Thursday, November 18, 2010

Book Review: Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Isn't this new cover gorgeous? I can't find an image of mine. My copy was printed in 1965. It's a red cover, with a sketchy painting of Rhett carrying Scarlett in a blue dress with two rebel soldiers in the background. I thought about getting this new edition. But I just can't give up my beloved old copy from high school (no, I'm not that old. My mother was in college when this copy was printed.) I think I got it at a used bookstore, or possibly swiped it from our summer lake house. It is absolutely falling to pieces. In the late 80s. I tried to repair it with Scotch tape. Twenty years later, the tape is failing too, and I can't really fix it again since taping over bad tape doesn't do much good. I call it my Velveteen Rabbit book, as it's long loved and absolutely in tatters.

Rereading this book 15 years after my last read made me nervous. What if it didn't hold up? Yes, I know it won the Pulitzer (yes, it really did! Any of you who'd been thinking it was just a romance novel should be rethinking and heading out to buy it.) That was reassuring but I was still worried. And I shouldn't have been. It was just as wonderful, if not better than I remembered. The one disappointment was that unlike back in high school and college the last 80 pages didn't make me cry. There are spoilers in this review, so if you haven't read the book before go read it right now, and come back to this review in about 20 hours. I'll wait.

I find it surprising that some people think Scarlett a huge bitch. She is in the very beginning, before the war, but after the war she does anything and everything she can - including murder and essentially prostitution - to save her land, and therefore her family and their livelihood. It isn't fun or easy for her - she has to swallow her morals, she thinks she's going to hell, she knows her mother would have lost all respect for her, but she does it anyway. I think if she absolutely had no other options, she would have knocked on Belle Watling's door and asked for a job. I love her resilience, her strength, her determination, and her fierce, abiding love for her family and her home. Sure, she doesn't like her sisters very much (would you? Especially Suellen?) but that doesn't mean she doesn't love them. I admire her, and I think in the same position I'd have done everything she does. A classic oldest child, she does what has to be done, with little to no recognition and a lot of consequences to live with.

K. and I were talking about some of the differences between the book and the movie. The movie was pretty darn close to the book, with both Vivien Leigh and Olivia de Haviliand carrying the book around and referring to it constantly while arguing with the director and producers. Naturally, a few things had to be cut for length. The most obvious being Scarlett's two older children. So we were discussing what purpose those children served in the book that was missing from the movie. I think the most important thing is that Wade Hampton made it obvious that Scarlett and Charles's marriage was consummated even though it was so short. Otherwise, she might have tried to have it annulled, or at least could have implied to prospective second husbands that she was in fact unsullied, regardless of the truth of that. K. thought that it also had an up side - it showed she was fertile, and in fact gave birth to sons which could be considered an advantage by prospective in-laws.

Another thing that was cut were two important male characters from the last third of the book - Will Benteen who took care of Tara and eventually married Suellen. And Archie, the former convict who drove Scarlett and the ladies of Atlanta around town on their errands. It's interesting that the one line from each man that just couldn't be cut were both given to Mammy. (Will to Scarlett about Ashley: "He's her husband, ain't he?" and Archie to the women at Melanie's: "Hush up, someone's coming.") In the movie, it was easy to gloss over the fact that there were just a couple of women and former slaves at Tara after Scarlett left, but you just couldn't in the book. Also in the movie it was easy enough to skip the part where at first she had a semi-respectable driver before she started driving herself to the mill alone. In the book, the scandalousness of the situation would have been just too much. Otherwise, it's amazing how accurate the movie was.

I was also surprised upon rereading to discover the first day - when she's flirting with the Tartleton twins, then talking to her father, takes 65 pages. By the end of the ball the following day, we're on p. 111. I know this is a long book (862 pages) but I was wondering how we were going to get through 12 years at that pace! It's interesting how Ms. Mitchell was able to speed up and slow down the pacing of the book, without making the action seem at all jumpy or disjointed. A lot of people also don't realize over what a long time the book takes place. We know Scarlett is 16 at the beginning and toward the end Rhett asks her how old she is, and she's 28.

I never understood her fascination with Ashley and will admit there were times I wanted to shake/slap her out of that. In fact, personally I don't understand how anyone but a quiet, contemplative, bookish woman like Melanie could ever like Ashley, but my mother always had a crush on him, so I guess he isn't just the wussy, effete crybaby I think of him as. (By the way, according to the book he has a large, distinguished, sweeping moustache which was the only description difference of anyone that I noticed from book to movie.)

