Before reading Gone with the Wind I had imagined that it would be a tragic tale of star-crossed romance set against the dramatic backdrop of the Civil War. In all honestly, I wondered how the such a story could possibly go one for over a staggering one thousand pages.
Boy, do I stand corrected.
In writing Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell has accomplished an astounding feat: creating a story that encompasses nearly the entire spectrum of emotions in the human experience, all while critiquing southern society, stereotypical gender roles, and other issues during the Civil War and Reconstruction Era. This tome is so much more than a simple love story– frankly, anyone who says otherwise clearly hasn’t read it!
I was blown away by the comprehensiveness of this novel, the way that Mitchell is able to write with such meticulous attention to detail over fifty years after these historic events took place. This book was published in 1937, but I would have sworn that Mitchell lived through the time period herself. She must have been one amazing researcher!
I’d be amiss if I didn’t spend some time discussing when and where this story takes place. The setting is almost like a character in itself, particularly in the way it develops and changes over time. Gone with the Wind is set in the South (specifically Georgia) and spans from the outbreak of the Civil War to well into the Reconstruction Era. The reader can do nothing but anxiously watch as the peaceful, go-lucky Southern society Scarlett first inhabits transforms into a war-torn, violent, impoverished landscape. However, this setting goes far beyond simple geography; instead, it expands to include the political, economic, and social issues of the time period. What I love about Mitchell’s craftsmanship is her ability to inform and orientate any reader of this setting, regardless of their amount of prior knowledge. She uses the same methods to introduce the Reconstruction Era, making the distinction between these two dark times in American history. The setting has an enormous influence on the characters, not only on the decisions they make but on their personalities as well. Mitchell makes this abundantly clear, emphasizing the destructive role that warfare can play the lives of soldiers and civilians alike.
Though the historic setting is certainly a dynamic force throughout the novel, it cannot compete with the commanding presence of Scarlett O’Hara. Though at first glance she appears to be a rather shallow, impressionable, naive teen, Scarlett soon proves that she is a determined, intelligent, capable woman. She is a fiery, courageous, strong female character, and I admire the way she stands up against the stereotypical gender roles of society. Scarlett refuses to be the submissive wife who solely occupies the domestic sphere; instead, she boldly steps into the masculine world of business. This is not to say that Scarlett is always easy to like– she often frustrated me with her coldness, her ruthlessness, her selfishness– but ultimately I couldn’t help but wish her the best.
Interestingly enough, it seems as though Scarlett has a counterpart in this novel: Melanie. Wife of Ashley and the apparent embodiment of Scarlett’s mother Ellen, Melanie is the opposite of Scarlett in many ways. She is gentle, kind, caring, soft spoken, motherly, and an obedient wife. However, there is also a spark of fire in Melanie, a flame waiting to flourish. When it is ignited, Melanie is as strong and brave as Scarlett, willing to do whatever it takes to protect the people she loves. She is fiercely loyal, unfailingly selfless, and incredibly thoughtful. Scarlett’s hatred of Melanie really bothered me at times because I don’t think Melanie did anything to deserve such disdain. In my opinion, Melanie is one of the most fascinating characters in this story– she’s surprisingly complex, with numerous hidden layers that I never expected.
And then there’s Rhett Butler: the infamous wealthy gentleman who I’m convinced is a literary form of Jack Sparrow. He’s simultaneously loved and loathed, genuine and deceptive, kind and cruel. My opinion of Rhett changed countless times throughout the novel, and I honestly still don’t have a very clear understanding of this man. Here’s the maddening complexity of Rhett: he’s an ambiguous character, always straddling the line between good and evil. One page I would be hoping that he would declare his love for Scarlett, and the next I resolutely refuted my own prior wish. While I loved his sarcasm, wit, intelligence, and realistic view of the war and life and general, Rhett ultimately left a sour taste in my mouth. I was surprised and unsettled by his behavior towards the end, although I don’t want to spoil the conclusion for anyone who has yet to read this classic.
The ending itself filled me with so many mixed emotions it took me several days to form a solid opinion of it. The last fifty pages or so took a shocking turn down a dark, twisting spiral that I never saw coming. To be frank, Margaret Mitchell does not deliver the happy ending I was hoping to receive after reading over a thousand pages of this story. This remark isn’t meant to sound bitter (well, maybe a little); rather, it shows that Mitchell was trying to accomplish something else with this work besides mere entertainment. The ending of Gone with the Wind drives home the idea that life is not a carefully wrapped package tied with a bow. Life was– and still is– difficult, tragic, and filled with obstacles. But even still, life goes on. There will always be a tomorrow and a next day and a day after that. We might not be here to see it, but it will be there all the same. This is one of the many messages I took away from the narrative, and I believe there is no better way to convey it than through this novel’s conclusion.
In general, Gone with the Wind contains several important themes. The five that struck me the most are:
- War: This is arguably the most obvious theme, considering the time and setting of the story. Very few people manage to avoid being swept up by the infectious war fervor plaguing the South. Two of these clear minds are Scarlett and Rhett, who are able to see the beloved “Cause” for what it really is: a method through which to essentially brainwash people into supporting the war effort. Mitchell views the war through several different lenses, including political, economic, and social perspectives.
- Love: Nearly all of the characters struggle with some sort of problem related to love, whether it be involving courtship, marriage, or simply dealing with confusing emotions. Through Scarlett’s many marriages we see that marriage and love are two very distinct things and do not necessarily go hand in hand.
- Loss: Loss is a pervasive, overwhelmingly prevalent theme in this novel, which I wasn’t really expecting when I first started reading it. I think it’s safe to say that every character faces loss and grief at some point throughout the story, largely due to the war and its tumultuous aftermath. Even Rhett, who seems to have easily accepted and adjusted to the harsh realities of the new South, eventually breaks down under a crushing wave of grief. Loss impacts everyone differently, which is apparent in the different responses of the characters.
- Class: Even amidst the chaos of the Civil War and Reconstruction, there is a constant underlying consciousness of one’s class. Mitchell highlights the absurdity of such an obsession with social status and appearances during this time with an almost humorous, mocking tone. Rhett is a symbol of everything that Scarlett wishes to possess– money, glamour, luxury– but at what cost is she willing to attain it? By the end of the story, it’s clear that achieving a coveted spot in the upper class does not necessarily equate to a happy ending.
- Gender: Southern society places significant importance on gender roles. There are different expectations of men and women from the time they begin courting to well into their married years– until their deaths, really. Even old widowed women must abide by certain customs, wearing black mourning clothes for years and exuding a somberness free from any hint of joviality. Scarlett refuses to conform to these societal norms, instead causing quite a ruckus with her masculine behavior. Mitchell’s obvious critiques of stereotypical gender roles leads me to call Gone with the Wind a feminist novel. (I will likely write an entire post about this at some point, so more on that later!)
So, what is the overall message of this long, winding review? While it certainly was not what I was expecting, Gone with the Wind is a brilliant novel written by a masterful writer. Margaret Mitchell managed to captivate me with her story, make me think with her critiques of society, and evoke a multitude of emotions with the powerful voices of her characters. It’s easy to see why this classic has remained popular and relevant over many decades, marking it as a truly timeless story. My only regret is that I did not read it sooner!
My Rating: :0) :0) :0) :0) :0) 5 out of 5
Would I recommend it to a friend?: Absolutely! Especially to someone interested in this time period in American history.
What are your thoughts on Gone with the Wind? Is there a film, adaptation, or any further reading that you would recommend? Let me know in the comments section below!
P.S. Read my thoughts on each individual part of this novel here: