Yep, I’m starting my Tough to Tackle Reads segment with a bang! In May I decided it was finally time to tackle this behemoth, and my first, visceral response is: I LOVE THIS BOOK. Like, 10 out of 5 stars love this book.
Before I get into the whys and try to convince you that you too will love Gone with the Wind, here’s some background information in case you aren’t familiar with this American classic.
Gone with the Wind was published 80 years ago on June 30th, 1936, so it has had a heavy influence on pop culture. You may not realize it, but you likely know most of the major lines from this book, more likely than not due to the popularity of the film.
Many novels have been written about the Civil War and its aftermath. None take us into the burning fields and cities of the American South as Gone with the Wind does, creating haunting scenes and thrilling portraits of characters so vivid that we remember their words and feel their fear and hunger for the rest of our lives.
Widely considered The Great American Novel, Gone with the Wind explores the depth of human passions with an intensity as bold as its setting in the red hills of Georgia. This is the tale of Scarlett O’Hara, the spoiled, manipulative daughter of a wealthy plantation owner, who arrives at young womanhood just in time to see the Civil War forever change her way of life, and the flashy, contemptuous Rhett Butler, an enigma from his entrance.
A sweeping story of tangled passion and courage, in the pages of Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell not only conveys a timeless story of survival under the harshest of circumstances, she brings to life the unforgettable characters that have captured readers for eighty years.*
Margaret Mitchell was born in Atlanta, Georgia, in November 1900. After a broken ankle immobilized her in 1926, Mitchell started writing a novel that would become Gone with the Wind. Published in 1936, Gone with the Wind made Mitchell an instant celebrity and earned her the Pulitzer Prize. The film version, also lauded far and wide, came out just three years later. More than 30 million copies of Mitchell’s Civil War masterpiece have been sold worldwide, and it has been translated into 27 languages. Mitchell was struck by a car and died in 1949, leaving behind Gone with the Wind as her only novel.**
Gone with the Wind is a doozy, it averages roughly 1000 pages if you’ve got a paperback copy. It’s long, really long. I purchased an eBook not only because I didn’t have time to find a hard copy version I wanted, but because my eReader stays at a static weight (remember that if you plan to tackle classics!).
Do not let the page count scare you away! The book is lengthy but it doesn’t read that way.
My Difficulty Rating
I gave a half point for the length, other than that, this is not a difficult or alienating book to read as far as classics and prize winners go. Nor is it so simple that you’ll be bored by the language and structure.
Why You Should Read Gone with the Wind
Because Scarlett and Rhett are lauded as the American counterpart to Romeo and Juliet, I must start with the romance aspect of the book. The romance Mitchell depicts is far from a boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, boy marries girl story. And not just because unlike R&J, the story is told from the girl’s point of view. Rhett and Scarlett’s love story is as tumultuous as the war that goes on around them as they circle each other like fighters. Theirs is not a feel good romance, or juvenile, it’s as fascinating and tragic as they are themselves.
Unlikeable female characters are undervalued in today’s literature. And if ever there was an unlikeable female protagonist, Scarlett O’Hara easily vies for the title of Most Unlikeable Protagonist Ever.
She’s cruel, self-centred, and snotty; but what makes that balance out so well and compels you not only to read but to develop a grudging respect for her? Scarlett is also stubborn, cunning, and smart, she’s a realist, a survivor, she’s brave, she has a cutting tongue, and her sense of longing makes her very easy to identify with (if nothing else helps).
Strong female friendships are underdeveloped in a lot of popular media. It’s gotten to the point that we need a test for media to see if women even talk to each other about more things than men! Cough, the Bechdel test, cough. The relationship between Melanie and Scarlett is rich, complex, and somewhat baffling. Thrust together in a most bizarre fashion, the glue that holds them together only strengthens with time.
One of the best parts about this friendship is Scarlett’s complete obliviousness about how she feels about Mellie, despite what she feels for Mellie’s husband.
The excellent cast of female characters is one you’ll want to return to again and again. Gone with the Wind might have been published in 1936 and set during the American Civil War, but the women rule, and it’s obvious, despite the characters ironic attempts to place men in charge (Mitchell’s play on patriarchal dogma provides some of the best irony and humour the book has to offer). Not only do they rule, they’re varied and distinct. There’s no way you’ll mix any of them up.
This leads me to the very interesting gender study Mitchell creates. As I just said, for a book published in the 1930s and set in the 1860s, Gone with the Wind seems extraordinarily revolutionary where its feminist leanings are concerned. It’s really not –and I’ll tell you why it’s not before you bite my head off. When you factor in the timing of the suffragist movement, the Jazz Age, World War I, and the fact that the book hasn’t been influenced one iota by the 1950s revolting view on the American family, it all makes sense.
