bold as Scarlett, she is a far stronger character than one would expect based on what the film shows.  The same can’t be said for Ashley Wilkes whose love and lust are constantly in conflict, adoring his Madonna wife while lusting after the “whore” Scarlett.

There are moments in the film which are weak and it is good to see that Mitchell’s writing was stronger than what finally made it to the screen.  Obviously there had to be some editing, some minor characters deleted and even whole scenes removed.  For instance, the fact that Scarlett has three children in the novel gives more fuel to her insisting that Rhett no longer come to her bed because she doesn’t want to have any more children.  While I can understand why the screenwriters chose to remove the son from her first marriage and the daughter from her second, when she confronts Rhett with her intentions, the foundation for her argument is weakened because she’s only had the one child.

Of course, other changes that are made are less obvious and far more interesting.  That Frank Kenneday, Ashley Wilkes, and the rest of the post-Civil War Confederates belong to the Ku Klux Klan is not quiet so obvious in the movie and one has to laugh when Rhett starts explaining to Scarlett that the KKK is disbanded.  History shows this to be false and given the fact that during the time between the two world wars, the same time during which Mitchell wrote and published this novel, the klan was, in fact, growing stronger and making inroads in politics as never before.

It is possible to dismiss how Scarlett and some of the other characters talking about “darkies” but it is the exposition where Mitchell’s racism shines through for she repeatedly links slaves with children and animals in a peculiar triumvirate, typically in the speech of someone else but often, if not more often, in the text itself.  Anyone who has seen the movie would naturally squirm with discomfort at how these characters are more caricature than honest, although there is a brief moment when Prissy makes a face at Scarlett’s back, a moment of clear disrespect that is not evident elsewhere on the screen and nowhere in the book.

The question is, do I feel this novel is racist?   To put it bluntly, hell yes.  And I found it most alarming when I read Rhett’s confession to Scarlett that his reason for being in jail is that he killed an “uppity nigger.”  This is changed, in the film, to his being in jail on trumped up charges.  In fact, far from coming across as a romantic hero, Rhett Butler’s estimation dropped significantly in my eyes.  He comes of as a bit of a bully, manipulative and controlling, with many of the earmarks of an abusive husband.  He threatens Scarlett by suggesting she should be horsewhipped, kicks down her door, even holds her had between his hands and says he could crush her skull.  Before coming to his defense, ask yourself if you would encourage your daughter or your best friend to marry a man who did any one of these things while dating.  If you had any sense, you wouldn’t.  And there is no justification for it.  The fact is, Rhett Butler is a racist, a pimp, a thief, and, when you really think about it, a total hypocrite.  He has no problem denigrating the Old South society until he realizes that, by doing so, he compromises his daughter’s future at which point he immediately changes his behavior.  Why would he even want his daughter to be a part of this society for which he had no fondness?  It doesn’t make sense but it is, somehow, still in keeping with his character.

The relationship with his daughter is also something I hadn’t considered with any depth because, without a doubt, there is a sort of emotional incest happening.  He says that his reason for pampering Bonnie is that she allows him to do all the things he wishes he could do for Scarlett, his wife.  That unlike his wife, Bonnie takes his gifts and his love with eager acceptance.  I am not suggesting that there was a physically sexual relationship between the two.  However, the way he treats the child, having her small bed placed beside his own in a bedroom separate from his wife’s, is indicative of a subtle incestuous quality to their relationship.

And all of this, I can understand my overlooking or not seeing clearly when I was first reading this novel at the age of thirteen.  However, I cannot understand how, even then, I could have overlooked the racism.  And it is this with which I am struggling.  Why did I ever love this book?  If I can understand how I could romanticize Rhett Butler, how could I overlook his saying he murdered an “uppity nigger”?  And if I could argue that at one time this book might have deserved to be on a school’s summer reading list, would I not protest loudly to find it still there today?  After all, we have many other novels about the Civil War that have since been written.  Surely, one of those could be used in place of this one.

When you get right down to it, if you remove the racism and the historical context, this novel is nothing more than a romance and I loathe romance novels, especially when the man is everything Mitchell makes Rhett to be.  I have vilified other romance novels that allow the young woman to fall in love with the bad boy and even though Scarlett is far from sweet and innocent, she deserves better than a man like Rhett Butler.  We all deserve someone better than a man like Rhett Butler.

And still, I can’t wrap my mind around how I could so casually ignore the racism that is practically on every page of this book.  It’s vulgar and disgusting.  In a few weeks, the summer reading lists will determine what books our local bookstore (yes, that is intentionally singular, sad to say) will put out on tables around the young adult reading section.  I know I will search to see if this book is still being included.  I can understand a higher tolerance for leaving it on the list, what with my living in Georgia.  I admit that there was some fun in reading the names of places and knowing what they are like now compared with what they were like then.  Still . . . I would hope not to see this book on those tables.  And I have to agree with those critics at the time who criticized the book, saying it was nothing more than a pot-boiler.  Frankly, my dear, I don’t think it deserved a Pulitzer Prize.

Of course, one must allow for the fact that I am nothing more than a damn Yankee so what do I know, really?


One of the controversies, and there are so many, regarding this novel is the scene in which Rhett Butler carries his wife, Scarlett, up the stairs.  In the novel, she is running from him, desperate to get to her room and lock the door but he catches up with her and grabs her.

Note to readers: When a woman is running away from you, wife or not, she is saying NO.

He grabs her and kisses her.  She resists.

Note to readers: When a woman resists your kiss, she is saying NO.

He lifts her up and carries her up the stairs, her face buried in his chest.  She screams.

Note to readers: When a woman screams, whether the scream is muffled or not, she is saying NO.

