Somehow I managed to live twenty-six years without ever reading Margaret Mitchell’s opus, Gone with the Wind. I’m as surprised as anyone. I’m a reader, a lover of classics and of all things to do with the American south. My favorite book is Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, a whole chapter of which is devoted to Gone with the Wind. There are plenty of reasons why I hadn’t picked it up yet, but that doesn’t matter. I firmly believe that books, like people, come into your life at a certain moment for a reason.
Before we start, let me address the elephant in the room: this book is p r o b l e m a t i c with a capital P. I recognize fully that the only reason I was able to enjoy this book in any capacity is due to my privilege. Gone with the Wind is entirely from a white person’s perspective and handles topics like slavery and racism with next to no sensitivity. I can read this with a sense of curious detachment and view it as a relic of its era, but I recognize that there are many who can’t, whose lives and history are disrespected and erased by the very existence of this book. For that reason, I understand why people avoid and disapprove of it. I understand why you wouldn’t want this as required reading in schools, and in fact, I agree, as it’s much more important to understand history from the perspective of the oppressed than it is to hear it from the oppressor. However, as a work of fiction and a cultural study, I do believe there is merit to Gone with the Wind, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it from beginning to end.
Margaret Mitchell managed the rarest of feats: she made us root for an utterly unlikeable character — a female character at that. Throughout Gone with the Wind Scarlett struggles with the fact that she lacks many of the traits most desired in women of her time: humility, docility, and gentleness of spirit. Though we pride ourselves today on embracing “strong female leads”, even the most independent of female heroines are usually still kind at heart, reaching toward the greater good, kind to children and animals, and ultimately feminine. Scarlett is cutthroat, grasping, and selfish, and worst of all, unapologetic, but you still find yourself wanting her to succeed.
Gone with the Wind has a few themes worth writing about, but the one that spoke to me most right now is survival. Scarlett is flawed and frustrating but she is a survivor above all. Through Scarlett, we see that survival depends on choices and where one draws moral lines in the sand. Time and time again Scarlett is forced to cross lines she had previously drawn in order to keep moving forward but she does it with such a steely determination that the reader can’t help but hope it will all be worth it.
The war changes everything for Scarlett; the life she plans to live, the person she plans to be. But while people like Ashley Wilkes mill about in confusion, she snaps into action and manages her corner of the world the best she can without regard to the big picture. As Rhett points out multiple times, she is clever with facts and figures but she doesn’t understand people. Broad, abstract ideas like honor and tradition are lost on her. This is both her strength and weakness — it leaves her lonely in the end, but it also prevents her from getting stuck in a web of “supposed to” and “should.”
A respected family matriarch says this to Scarlett after her father passes away:
Well, this is the reason. We bow to the inevitable. We’re not wheat, we’re buckwheat! When a storm comes alone it flattens ripe wheat because it’s dry and can’t bend with the wheat. But ripe buckwheat’s got sap in it and it bends. And when the wind has passed, it springs up almost as straight and strong as before. We aren’t a stiff-necked tribe. We’re mighty limber when a hard wind’s blowing because we know it pays to be limber. When trouble comes we bow to the inevitable without any mouthing, and we work and we smile and we bide our time. And we play along with lesser folks and we take what we can get from them. And when we’re strong enough, we kick the folks whose necks we’ve climbed over. That, my child, is the secret of survival.
It isn’t romantic or even very admirable, but it is true. Scarlett pulls herself and the people she cares for through the worst of times because she refuses to waste energy battling the prevailing winds.
This brings me to my initial statement: I believe books come into your life at a certain moment for a reason. A pivotal moment in the story involves Scarlett fleeing Atlanta with Melanie and her newborn in tow while the city burns behind her.
“She fled up the stairs to her own room and hung out the window for a better view. The sky was a hideous lurid color and great swirls of black smoke went twisting up to hand in billowy clouds above the flames. The smell of smoke was stronger now.
This section of the book began to feel too familiar. The suffocating fear as they scrambled to grab a few belongings and destruction crept closer. The smell and sight of the fire as people fled the city. I lived it, just under two months ago.
I’ve been coming to terms with the fact that my recent trauma was a turning point in my life. Up until then, I had always taken for granted a certain degree of safety, of almost invincibility. The fire yanked that out from under me and left me scared and shaking. It opened up a terrible door of knowledge that if this could happen to me, then anything could happen to me and nothing was stopping it from happening. In this passage, I saw Scarlett go through the very same thing:
There had always been someone to do things for her, to look after her, shelter and protect her and spoil her. It was incredible that she could be in such a fix. Not a friend, not a neighbor to help her. There had always been friends, neighbors, the competent hands of willing slaves. And now in this hour of greatest need, there was no one. It was incredible that she could be so completely alone and frightened and far from home.
Both Scarlett and I had the very bedrock of our lives cracked. We lived charmed lives that made us feel nothing bad would ever happen to us, and when it did happen we weren’t the least bit prepared. But Scarlett rose to the occasion and I will too. Like Scarlett, I need to be willing to let go of “should have” and “supposed to” and bend with the wind.
However, Scarlett isn’t the only strong character. Margaret Mitchell is sure to remind us that Scarlett’s strength is only one example of what female fortitude can look like, and the other is Melanie Hamilton-Wilkes. Though Melanie may seem outwardly weak and though she is more traditional and well-perceived than Scarlett, she shows great strength in defense of those that she loves and shows that she is not afraid to buck tradition to do it.
But who would have thought of small plain Melanie as a tower of strength? Melanie who was shy to tears before strangers, timid about raising her voice in an opinion of her own, fearful of the disapproval of old ladies, Melanie who lacked the courage to say Boo to a goose? And yet… Melanie had been there that day with a sword in her small hand, ready to do battle for [Scarlett]. And now, as Scarlett looked sadly back, she realized that Melanie had always been there beside her with a sword in her hand, unobtrusive as her own shadow, loving her, fighting for her with blind passionate loyalty, fighting Yankees, fire, hunger, poverty, public opinion and even her beloved blood kin.
It is Scarlett and Melanie’s combined strength that truly rounds out the story. Melanie manages to bring out the gentleness in Scarlett while Scarlett brings out the strength in Melanie and for that reason it is these two that are the true heart of Gone with the Wind, rendering Rhett and Ashley mere distractions.
If I can be a little bit of Scarlett and a little bit of Melanie, I will survive this. Women can be both storm and shelter, and sometimes it takes both to succeed. In recognizing this, Margaret Mitchell empowers her characters and subverts expectations, and does so with style and flair worthy of one Katie Scarlett O’Hara. Though far from perfect and worth analyzing and criticizing, Gone with the Wind is a classic for a reason.