Rereading. This is an amazing novel, old-fashioned but amazing. Written in 1936, it creates Georgia at the eve of the Civil War, both the estate of Tara and the city of Atlanta. The reader then lives through the war and the post-war Reconstruction as it is experienced by the heroine Scarlett O’Hara. And it creates a lively roster of characters, both Scarlett’s family and the cousins and friends she encounters at both Tara and in Atlanta.
It also creates Scarlett herself, with all her contradictions, with her vanity, her bravado, her stubbornness, her naivete, her self-assurance, her passion for men, and her love for one particular, unattainable man, Ashley Wilkes. What is striking is that the reader understands this woman, with all her shallowness, with all her false bravado, even as she herself would deny those very qualities. Scarlett’s character comes across most obviously when she continually says, “I’ll think of that tomorrow.”
But despite being amazing, this novel is old-fashioned, too. It is carefully structured, shifting back and forth from the drama of Scarlett’s life to a history of both the war and the post-war period. It also reveals too openly the inner thoughts of Scarlet in the form of unspoken dialogue. And it underlines the contradictions in Scarlett more than is necessary. Moreover, the antipathy that grows in Scarlett for Rhett is underscored, even as the reader suspects there is something growing between them.
These are the traits of a novice writer who has not learned the technique needed to make the reader unaware of the book’s author. As a result, she tries too hard to make her intentions clear.
And yet the novel reveals an author of high intelligence, an author who understands how people act and think, whether young or old, male or female, slave or free, rich or poor. An author who understands how details create reality on the page. And an author who is able to turn her considerable research about the Civil War and its times into a vivid world that provide a real backdrop for her characters.
What is also impressive is that the reader relates to a Scarlett who thinks only of herself, who will cut any moral corners in order to achieve what she wants, what she feels she deserves. The reader is fascinated by this woman whom he or she would never want to deal with personally. And the reader is not alienated by those private thoughts that betray her shallowness and her contradictions, a primitive technique that Mitchell uses to reveal the distortions in her thinking.
But whereas Sarlett’s character is carefully presented by the author, Rhett Butler jumps off the page. Perhaps this is because I immediately recalled Clark Gable when he appeared. Given Gable’s vitality, that was a perfect casting.
Rhett is particularly effective whenever he speaks. He is continually challenging Scarlett, continually expressing thoughts that go against the grain. He also admits he is a rogue, whether with women or whether in his illicit pursuit of money, first with blockade running and then with collaborating with the Yankees during Reconstruction.
Indeed, one marvels at the skill of this novelist who, in creating her two romantic characters, has cut across the grain, We sympathize with them; we want them to get together. And yet they are, to a large degree, not admirable characters. They seek the comforts of life, meaning they seek money, and they are beholden to no laws or ethical standards to achieve it. One wonders how much this prompted the novel’s popularity in the 1930s, when readers in that era of privation could identify with these characters who were also the victims of a callous history.
As I delve deeper into this novel, it is not only the research that is so impressive, it is how well Mitchell captures the temperament of the Southern character: what a woman should or should not do, the sense of class within the whites and who is worthy of whom, the relationships between the whites and the Negroes, and the relationships within the Negroes, such as between the house Negroes and the field hands.
Mitchell is particularly effective in how she portrays Scarlett’s lack of understanding of both Ashley and Melanie. That the one she loves does not want her, and the one she does not love so wants to love her.
Mitchell is also here a student of history. This is particularly evident in the second half of the novel, after the war. She captures the intricate atmosphere of the Reconstruction. There are the Scallawags and the loyal Southerners, the Northern occupiers, the free Negroes and the faithful servants, the occupying Northern army, and the wives of all these men—plus the relationships among these various and conflicting elements of society. Even the creation of the Ku Klux Klan is understandable, as loyal Southerners join it in rebellion against the Carpetbaggers and the freed Negroes who assault and swindle them.
There is also a commercial aspect to this novel, perhaps driven by Mitchell’s study of novel writing. And it is that every few chapters there is a significant story development. It is often the result of the return of Rhett, but it may also be the arrival of soldiers, Yankees or defeated Southern soldiers, a new pregnancy, a death, etc. Or a spectacular scene, such as Scarlett’s escape from burning Atlanta. In each case, this new event picks up reader interest, and carries him or her for another 50 pages.
Mitchell is interested, above all, in story. In what will become of Scarlett—in the midst of war, of siege, of poverty, as well as in her relationships with her parents, with Melanie, with the various men she pretends to love, and above all with Rhett, whom she despises on one level and is drawn to on another. Complicating this is her understanding of herself. As she learns to deal with many people around her, she does not understand her own emotions (Melanie) or her own heart (Rhett).
After much movement among the characters toward the end, I was curious about how Mitchell would end her story. Overall, I was satisfied more than dissatisfied. Indeed, the final scene with Melanie is rather moving as Scarlett comes to understand their true relationship. And while the final scenes with Ashley and Rhett lack emotion, they do
effectively conclude her relationships. That is, Scarlett is consistent. She understands her past dealings with both men, and is sorry how both have concluded, but she still blames the men, especially Ashley, for that result.
Thus, Mitchell communicates the true reason for the outcome of those relationships, but shows us that Scarlett still does not understand her own contribution to how they ended. And, perhaps to reinforce this, she has Scarlett again saying she will not think about her future with these men, not until tomorrow. So Scarlett’s character remains consistent, for which Mitchell should be complimented. And our heroine receives her just desserts for how she has handled her relationships with these two men throughout the novel. Note: I see irony at work her more than a desire to punish her for her misdeeds, such as a commercial work might require.
So what is my overall evaluation of this work? I believe Mitchell has written a work of literature. Because its characters are alive on the page, because the texture of the South is brilliantly captured, and because this work addresses the moral issue of how one is to survive when one’s civilization is destroyed, even if it is one’s own doing. But many critics have been turned off by the emphasis on story. Which is why, of course, this work was so popular from the beginning. But for many critics, story belongs to another category, that of commercial fiction. And this work is for them easy prey, because Mitchell’s lack of technical skills leads her to betraying her literary intentions in too obvious a way.
The richness of this novel is reflected in all that I have written here. It was apparently a richness that Mitchell herself could never duplicate. Or perhaps did not want to. It surely required a large chunk of her life to research, think about, and write this novel. She obviously identifies here with the viewpoint of the South, understanding the views of both owners and slaves, as well as the South’s pride in its independence, its culture, and its accomplishments. Nothing else she wrote could further this identification with the South. So, perhaps, she had nothing else to say.
I might even speculate why subsequent continuations of Scarlett’s story by other writers have not worked. The readers of the 1930s no longer exist. Today’s economy is no longer in similar dire straits. And the South is much more a part of the nation today. Moreover, commissioned writers seem not to be able to understand Scarlett and her contradictions as Mitchell did, which is undoubtedly difficult after today’s changes in the role of women in our society. (November, 2013)