Twenty-three years ago I sent an ancient, tattered, paperback copy of Gone With the Wind flying across my bedroom in a fit of rage, taking satisfaction as it thunked off the wall and landed on teal shag carpet, its red-edged pages askew. I was so mad at Margaret Mitchell. How dare she keep Scarlett and Rhett apart when they were so perfect for each other? What the hell kind of romance novel was this?
As it turned out, it’s not a romance novel.
I learned quite a bit about men and love in my thirteenth year. From Mrs. Mitchell, I learned that it’s better to be honest in expressing your feelings to the man you love and to risk his censure than to torture him and end up losing him. And from watching the bewildered second wife of a friend’s philandering dad, a man who serially divorced to marry his affairs, I learned that it’s pretty stupid to expect that a guy who’d cheat on his girl to be with you won’t cheat on you for the next girl that catches his eye.
But that’s another story.
I was recently inspired to pick up Gone With the Wind for a second time. Reading it again, I discovered that this is a novel about fortitude, perseverance, gratitude, courage, loyalty, and honor. It’s about whether like is meant to be with like, whether pragmatism or idealism works better in a changing culture, whether knowing yourself is a virtue when you don’t know others, whether you can be absolved of sins when you own them, and whether any of us is capable of real change.
I’ve been thinking about the questions Mrs. Mitchell raised and whether or not I agree with her answers. And I’ve been wondering why this novel exploded into popularity immediately upon its publication in 1936 and why it has endured for 74 years. Why is this story so compelling?
I think one answer is that during a time of tremendous stress (the Great Depression), readers found escape in a novel where people endured a much worse period in American history and came through it without being crushed. It is a comfort during hard times to know that hard times are endurable. (In that same vein, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s autobiographical novels about a family that sticks together to overcome obstacles in the post-Civil War rural midwest were also published during the 1930’s and became enormously popular.)
Gone With the Wind continues to have meaning because life continues to be hard and always will be. It is the nature of life to be hard. What I like about the book is that Margaret Mitchell didn’t romanticize the past. The movie romanticized the antebellum South, but in the book slavery was not romantic, the Glorious Cause was not glorious, and the martial law of Reconstruction was no picnic for those under the government’s thumb. Scarlett never looked back and never longed for the past. Hers was a continuous fight for the future.
I want to have full disclosure here. Although Mrs. Mitchell was ahead of her time in describing race relations, she’s well behind 2010 standards, and parts of the book come off as bigoted. While this detracts from the story, I don’t think it negates everything that *is* good about it.
This time when I finished the book, I carefully reshelved it. Scarlett didn’t get her man, but she’ll be all right. After all, tomorrow is another day.