Wednesday 31 August 2011

Rereading Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell

I first read Gone With The Wind when I was sixteen and I knew next to nothing about the Civil War or Reconstruction (I’m not American, but that’s not an excuse).  When I read it, I was all about the romance and whether Scarlett would wake up and realise that she should be with Rhett and not Ashley.  Since then I have seen and enjoyed the film a few times but not revisited the book.

Visiting the Margaret Mitchell house in Atlanta inspired me to reread, and I’m so glad I did because I got a completely different and much deeper reading experience the second time round.  I feel like I only skimmed the surface of the book the first time and missed out on so much of what is wonderful about it.  So rather than providing a synopsis or a typical review, I wanted to write about what extra I got out of it on the reread.

I found that it was almost impossible to pin down what Margaret Mitchell actually thought about a range of issues.  Like Rhett, she both mocks and romanticises the old Southern society, making her true feelings hard to work out.   This is also true of the main character Scarlett; Mitchell both builds her up and tears her down, at some points applauding her for breaking out of the prim world of women and at others mocking her for her greed and lack of morals.

One question I thought about was – can a book be racist if it is only portraying the ideas of people living at the time?  The patronising way Scarlett and other Southern characters talked about their slaves did grate on me after a while, but maybe that was the point?  Although I do have to admit the way Mitchell wrote about the Ku Klux Klan as merely disgruntled Southern gentlemen making a point against oppressive Northern rule, almost as if it has nothing to do with race, was hard to swallow.

Another question– can a woman like Scarlett be called a strong women if she sometimes gets her way by fluttering her eyelashes and relying on the men?

I enjoyed how there are no simple answers to any of these questions in the book, just as in real life it’s not easy to point out right vs. wrong.  Mitchell did a good job of showing how complex the Civil War and reconstruction was, and how difficult life was at that time for everyone caught up in it.  If you haven’t read it yet, I would highly recommend it.

Score: 5 out of 5
Source: Bookshelf


  1. I was a teenager when I read this too. I'm sure it would be an interesting re-read (but so looooong....) Thanks for bringing it back, and I enjoyed your insightful questions. I don't know how a book, written about that period, could not express the views of the people during that period, even if they are racist. And, yes, Scarlett was a strong woman, because she knew what she NEEDED to do to get what she wanted....

  2. Annette, it's definitely a long read but it doesn't feel as long as it is as so much is going on. I think it's interesting to think about how much the views expressed in the book reflect on the author as well. I agree with you that Scarlett was a strong women, and think her strength went beyond fluttering her eyelashes, but it's interesting how much her strong behaviour is described as 'manly' and disapproved of by other characters.

  3. Sam, thanks for sharing your "revisiting review!" I've often asked myself the same question about whether Scarlett was a strong woman and I think Annette makes a great point about how she knew what she needed to do to get the job done. And about the racism question, living an hour from Atlanta means I have had to write papers on this very thing. I don't think the book is racist because of sharing the points of view people had then, but the question has been raised a lot about why Mitchell almost "glossed over" what was really going on and made the black slaves seem like they didn't mind their situation. Does that make the book racist? I don't know. Either way,it is a good book and I enjoyed reading your review.

  4. I have seen the movie countless times, but have never read the book. I think it would be a great summer read. Absolutely agree with Annette's comment, "I don't know how a book, written about that period, could not express the views of the people during that period, even if they are racist."

  5. This is yet another book I'm embarrassed to say I haven't read yet. I've been thinking about re-reading Wuthering Heights which I've only read once, and when I was 16 for school. I recall that I thought they were a pack of crazies and couldn't work out why this was one of the best books of all time - so I'm quite sure that an adult re-read is required! Your post has inspired me to do it soon :-) I think that it's fair to say that a book contains racist sentiments, but I'm not sure that you can say a book is racist. That might be playing with semantics there, but an expression of thoughts current to the setting of the tale is a different thing from a book written with the express intention of spreading a racist message.

  6. Siobhan, I imagine you are sick of Margaret Mitchell living so close to Atlanta! Yes, the glossing over of the hardships of being a slave is interesting, as Mitchell is only really expressing the views of the white characters. And agreed, it's definitely a good book :)

    JoAnn, The book is better than the film, there's much more to it (although I do love the film). I think the problem is that Mitchell chooses only to express the views of the white characters.

    Mummazappa, every time I reread a classic they get better as I'm not so caught up in what is going to happen and I can focus on other things. I've only read Wuthering Heights once and like you didn't love it, so I'll be interested to see what you think the second time round.

  7. I don't think I have ever read "Gone With the Wind". I've seen the movie but not for many years. It may be time to add it to my reading pile.

    I agree that it contains racist elements but as mentioned it also reflects the mindset of the times. Read in that context, it takes some of emotion out of the idea of racism and allows for a thoughtful discussion.

  8. I think you've hit the nail on the head that the attitude of the whites like Scarlett is supposed to be annoying, not a reflection of how Mitchell felt about slavery or any other issue. In fact, Mitchell once threatened to sue her college roommate for writing a magazine article comparing Mitchell to Scarlett -- she thought that an insult. Also, she never could understand why people thought her story racist-- she insisted that the slave characters were the most upstanding and noble people in the book. A great example is in the opening chapter when the Tarleton twins are floundering around completely misunderstanding Scarlett --meanwhile the slave knows exactly what's going on and is rolling his eyes at the two baffoons. The fact that Mitchell had the slaves speak in dialect doesn't mean she though them stupid - she was just trying to record their voices. And speaking so called "proper" English did not make the Tarletons smart. Not that I'm saying GWTW doesn't have its problems. It obviously fails to present a complete picture of the horrors of slavery but then again she didn't set out to write a book about slavery, so it's hard to fault that but so much. But just imagine if she had tackled slavery head on-- now that would've been one heck of a book!

    You might be interested to know there is a GWTW Read-A-Long going on right now at the Heroine's Bookshelf blog. Lots of good GWTW discussion over there.

  9. Thanks for the link and detailed comment Ellen. You've given me lots of think about :)

  10. I've been having thoughts about re-reading Gone with the Wind since reading Pat Conroy's My Reading Life last year. He has a chapter about what GWTW meant to his mother (who was a HUGE influence in his writing life) and the South. I saw the movie several times in high school and fell in love with the story. I didn't read the novel until I was in my early 30s and really enjoyed it, although I had some of the same questions you have. Regarding Scarlett, it seems like fluttering her eyelashes was a tool that she could use--degrading as it was/is, it got results and she knew it would.