Ms. Mitchell is a masterful writer. Her characters are true, three-dimensional, honest, and real. She's obviously done her research on the Civil War (although it was only 80 years gone when she wrote this - about the same distance as now and WWII - so it wouldn't have been as much research as we probably imagine as there would have been people still around who remembered that time.) And I found it interesting that she didn't actually feel the need to give us a lot of details about the war. Many writers would have (in fact, I think I learned more about the Civil War from reading the North and South trilogy by John Jakes than I ever did in school.) But Scarlett isn't interested, that doesn't change as the years go on, and Ms. Mitchell remains true to her point of view. She's great at building to an amazing climax that takes place over 200 pages - that's a shocking amount of space to maintain tension and anticipation over. And like a true soap opera, a massive amount of tragedy soaks the last of the book, to our exquisite torture.

Do I believe she'll get Rhett back? I do. I don't think someone who has loved her as long as he has (and mostly without being able to do anything about it) can stay away forever. He had tried to forget about her for years, and hadn't been able to do so. But, DO NOT read the horrible sequel Scarlett by Alexandra Ripley. I read the first half twice but both times just had to throw the book across the room when Scarlett decided she didn't need to wear corsets anymore! Puh-Lease! Scarlett will be the most vain person until the day she dies, and throwing off her corset for comfort would likely kill her from the shock. I've heard Rhett Butler's People by Donald McCaig is much, much better but I just can't risk it after the horror that was Scarlett.

Gone With the Wind is, and will always be one of my very favorite books. It is the best distraction in the world. I was going through a bit of a rough patch when I picked it up, and I was having trouble sleeping because I couldn't turn off my brain when I went to bed. Well Scarlett took care of that! A dose of Miss O'Hara was all it took to completely distract me. I slept like a log after picking it up. I have foisted this book upon plenty of Yankees who ended up loving it, so don't use that as an excuse. And it's a perfect book to read right now. I wrote one of my English AP essays on this book, and how one reason it was so popular when it came out in the 1930s was because it so perfectly mirrored what was going on at the time - A lighthearted, easy era, then a war, and a depression. By reading Gone With the Wind, people during The Depression could see a light at the end of the tunnel. We Americans had been through bad times before - in fact bad times very, very similar to the current bad times - and gotten through it just fine. And gee, a lighthearted, easy era followed by war and an economic depression - does that sound familiar to anyone today? Hmmm.

Everyone should read this book. I think it's one of the essential American literary classics. It perfectly captures an era (or two, as it more subtly also captures the era in which is was written) in our history, it gives us an indelible heroine who epitomizes many truly American traits - stubbornness, covetousness, resilience - and shows the American spirit won't be knocked down. Scarlett's absolutely a symbol of America, and I don't doubt for a minute that she'll never admit defeat in her quest for life, love, and the pursuit of happiness until the day she dies.


Whitney said...

Gone with the Wind is a favorite book of mine too, it's such a powerful escapism. Lovely review!

Teresa said...

I think that I'm going to make it a point to work my way through this one in 2011.

Caroline Starr Rose said...

I've got the second cover you've included here. The inside is covered with stickers that came in Spanish chip packs in the summer of 1986, when I first read this. I'd spend lazy hours in bed reading and reading. Took it again to Spain a few years later (it felt like the right book to revisit with my revisit).

Maybe I'll need to read again soon.

Carolyn Abiad said...

I escaped to Tara when I was thirteen. Thirteen! What was my mother thinking? But I guess it really is PG-13, isn't it? Love the new cover!

Rebecca Chapman said...

What a fabulous long review!

I loved this book, one of my favourites. I boought a really old copy with a faded cover and the spine is peeling off and the pages are falling out, but somehow it felt appropriate for a book like this.

I am not Scarlet's biggest fan, but the great thing is, liking her isn't the point. She isn't there to be liked or enjoyed, she is there to reflect the people and struggles of that time.

I loved it.

Sadly, I have never seen the movie, but I will one day!

Lesa said...

Fabulous review! GWTW is one of my beloved books-- my copy doesn't even have a cover anymore!

I do like and admire Scarlett for all the reasons you stated-- I understand her very well. I never consider her a bitch even in the beginning-- she is just a teenager-- and teenagers are very like self-centered toddlers. Thank goodness, most of us improve with age!! hahaah

I did finish Scarlett and I can testify that Rhett Butler's People is vastly superior. Worth reading for a GWTW fan to learn more about Rhett-- it begins in his childhood-- and it completely disregards anything that happened in the book Scarlett.

It is one of my favorite reads this year. Here is a link to my post about it from last winter:

John Rae said...


I am reading GTWD as of the moment. I am in page 603 and there are 1,010 pages of the book I am reading. I can't wait to know how it all ends before I watch the GWTW movie that my sister is giving to me as a present this Christmas! Yeay!

PS Damn them Yankees!

Juanita's Journal said...

The first half of the novel, which covered the war years was very interesting to me. But I was not that impressed by the second half. I think this novel should have received a bit more editing. And Mitchell's portrayal of slavery and race struck me was wince inducing.