It is at this point the movie and the novel depart vaguely from one another because the movie, in typical Hollywood fashion, “fades to black” or, as in this case, Rhett carries her up into the darkness at the top of the stairs.  In truth, this is very much like the novel but since the movie then shifts to the afterglow of the morning after, we never have to suffer through the rhetoric of Margaret Mitchell as she changes the emotional dynamic and allows Scarlett to surrender to Rhett’s passion.

Note to women: When a man threatens to crush your skull with his bare hands and then carries you off to ravish you, just keep saying NO!


Seriously.  NO!!!

Is this scene in Gone With the Wind an example of marital rape?  Let us ignore the obvious arguments that legally there was no such thing as marital rape and a man would never have been convicted of such a crime no matter how many women dared to suggest it is possible.  The simple question is this: Does Rhett Butler rape Scarlett O’Hara?

I am loath to say that the argument for or against rape is blurry in the novel.  Mitchell beautifully betrays her sex by writing how Scarlett is simply swept away by Rhett’s masculine dominance.  Which explains her perky, giggly afterglow the following morning.

In the movie, however, the answer is yes.  Yes, he rapes her because all we see on the screen is her resisting, her struggling, her not wanting her husband to have sex with her.  But he does and then we see her perky and giggling in that same damn afterglow.  It is vulgar and as offensive as the racist rhetoric throughout the novel and the movie.

And rape should never be romanticized. Ever.

6 comments:

  1. Wonderful and in depth review. I'm about to read the book and watch the movie so this really helped.

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  2. Blueidegal <3 A lot of people love the novel and movie and I can absolutely see why. I probably would have liked the novel more if I had any appreciation for romance novels. I don't. So it has to shine in other ways and I can't say that this novel did. The movie is more problematic for me because I grew up loving it but have never felt fully comfortable with it and my distaste grows over time.

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  3. Just finished reading the book for the first time in years and I totally agree with your comments. Already the first time I read it (I must have been 14 or 15), there were parts of it that made me uneasy. But then I was so taken in by the romance of Scarlett and Rhett and so charmed by the romantic image Mitchell painted of the antebellum South that I could overlook it. This time I couldn't. I cringed every time I even read the word nigger, especially from the books' "positive" characters (Rhett and Ashley particularly), I cringed every time blacks were compared to children and animals, every time someone declared that the KKK had "properly dealt with an uppity nigger", every time Yankees were ridiculed for "thinking the niggers were as good as themselves", every time...I could go on forever. Point is I couldn't overlook the racism anymore. It is omnipresent in the book. And the fact that it was the common sentiment of the time doesn't really make me feel better about it. Moreover, I found myself less captivated by the characters and the romance of the story now than before. Maybe I've become a cynic but very often I found this aspect of the book pompous, cliched and not very believable. What still was of great interest to me were the historical descriptions and details, and I'll admit I still find myself admiring the South that Mitchell describes (a romanticized, fantasy place of her imagination that probably differed greatly from the realities). And it is a riveting book that is hard to put down. I fully understand how this became a bestseller. But not how it became a Pulitzer Prize winner.

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    1. Nadia, Thank you so much for leaving this comment.

      I know that I was especially disturbed this time when I realized that Rhett Butler was in jail for murdering a recently freed slave for looking at a white woman. It horrified me to think that this romanticized "hero" was . . . well, just horrible. I don't know if Hollywood watered this down to make his character more palatable or if the writers of the screenplay intentionally made the change to make him more likable. I'd like to think it is the latter reason but I have my doubts.

      In all likelihood, the reason the novel won the Pulitzer had little to do with the merit of the novel itself so much as the timing and gender of its author. Historically, rarely does the losing side have an opportunity to tell its side of the story. The Civil War is one of the first wars in which the victor took care of the defeated side in the aftermath. True, there was exploitation and such, but typically to the winner goes the spoils and, of course, the nation had a vested interest in ensuring the southern states would survive and eventually thrive after the war. If not purely altruistic it was at least a unique approach to winning a war. (I confess, my knowledge of such things is limited and there may be other examples, even many other examples, predating the Civil War so forgive me my ignorance if I'm over zealous in praising the Post-bellum Era.)

      Also, here was a novel that detailed the horrors and consequences of war told from a decidedly unique experience. What other novels about war had been published that documented not only the personal details of the characters but also the significant events (Gettysburg, Sherman's March, etc.) of the war itself? I think it's safe to say that they were written by men because men understand these things and women only understand domestic things. Hemingway, Tolstoy, Remarque all wrote about war from a particularly masculine perspective while Woolf's Mrs Dalloway is mostly domestic.

      But then here comes a woman who doesn't write a short novel but an enormous one. And she doesn't focus solely on the romantic, which is, after all, typically a woman's purview, but she dares to create an unlikable heroine (selfish, ambitious, ruthless) and tell a story that includes history. And not domestic history of how to make maple syrup candy, like Laura Ingalls Wilder, but martial history!

      Had the novel been written by a man, would it have garnered the same attention and praise? We'll never know. I have my suspicions that it would not. And if not for the brilliant movie, which itself isn't always comfortable or easy to watch, the novel would likely have fallen into the forgotten past, with maybe a volume holding a place in the Library of Congress but not easily found anywhere else.

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  4. After reading the scene as Mitchell wrote it, I'd say that it wasn't rape, because Scarlett first said "no" and then said "yes"--said yes quite enthusiastically. I know Mitchell is pushing the sexist idea that women like being overpowered/dominated, but Scarlett did give consent--although it looked like Rhett wouldn't have been deterred if she had not.

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    1. We'll have to agree to disagree, Aaron. I reread the scene before writing the review and her running away and physically resisting throughout is not a woman saying "yes" in any way, shape, or form. But Mitchell is not the only woman to romanticize rape in a novel.

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