Publication Date: June 30, 1936
Length: 1,037 pages
My favorite novel.....and always will be! There is no other like it. It is a masterpiece.
The first time I read Gone With the Wind I was twelve years old. I honestly didn't understand much of it but I remember being determined to finish it anyway. The movie had made a huge impression on me since the age of eight and I knew the main characters and events enough that it made me want to try to attempt to read it. A few years later at the ripe old age of eighteen I tried again. This time I was able to fully appreciate the story. I remember being surprised at how much of the book was not included in the movie and how much richer the characters seemed. I also learned more about the Civil War from the Southern perspective and previously couldn't have cared less about it. As a child the descriptions of the gowns and parties, plantation homes, interactions between husbands and wives, and their children stuck with me in a way few books have been able to replicate. I've read it a total of four times and might read it again someday.
The novel's opening line is one of my favorites..."Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm." It encapsulates the entire story right from the beginning. We forget that Scarlett is "not beautiful" because throughout the book she seems to be able to convince almost everyone that she is THE most beautiful and exciting woman in the world.
When the story begins, Scarlett O'Hara is sixteen years old. It is 1861 and so far the war is not real to her in any meaningful way. It is a nuisance interrupting her life of parties and balls and attention from handsome men. She is holding court on her front porch with the Tarleton twins who are on this day more interested in discussing the possibility of war than in paying attention to Scarlett. Her mood changes abruptly when one of them casually mentions a barbecue being thrown by the Wilkes family and the special announcement forthcoming; specifically that Ashley Wilkes will formally announce his intention to marry his cousin Melanie Hamilton. The twins are baffled by Scarlett's reaction of stony silence and eventual abandonment of them as she struggles to process this alarming news. It is this moment that drives the plot forward from here on out. Scarlett has already determined Ashley belongs to her and no one else. Her decisions throughout the book revolve around this idealistic dream and serve as the catalyst for many of her dramatic circumstances.
On the day of the barbecue Scarlett attempts to get Ashley alone and pour out her true feelings. Not only is he not swayed by her emotions he reiterates to her his plan to marry Melanie. Scarlett angrily banishes him from her presence and it is here she officially meets her nemesis, Rhett Butler. His sarcasm and refusal to coddle Scarlett's tearful tantrums over her loss of Ashley set the tone for their relationship and its subsequent battle of wills to come.
The war proceeds whether she wants it to or not and Scarlett is thrust into a hell unimaginable to her just months before. She is married, widowed, and a young mother all in a short time and although she has support from relatives and those around her she refuses to be grateful in any meaningful way. Gone are the days of parties, beautiful clothes, and adoring attention and she struggles to process the reality of her new existence. We see her slowly grow from young, selfish, innocent Scarlett to older, selfish, battle hardened Scarlett. Her struggles do not take place on the battlefield but rather in the daily war for survival amid a backdrop of death and destruction of her beloved Georgia. She begins to see her way of life slipping away and those around her succumbing to depression and despair for their lost world.
It is after the war ends that we see her stoicism and work ethic emerge as she refuses to concede to a life of quiet suffering and dignity that her former neighbors and kinsman adopt. She is baffled by the idea of refusing to do business with Yankees or anyone else who can further her economically. As she says, "the war is over and I intend to make the best of it....even if they are Yankees." With business savvy and manipulation she manages to remarry (another man she doesn't love) and start a sawmill with Ashley Wilkes. This while living in Atlanta and also attempting to salvage the fields of her beloved childhood plantation home, Tara. Her obstinance and tenacity are to be admired but also lead to a series of events that see her in regret for the consequences of her behavior. Throughout the book Scarlett and Rhett dance around their attraction for each other and eventually come together and fall apart again. There are more babies born, plantations built, businesses acquired and hinted infidelities. Rhett tries again and again to win her heart but Scarlett stubbornly manages to thwart their relationship success every time. They are two ships passing in the night and are unable to be vulnerable enough for long enough to have a real marriage. The book's famous ending line is almost as wonderful as the first one, "I'll think of some way to get him back. After all, tomorrow is another day!"
Reading this review so far one would think the novel is just one long romance. And yes there is a lot of romance and unrequited love for sure. But it is so much more. I learned so much about the Civil War and about the feelings of the South during Reconstruction. In our current world Gone With the Wind is being branded as racist, insensitive, and out of touch. I think this is the wrong way to look at it. It is above all else a snapshot in time of how a southerner viewed the world around them. Margaret Mitchell based her book and characters on actual people she'd known and loved. Aunts, Uncles, grandparents who sat and told her personal stories of the war and hardships they endured before, during, and after. We should listen. Just because we might not always agree or like everything we hear does not negate what they have to say. Changing the narrative is dishonest. This book is not meant to give the northern perspective, the abolitionist perspective, or the perspective of those who struggled for freedom and Civil Rights in later times. It is what it is. And it should be respected as such, including the descriptions of plantation life.
If you want a true expose on slavery or the caste system this is not the book for you. It was never meant for that. But it does allow you a rare glimpse into a world gone by from an author whose relatives lived it and were actually there to see it fall. To read and enjoy it is not championing the "lost cause." It is preserving a section of history told from the side of the conquered. We deserve to hear their story too. And a little romance, drama, and feminine charm thrown in makes for an amazing epic you will never forget.