Now if you’re not a history nerd such as myself, I’ll give you a simplified lowdown here. From the time (white) women began fighting for and earning the right to vote for themselves, which meant proving they were just as important as men; through the Jazz Age where women started shucking off the narrow and restrictive Victorian views of womanhood; all the way to WWI (1914-1919), where women all over the world stepped into the roles traditionally assigned to men because the men had all gone off to war; something was brewing.
Basically, women everywhere were proving not only that they could do more, but that they wanted to do more. It turns out all those eccentric ladies across history who stood out because they refused to lay back and let the men in their lives think they were dumb fools that needed to be led with a gentle hand through life were actually far more representative of the woman population than the image society had approved for them.
In the 1950s, after WWII and more women taking on greater roles, patriarchal society wanted the traditional roles back. Men wanted to dominate the workforce again and have their wives back at home with the children. And oh yes am I generalizing here. Though Victorian views still permeate our world, the 1960s woman’s movement pushed back hard on this front. We should all be very grateful.
Our current view of male and female gender roles is heavily influenced by the 1950s dogma. If you read pieces from the early 1800s to the present, you can see the shifts –backward and forwards– in beliefs about gender roles. Decade by decade, country by country, it’s fascinating to watch because it’s constantly changing. The word “traditional” is enough to make you chortle when you see it.
Anyway, back to the book!
One of my favourite aspects of Gone with the Wind is how Mitchell has Scarlett go on about what the ideal woman should be, then has Scarlett do the exact opposite. It drives Scarlett mad that she isn’t her own ideal, but she just can’t fight herself.
Scarlett’s obsession with her looks and fashion in no way undermines the fact that she’s a better businessperson and mathematician than anyone else in Atlanta. Mitchell actually does this with many of the women: they go on at length describing perfect masculine traits when in reality they’re describing themselves.
Gone with the Wind provides a fascinating picture of history. For the non-Americans reading this, the Civil War holds an important place in the minds of all Americans. What Americans are taught about the Civil War, from a very early age, would likely have the rest of us scratching our heads. Americans know American history really well; it’s admirable.
Obviously, I’m Canadian. And though I did take a course on American history focusing on the Civil War and Reconstruction Era, my knowledge base on that time does not even compare to an American second grader’s knowledge. So, when the opportunity arises to learn more about such a defining moment in American history –heck, just history– I’m game.
I’ve stated repeatedly on Anxiety Ink that I’m a history nerd, I even mentioned it above, and while I like military history, I’m not so keen when a lot of battle description occurs. I’ve always been much more interested in the human factor, such as how people survived (the “good”, the “bad”, the civilians caught in the crossfire), before, during, and after the battles are over. Some battle info is fine, I’m not really affected by gore, but pages and pages on defensive tactics and movements and strikes puts me right to sleep.
Gone with the Wind is a picture of civilian life affected by the ravages of war. What makes it so much more compelling on that front is that it’s a picture of the losing side, and it shows the lead up to the war, wartime, and what happens to the non-winner once the battles are over.
Lastly, the language is magnificent. Mitchell paints such an incredible image of Georgia that there is a part of me that longs to see it for myself. Her prose are just beautiful, there’s no other way to say it.
What I Had Trouble With
The blatant racism and slavery is unpalatable at times. Yes, this is very much a book set in plantation era Georgia –the Deep, Deep South. While the southerners’ views on race are highly nuanced shades of grey, they are racist. And some of the things they do and say are hard to swallow.
While I gasped a few times at the nonchalant attitudes of some characters, and their views on slavery, I feel like I’ve walked away from this book with a deeper understanding of North and South American race relations and how they’ve developed on either side of the Mason-Dixon Line into 2016.
Overall, Gone with the Wind is an intricate and enthralling read. There wasn’t one thing I found boring about this book –and there are usually some parts of classics where I feel like the story can get itself moving any time, if you know what I mean. The unfolding of the life of Scarlett O’Hara provided me hours of entertainment and I think it will for you too.
*I pulled synopsis information from a few sources and spliced them with my own thoughts since they were all somewhat dissatisfying. I pulled most of my information from Chapters-Indigo’s 75th anniversary edition and Goodreads 1999 Grand Central Publishing edition.
**This is the source of Mitchell’s biography. I urge you to read Mitchell’s full bio as she was an interesting woman!
***Finally, please note that this post contains affiliate links. If you click on the link and purchase Gone with the Wind from Amazon I will get a small commission.