Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Book Review: Gone with the Wind

Margaret Mitchell's 1934 masterpiece is the epitome of the sweeping epic.

Set in Atlanta during the American Civil War and subsequent Reconstruction, Mitchell chronicles the successes and struggles of Scarlett O'Hara, the daughter of an Irish immigrant plantation owner. Scarlett watches her beloved house, Tara, fall into disrepair as her household disbands upon the outbreak of war. Making the occasional appearance at both the most convenient and most inopportune moments is Rhett Butler, the dashing, albeit socially ostracized, gentleman who, if nothing else, lusts after Scarlett like no other.

I've always been a fan of the 1939 David O. Selznick film version, in all its technicolour glory. However, when reading the novel, I was struck by how much the novel is an actual history lesson. I was going on the assumption that the novel was more of a romance, as the film suggests, yet it's much more powerful and shouldn't be brushed off as such.

Scarlett O'Hara is the most complex female character I've ever encountered in a novel. Vivien Leigh is beautiful and charming, however, the film didn't do complete justice to this vibrant character. While reading the novel I couldn't believe how much of an anti-heroine Scarlett really is in Mitchell's writing. She speaks her mind, regardless of its consequences, openly loathes Melanie Wilkes, a woman so kind she practically has a halo around her head, and will use any man at the drop of a hat should she need money to provide for herself and her beloved Tara.

Even when I didn't agree with something Scarlett was doing, saying or thinking, I loved her to pieces. It astounded me that this vibrant, controversial character was created in the 1930s. I found myself rooting for her, even when her actions called for her to be taken down a notch. Unlike her youngest sisters, when the O'Hara riches began to disappear Scarlett fought tooth and nail to scrounge what she could, regardless of its cost to others. Scarlett O'Hara is a complete original. Perhaps when Charles Darwin wrote his theory on the "survival of the fittest" he had a woman like Scarlett in mind.

Rhett and Scarlett were made for each other, however, they were both equally too stubborn to really embrace the concept. Even though Rhett was the one who more openly adored Scarlett in the relationship, he had his moments where he almost threw his love for her to the wind. Scarlett was too oblivious and wrapped up in her own individual struggles to realize the looks Rhett gave her were looks of love and respect. I love open-ended finales and I admire any author who can leave their audience hanging and wanting more without giving everything away and leaving nothing to the imagination. We have no idea whether or not Rhett ever came back to Scarlett. I like my fiction with a dose of realism so I kind of like the unsatisfactory idea that Rhett never returned. What Scarlett said to him was the final straw and Scarlett was left trying to fill a void in her life that no amount of money could fill.

Ashley Wilkes was much more compelling in Mitchell's writing. He's a bit of a drip in the film; scrawny and not particularly worthy of Scarlett's unwavering devotion. However, in the novel, he was much more of a stud and I found that I understood his character a lot better. He was a man broken by war and what he witnessed and his pride prevented his ever feeling comfortable with Scarlett's generosity towards him and Melanie. He had his masculine pride and, like all men in the novel besides Rhett, he felt threatened by the obvious success of Scarlett, a woman. In the film I always thought Ashley truly did love Scarlett. After reading the novel I realized that he was "in lust" with her the entire time. He didn't love her temper, her savvy money skills, her brashness, her opinions or her mind the way Rhett did. He (and its sad in its own way) married a woman he didn't love simply out of an obligation to family tradition.

It made me realize Scarlett and Rhett were so ahead of their time, in their personalities and belief systems. They threw caution to the wind and dared to be themselves in a time still steeped in old traditions and separate and distinct gender roles. I love that Scarlett had no desire for motherhood. It completely casts aside the notion that every woman desires to become a parent one day to a large brood of children. Scarlett would have fit in well with today's career-oriented, independent world.

I never knew much about the American Civil War, however, Mitchell's novel gave me a great history lesson in and of itself. Her novel is jam-packed with vivid details on war trails, crushing battle fronts, famous generals and intricate societal expectations. She displayed admirable attention to detail in describing the fashion of the time, the destruction of towns, the freedom of black slaves and the subsequent creation of the Ku Klux Klan, among other issues.

The descriptions of the tragedies of war and the desolation of its aftermath were compelling and profoundly moving.

I read this giant, epic, 1200 + page tome in about a month. I was swept up in the tragedy, the romance and the overall greatness of Margaret Mitchell's stunning novel. It's one of the few novels you will read in your lifetime that you can credit as being absolutely flawless in every regard.