There’s an episode of The Simpsons where Apu, the Indian owner of the Kwik-E-Mart, takes the American citizenship test. Apu, who throughout the episode has demonstrated a much stronger grasp of American history than any of the American-born characters, is at the oral exam stage of the test. His examiner, a bored white guy, is asking the questions, and the following exchange occurs:
“BORED WHITE GUY: Okay, last question – what was the cause of the Civil War?
APU: Actually, there were numerous causes. Aside from the obvious schism between abolitionists and anti-abolitionists, economic factors both domestic and international contributed –
BORED WHITE GUY: Just say slavery, okay?
APU: Slavery it is, sir!”
That series of quotes, I think, perfectly reflects my experience leading up to reading Gone With the Wind. Like most children who attended a public school above the Mason-Dixon line, my first exposure to the Civil War was basically, “The South wanted to keep slaves, and the North knew that was wrong, so we went to war to free the slaves. And then we won, and everything was happy.” At the other end of the spectrum is Margaret Mitchell, who grew up listening to Confederate veterans tell stories about the war, but she didn’t learn that the South had actually lost until she was ten years old. So obviously, her epic story about the Civil War was going to paint a very different picture than the one I had grown up thinking was correct.
Going into the book, I was steeling myself for lots of good old fashioned racism, and was surprised at what I found. Yes, the characters are racist. But they’re all racist – black and white – and what interested me most was that class, rather than race, seemed to matter most. Scarlett and the other white characters hate lower-class whites a hell of a lot more than they hate blacks, and the blacks themselves draw very distinct class lines. Pork, the O’Hara’s butler, looks down not only on poor whites but also on black characters of a lower social standing than himself. During the war, when only a few loyal slaves have remained at Tara, Scarlett has to farm the land herself and wants Pork to help plow. He refuses, stating angrily that plowing is field hand’s work and he has never been a field hand. It is important to note that at this point they are starving, and farming is their only chance at food.
There’s a lot of starving going on in this book, and a lot of fear and unhappiness. When I started the book, I got a little frustrated with how it seemed to be dragging – it takes over 100 pages for the O’Hara’s to arrive at the Twelve Oaks barbecue – but as I kept reading, and the novel plunged deeper and deeper into war-torn despair, I realized why Mitchell had spent so much time introducing these characters and their happy, easy pre-war lives: once the war starts, there is not a single truly happy moment for the rest of the book. Once all the men ride away from the barbecue to volunteer to fight, all that comes next is 800 pages of starvation and fear and death and sadness. We need those detailed descriptions of the plantations, the clothes, the food, the luxury, so we can understand how much Scarlett and her friends have lost. Near the middle of the book, when Scarlett is going barefoot and stealing food to keep from starving, we understand her longing when she thinks back to her life before the war, because we remember reading this description of the Twelve Oaks barbecue:
“The long trestled picnic table, covered with the finest of the Wilkes’ linen, always stood under the thickest shade, with the backless benches on either side; and chairs, hassocks and cushions from the house were scattered about the glade for those who did not fancy the benches. At a distance great enough to keep the smoke away from the guests were the long pits where the meat cooked and the huge iron wash-pots from which the succulent odors of barbecue sauce and Brunswick stew floated.”
We get only this brief, wonderful glimpse of the luxurious life these people were living, and then the war starts and everything goes straight to hell, like an 1800’s version of the The Road:
“The gray troops passed by empty mansions, deserted farms, lonely cabins with doors ajar. Here and there some lone woman remained with a few frightened slaves, and they came to the road to cheer the soldiers, to bring buckets of water for the thirsty men, to bind up the wounds and bury their dead in their own family burying ground. But for the most part the sunny valley was abandoned and desolate and the untended crops stood in parching fields.”
The war destroyed not only a region, but an entire way of life for thousands of people, and you can see Margaret Mitchell’s mourning for this lost era in every page.
“They looked the same but different. What was it? Was it only that they were five years older? No, it was something more than the passing of time. Something had gone out of them, out of their world. Five years ago, a feeling of security had wrapped them all around so gently they were not even aware of it. In its shelter they had flowered. Now it was gone and with it had gone the old thrill, the old sense of something delightful and exciting just around the corner, the old glamour of their way of living.
…An ageless dignity, a timeless gallantry still clung about them and would cling until they died but they would carry undying bitterness to their graves, a bitterness too deep for words. They were a soft-spoken, fierce, tired people who were defeated and would not know defeat, broken yet still standing determinedly erect.”
This review is getting long-winded, and I’ve only started to explain everything about this book that makes it 5 stars. Aside from the history, the tone, the description, the general epic-ness of this epic, there are also the characters. And good lord. I could write another review entirely devoted to all the characters and why they are awesome despite being the last people you’d want to be in stuck in a room with, but I’ll shorten it to a few characters.
Scarlett: Her transformation alone, from innocent flirt to flinty miser, is amazing in itself, but she’s a powerful character no matter what stage she happens to be in. That being said, I hate hate hated her – I hated her shallowness, I hated her “unanalytical” mind, I hated her stupid crush on stupid useless Ashely, and she was so astoundingly unobservant throughout the book that it was all I could do not to scream at the pages. She was a great character, but that doesn’t mean I have to like her.
Ashely: Christ, what a schmuck.
Mammy: The only character in the book I’d actually enjoy sitting down with. She had all the other character’s best qualities, and none of their glaring faults. She had Melanie’s grace, Ashely’s kindness, Scarlett’s strength, and Rhett’s survival instincts. Mammy rocked my world.
Melanie: I kept going back and forth, switching between “she’s the dumbest person ever” to “she’s the best person in this book.” I still can’t really be sure where I stand on Melanie. I would want her on my side, but like Scarlett, I might want to slap her every now and then.
Rhett: Oh, Rhett. I so wanted to like him. And I did, when he was telling off the Confederates or Scarlett, when he was putting people in their place, and when he was being the only sensible character in the goddamn book. But then he would talk to Scarlett, and I would be drowned in wave after wave of smirking condescension. He was rude and selfish and had that attitude of “silly woman, your anger is so amusing” that is an instant dealbreaker for me. I suffer from PTTD (Post-Traumatic Twilight Disorder) so whenever I encounter a male character who exhibits even a little bit of condescension and protective instincts towards the womenfolk, I start twitching and picturing Robert Pattinson’s ugly face simpering “I like to watch you sleep”, and then I have to watch old episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer until the shakes stop. So ultimately, my verdict on Rhett was that he could go fuck himself and wipe that stupid smirk off his face.
Verdict: five out of five stars