The first time - and until now the only time - I read this book was in December 1975. I had just finished high school and my best friend persuaded me to read her favourite novel. Every afternoon for about three weeks I went to the local beach for a couple of hours to sunbake and read. From that first experience of reading Gone with the Wind , the novel became associated in my mind with the feeling of sunshine on my skin, the smell of the ocean, the sound of waves breaking on the sand and the sense of freedom which came from having my post-school life stretching before me. Those are the impressions that have stayed with me over the years, rather than anything about the work itself.
Coming back to the novel almost thirty-seven years later has been a very different experience and not an altogether positive one. I don’t mean that the experience has been all negative, as there are a number of aspects of the work which I like a lot. Firstly, I think Mitchell deserves praise for creating a heroine who is not a likeable character. Scarlett does have some positive qualities – she is practical and highly resilient – but throughout the novel she remains essentially unsympathetic and, well, stupid. There are few writers who would be prepared to make the central character in a romance quite so unlikeable.
Secondly, Mitchell’s account of the Civil War and in particular its affect on the civilian population feels authentic. As I read the chapters dealing with the war, I felt that Mitchell was writing about real and not just imagined experiences. Thirdly, the novel has moved beyond being just a work of fiction. At least in part because of the film adaptation, it’s an intrinsic part of American popular culture and therefore of English-language popular culture. In many ways, Gone with the Wind has become the story of the antebellum south, of the Civil War and of the Reconstruction, as well as an iconic love story.
However, on this reading, the negatives I perceived in the work had more of an effect on me than did its positive qualities. While I think that the novel is flawed in a number of ways, I’ll only deal with one of the problems I have with it in this review: the way in which Mitchell deals with racial issues.
A novel set in the south dealing with the Civil War and the Reconstruction will naturally have characters who reflect the attitudes towards slaves and slavery held by the white population at that time. Moreover, a novel written in the 1930s will reflect 1930s attitudes towards race. I don’t expect “political correctness” in relation to issues of race in a novel written before – say - the 1960s. However, regardless of whether it is realistic, the layering of 1930s-style racism over 1860s racist attitudes was, for me, disturbing and unpleasant.
Mitchell deals with race in two main ways, through the narrative and in the language used to describe the black characters. In the narrative, slave owners (and in particular the O’Hara and the Wilkes families) are depicted as caring philanthropists who treated their slaves with kindness and compassion and never abused them. “Good” slaves remain devoted to their former masters after the war and only “bad” slaves – the supposedly less intelligent field hands – pursue freedom. All “free-issue” former slaves are “trashy”, lazy, shiftless and abusive. According to Ashley Wilkes, slaves were not miserable, so there was no problem with the use of slave labour. Further, according to the narrative, the only reason for the creation of the Ku Klux Klan was to enable gallant southern men to protect their womenfolk from being sexually assaulted by former slaves. There is no acknowledgement in the narrative that the lifestyle and culture to which southerners were so attached was based upon human beings buying and selling other human beings. Nor is there any suggestion that there could possibly have been anything wrong with this as a way of life.
In relation to the use of language, black characters are described either as animals or children. For example: Mammy’s face is described as having “the uncomprehending sadness of a monkey’s face” and later as having “the sad bewilderment of an old ape”. Elsewhere in the text, Mammy’s eyes are said to see “with the directness of the savage and the child”. Pork is described as having a face “as forlorn as a lost and masterless hound”. The “lowest and most ignorant” of the former slaves are said to conduct themselves “as creatures of small intelligence might naturally be expected to do” and are described as being “like monkeys or small children turned loose among treasured objects”. Scarlett is outraged when the dignified Uncle Peter is humiliated by Yankee women, but then reflects that these women “did not know that negroes had to be handled gently, as though they were children, directed, praised, petted, scolded”.
As I read, the language used to describe black characters kept jumping off the page. Such language was not only used to describe the perspective of white characters, it was also used as part of the narrator’s – or author’s – voice. Even if such language is entirely consistent with 1860s or 1930s attitudes towards race, I found it deeply repellent and it adversely affected my response to the work as a whole.
It may be argued that for Mitchell to have questioned the myth of slavery as a benevolent institution or to use different language to describe her black characters would have been anachronistic. However, Mitchell had no difficulty acknowledging the hypocrisy of gender relations in the south and, through the character of Scarlett, she challenged accepted standards of female behaviour. I accept that Mitchell was a product of her environment and that the attitudes towards race demonstrated in the novel are not unexpected. However, it was impossible for me to ignore the racism in the narrative: it was just too pervasive for me to overlook or accept.
Many, many readers cherish this novel. I can understand why: the grand sweep of the epic is very compelling. Mitchell created a romantic vision of the antebellum and Civil War south and she peopled the world she created with memorable characters. But I can no longer respond to the novel as an iconic romantic drama. Rather, I see it as a work with some good points but with many flaws. In some ways I wish I hadn’t re-read the novel, as its bright place in my memory has now been dimmed. On the other hand, it’s been a very interesting exercise and an experience I’ve enjoyed sharing with my friend Jemidar (and with Jeannette before she threw in the towel and with Anna until she scooted ahead!).
I’ve downgraded my rating from the four stars I gave the book when I originally added it to my GR shelves. This is a compromise between the five stars it deserves for Mitchell’s achievement in writing a story which has such an important place in American popular culture, and one star for those things about the novel which I dislike intensely.