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In Praise of the Classics: Gone With the Wind

Written by: Jaime Kawamoto, special to CC2K

Click HERE to read the intro to In Praise of the Classics

Click HERE to read about the brilliance of Anna Karenina

Click HERE to read about the dysfunctional love of Wuthering Heights

Click HERE to read an essay about, and like, Ulysses 

Click HERE to read about the ageless wonder that is The Brothers Karamazov 

Click HERE if you think you're man enough to read Jane Eyre

Click HERE to read about the cosmic brilliance that is The Iliad

Image I have the kind of living room with one wall devoted to bookshelves.  Novels are piled three deep, crammed in sideways and spilling over onto end tables.  These shelves contain everything from great literature (Margaret Atwood on my side, Hemingway on the hubby’s) to "where did I get THIS?" titles (Star Trek: The Rift, anyone?).  The one book I can always find, even in the dark of a sleepless 3 am, is Gone With the Wind.  Margaret Mitchell’s epic novel about that feisty dame Scarlett O’Hara is like the literary version of scotch to me: a complex, warm and mature companion that you can enjoy any time.

If you haven’t visited Tara, the plantation in the hearts of both Scarlett and the deep South, you haven’t known true heartache, loss or triumph of the spirit.  GWTW begins by describing Scarlett as “not beautiful” yet she has all the men in Georgia drooling over her by sheer force of her charms.  You can’t help but fall in love with this plucky girl on the very first page.  The story follows Ms. O’Hara’s odyssey during the Civil War.  She goes from spoiled rich girl, to wife of a man she despises, to widow, to mistress, to nouveau-riche wife, to lonely soul, to the ultimate survivor.  Richard Hatch would never have dared go bare on Scarlett’s island!  She has babies, loses babies, falls in love, falls out of love and through it all, she never stops going after what she wants.  For more than half of GWTW, Scarlett chases her ideal man – boring, bookish dreamer Ashley Wilkes.  He marries his cousin, the goody two shoes Melanie.  Scarlett does everything she can to break them up but slowly becomes bonded, through the tragedy of war, to Melanie.  In the meantime, the equally persistent Rhett Butler aims to win Scarlett’s affections.  He is a scheming, ‘devil may care’ rogue with a bad rep.  Yet he has a heart to match our heroine’s. 

So far, this sounds like the makings of a great Harlequin romance.  Ah, but if romance was the only thing up the author’s sleeve there wouldn’t be a thousand pages, nor would this book be considered a classic.  The novel is rich with history.  Much of the story is about how war affects the people living in the middle of it.  There is a frightening sequence in the novel where the men are off at war and Scarlett must defend the plantation and all the family’s womenfolk gathered there for safety.  In the middle of the night, soldiers arrive.  Scarlett has managed to keep everyone clothed and feed using ingenuity and guts.  The soldiers threaten everything she has worked for and she fights back.  What makes this so compelling is they are not enemies but rather the Southern boys that are supposed to be defending her way of life.  GWTW has a lot to say about the hypocrisy of war, something that is more than relevant today.

This novel is also about friendship.  Scarlett learns that the deepest relationship she has is with Melanie, a woman she attempts to despise but can’t help adoring (albeit, almost too late).  Their part of the story is just as important as any of the love stuff.

Although, at its heart, this novel IS a love story: between Scarlett and Tara, her beloved home.  She knows who she is and where she comes from and fights for that.  She makes sure her family is always provided for, something not a lot of women got credit for in that time period.  She never loses Tara which means she never truly loses her way.  It is her touchstone, the place she starts from and the place she ends up at.  Interpret that any way you like.  That is the fun of great literature.  It is layered with themes and motifs and all that stuff you learned in high school English that give it depth and longevity.  It can also be a fun read without the analysis, pure entertainment.  The thing that makes it irresistible though is the subtext, whether you are conscious of it or not.  It’s like the Mona Lisa: anyone can look at it and see its beauty just as anyone can look at it and see its form, style, historical significance and technique.

Okay, yes, I know I have to touch on the racism thing.  I do believe it is responsible to look at everything in context.  Written in the thirties in the South and written about Southerners during the Civil War, you cannot expect Scarlett to have a slave for a best friend.  Who would buy that?  While Scarlett is a slave owner, she is not evil.  She buys the wife of one of her slaves so they can be together.  She actually frees her slaves at one point.  One of the “free men” is even heroic, saving Scarlett’s life when she is attacked in Shantytown.  Just as with the white people in the book, there are varied portrayals of the slaves.  Critics attack characters like Prissy, a young slave, as being offensive because she is a simpering fool.  Well, Ashley’s sister Honey is just as simpering of a fool and Caucasian.  It would be more offensive if there was a diverse range of white characters and a whole mess of happy, saintly slaves.

Before anyone jumps down my throat, I am not defending racism.  I think it is great that Scarlett says she despises the Ku Klux Klan in GWTW.  I also think it is terrible that any of the main characters, especially Ashley, are actually members (they do get their comeuppance for joining the Klan though)!  I also believe it is important to understand the perspective of Southerners, which this book aptly chronicles, so that we can all better combat these opinions.   There is no greater defense than offense.

I look at it this way: I am not exactly Caucasian (I’m half French and half Japanese).  I grew up with racist grandparents on both sides.  My French side called my Asian dad my mother’s idea of rebelling; my Japanese side called every white person that came in the house “gaijin” (it loses the sting in translation), including my mother.  I love my grandparents and they have all learned tolerance as the world has changed.  When one of them says anything even remotely racist, I point it out and correct them.  I discuss their crazy homophobia and introduce them to my gay friends to prove how crazy their theories are.  And I forgive them their faults.  That is how I feel about GWTW.  If I could teach Scarlett I would.  Instead, I make note of her racism.  I correct it in my head.  I discuss it when opportunities like this arise.  And I forgive it its faults because there is so much good to salvage from it.

One of these very good things is GWTW is an excellent example of feminism in classic literature.  This is rare to find.  Scarlett wins pretty much everything she ever wants until the end.  When Rhett walks out on her she does not turn into the messed up woman we still, to this day, see all the time.  You know the one I mean – hair uncombed, tub of ice cream, lying in bed because she got dumped.  No, our heroine gives us all a motto to live by: “Tomorrow is another day”.  Wow.  She decides she will win Rhett back.  She has Tara.  She has the ground beneath her feet.  That is all she needs to survive.  If she has that, there is nothing she cannot accomplish.  Her unending optimism and triumph are things we should all aspire to.  The fact that a classic novel gives us this example with a female holding the reins is exceptional and splendid.

As it has been said, people do not read classics because they are “too hard”, “too long” and “too boring”.  GWTW is certainly not hard to read.  Ashley and Scarlett do discuss gotterdamurung but they explain what it means.  Besides, shame on you if you are one of those lazy souls who can’t lift a dictionary.  May your life be a never-ending rerun of Deal or No Deal.

GWTW is considered long.  I spent a week reading the last chapter as slowly as possible because I didn’t want it to end.  If something is really engrossing, it is always too short.  Haven’t you ever left a movie that was so good you wished it was longer?  And that was only two hours of your life!  Imagine a really good movie that you could carry around with you and enjoy for a whole week or longer! 

There is absolutely nothing boring about love, the Civil War or racism.  Feminism, friendship, family – have I struck a boring note yet?  There are so many threads to pull at in this novel if you can’t unravel something to interest you, you just aren’t trying.

I have never had my heart as badly broken as I did the first time I read this book.  I have never felt as uplifted as the first time I understood how tomorrow could really be another day.  I have never read any other novel as many times.  Read Gone With the Wind.   Don’t cop out and rent the movie instead. 


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