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Why you need to read Gone with the Wind

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Tomorrow might be another day, but for today we’re celebrating Margaret Mitchell, born exactly 118 years ago. With only one novel published during her lifetime, she’s an easily overlooked figure in the busy world of twentieth century American fiction.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons


But what a novel. At over a thousand pages long, Gone with the Wind is not for the faint-hearted, whilst even the multi-Oscar winning 1939 film runs at over three and a half hours. Just from a time perspective, it’s understandable that many of us may never have got beyond a vague understanding of who Scarlett O’Hara is or a half-hearted swoon over Rhett Butler.


However, those of you who haven’t yet picked this novel up are missing out. Captured in these pages is one of the most viscerally alive heroines ever put down on paper. Beautiful, selfish, spoilt and ruthless, Scarlett is not your average antebellum lady, a revelation which both shocked and delighted me as she sank to ever greater depths on each page. Serial-wife, serial-mother and serial-deceiver, she is the ultimate survivor, and reveals the hopelessness of being a Southern woman during the American Civil War.


Brought up to be demure, pure and passive – at least to the untrained eye – Scarlett’s fortunes change when every man joins the Confederate army to fight the Yankees. Left only weeks into married life, already pregnant and forced to live with in-laws she cannot stand, Scarlett pushes the reader to the limits of their sympathy, right up until the fall of Atlanta, when Scarlett finds enough strength to get herself, her son, her sister in-law and newly born nephew back home to the country. There, she has to draw upon every reserve she has left in her in order to rebuild her father’s plantation and come out fighting again.


It would be easy to see Gone with the Wind as merely a novel of the Civil War, but more than that, it is an exploration of character. Scarlett, although infuriating and, at times, morally repugnant, is all of us. Ever cut off your nose to spite your face? Witness Scarlett tie herself in matrimony to a man she has little interest in purely to upset the man she really wanted. Ever done something for purely mercenary gains? Watch as Scarlett pursues her little sister’s beau simply for the riches he may be able to bring her family. Time and time again, Scarlett challenges our expectations and elicits our horror – but also our recognition and sympathy too. Who, we wonder, might not do the same under such circumstances?


In many ways, Gone with the Wind is the American Wuthering Heights, with abhorrent characters, few rewards for moral purity and even a relationship which we loathe and love in equal parts. Rhett’s behaviour towards Scarlett is the ultimate in gaslighting, occasionally doing enough to make us warm to him, and then undermining all of that hard work in a few simple sentences. Even as we root for them and their future happiness, somehow we know that this flammable couple cannot ever have their happy ever after. Yet, still, we hope.


It is that hope which makes the novel the tour de force it is. That infamous final line, when Scarlett vows once again to win Rhett over as ‘tomorrow’s another day’ reminds all of us that, whatever hardships we’re facing, there is a chance they may get better. Her eternal optimism, however ill-placed, exists without the saccharine sweetness of Pollyanna, and we hope right alongside her, even as we know she’s doomed. Scarlett is the ultimate survivor, a woman determined to succeed at all costs, and despite her nefarious ways, you can’t help but admire that from a nineteenth century character created in the early twentieth century.


The novel is far from perfect, with its sympathy for slave-owners sometimes seeming out of step, but it is honest, epic and thoroughly enjoyable. It’s well worth a spot on your to-read list.


And if you don’t like it? Well, frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.

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