Friday, December 5, 2014

Door Stop: Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

I blame Half Price Books and their low prices for this one. I have never even seen the movie, so what would compel me to pick up Margaret Mitchell's Civil War epic, Gone With the Wind, is beyond even me, and I am the one that did it! First off all, this book is long. Like Atlas Shrugged long. Second, the characters are all pretty hard to tolerate, even the "good" ones. Even so, I paid the insanely low price of $1.99 for it (I had a coupon), and went for it. 

The Situation: Scarlett O'Hara is the prize of the south. Everyone knows it. All of the young men know it, the neighbors know it, her parents know it, her sisters (begrudgingly) know it, and Scarlett knows it better than anyone. She can have any man she wants wrapped around her little finger, even if they are supposed to belong to someone else. In fact, she can hardly tolerate anyone being #1 is someone's heart if is not her. So imagine Scarlett's shock when she finds out that the man she actually loves and cares for, beyond than just seeing him trip over himself to be with her, as become engaged to someone else. Now Scarlett's world has been turned upside down, and the new appearance of Rhett Butler is not helping as he seems to have figured her out when he first laid eyes on her, and won't let her forget it. Add to this all of the gentlemen's talk of an impending war with the north, and Scarlett's simple life on a southern plantation has now become full of irritation and annoyance.

The Problem: When the war becomes a reality and men young and old begin signing up for the cause of the south, Scarlett's world goes from annoying to downright inconvenient. Not only has it taken her beloved Ashley away, a man she is convinced still loves her despite his being engaged to someone else, but soon it removes all of the small favors and benefits she has always known as a rich southern girl. And that is only the beginning. Throughout the novel, the selfish but stubborn Scarlett will have to endure war, rationing, life as a widow, loss, jealousy, hunger, greed, hard work, the Yankees, and almost worst of all, a man who won't bend to her will no matter how much she tries. As Scarlett attempts to navigate life in a south that no longer remembers the south she grew up in, readers are shown the effects of the Civil War on a small part of the United States that was nearly burned to ashes, and had to build itself back up into what it is today.

Genre, Themes, History: This is considered a historical romance novel, as Mitchell wrote about Georgia during the Civil War while writing in the 1930s. Also, many ultimately consider the novel to be a love story between Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler, even though they spend most of the novel hating each other, or at least putting up the pretense that they do. The timeline of the novel is about 12 years, starting just before the Civil War began, and ending after Atlanta and the rest of Georgia was beginning to get back on its feet. In those 12 years, Scarlett goes from rich, to literally dirt poor, and back to rich again. In most stories, hard-hearted people who have everything taken away from them usually change in some way and gain some perspective on how they have lived their lives. The only thing that changes about Scarlett is that she becomes even more hard-headed and determined to have what she wants, not caring at all for what it does to those she loves, or what people think about her as she goes about doing it. It is often said of her, by various characters throughout the book, that she can stand anything, and she does. She may be selfish and insufferable, but her story is one of survival. But of course, there is also love, loss, and the long-standing effects of war. And while Gone With the Wind is one of the most beloved stories of all time, many take issue not only with its use of the "n" word, but with its general view of southern life at this time in history. Everything is so romanticized, and other historical points are just plain wrong. However, it is supposed to be fiction after all, so perhaps holding the events in the book up against the actual events of history may not be fair.

My Verdict: This book is an ordeal. A good ordeal, but still an ordeal. For one, Scarlett is one of the most selfish, stubborn, and just contemptible characters in all of literature. And the love story between her and Rhett often reminded me of Heathcliff and Catherine in Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, another troubled couple in literature. Second, if Scarlett wasn't hard enough to deal with, the rest of the characters aren't a picnic to deal with either. Even the sweet and ever gracious Melanie can ride on a reader's nerves as she can endlessly find the good in anyone, but holds firm in her hatred of the Yankees while holding fast to her belief that the slaves should not be freed. Mitchell's characters all long for the south before the Civil War, even many of the slaves, and that is always difficult to reconcile. Overall, it is a great story, and I'll admit that it is fun watching Scarlett be disappointed and hurt time and time again throughout the novel. Any time it seems like she may redeem herself or do something not out of selfish regard, she grabs onto something else she wants and shows her true colors again. Honestly, her constant hardship and hurt feelings may be what kept me reading for 1000 pages.

Favorite Moment: Any time (and there are a lot of them) that Melanie shows absolute grace and kindness to Scarlett, even though she deserves it least out of everybody. The moments were even better when Scarlett resented that kindness, mostly because it only increased her own guilt.

Favorite Character: Try as I might, I can't pick one. Not even Melanie. I don't know if it was Mitchell's intention or not, but this book is just full of terrible people. 

Recommended Reading: I've already mentioned it, but I do think Wuthering Heights would be a great follow-up to this book. It's shorter, and it is written in a different place and in a different context. Even so, the relationship is just as caustic between Heathcliff and Catherine as it is between Rhett and Scarlett, maybe even more so.

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