Also published on the online literary journal O CAPTAIN! MY CAPTAIN!
Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind published in 1936 gives, through the lens of a southern woman, an interesting depiction of the Civil War and Reconstruction – events which had heretofore only been known primarily through the interpretation of Northerners, both sympathetic and hostile. However, the scope of these events remains limited to the realm of aristocratic white Southerners throughout the novel. Gone With the Wind can be seen more as a Bildungsroman novel, focusing more on the life and times of a Southern Belle (Scarlett O’Hara) than the actual politics and horror of the American Civil War. The timeline of the novel progresses forward with the different stages of Scarlett O’Hara’s life and we get to witness her various romances with her string of beaux and husbands – the Tarleton twins, Charles Hamilton, Frank Kennedy, Ashley Wilkes, Rhett Butler. The Civil War is ultimately seen as just a backdrop to the various romances in the novel, further dramatising and romanticising Scarlett’s life.
We can also assert that the Civil War is not Gone With the Wind’s primary focus due to the several inaccuracies in the description of the War and the events leading up to it. Firstly, the highly attractive and idealistic portrayal of the Antebellum South itself is flawed. At the beginning of the novel itself, Tara is depicted as a heavenly land with “softly rolling hills of bright red soil… beautiful red earth that was blood colored, garnet, brick dust, vermilion, which so miraculously grew green bushes starred with white puffs… Nowhere else in the world was there land like this.” The plantation owners also share a friendly relationship with the field hands – black slave labourers.
As critic Hana Konečná points out, Scarlett shares a loving relationship with Mammy and Dilcey, and appreciates their loyalty and help while re-constructing destroyed Tara. Mammy, “devoted to her last drop of blood to the O’Haras,” is treated like a member of the family and raises Scarlett and her sisters as if they were her own daughters. It’s almost as if the blacks feel privileged to work for their white masters since they are provided for with basic necessities. Pork, the O’Haras’ loyal valet, is thankful to Gerald for buying his wife Dilcey and their daughter Prissy together so that his family can stay together at the plantation. The friendship and loyalty among the slaves and their masters is also observed in the scene where Scarlett meets the slaves from Tara on their way to strengthen the fortifications of Atlanta. She speaks to them saying, “―Oh, Captain Randall, don’t scold them! They are our people. This is Big Sam our foreman, and Elijah and Apostle and Prophet from Tara. Of course, they had to speak to me. How are you, boys? … ―Good-by, boys. Now, if you get sick or hurt or in trouble, let me know. I live right down Peachtree Street, down there in almost the last house at the end of town. Wait a minute— She fumbled in her reticule. ―Oh, dear, I haven’t a cent. Rhett, give me a few shinplasters. Here, Big Sam, buy some tobacco for yourself and the boys.”
These instances depict Mitchell’s narrow vision and unrealistic portrayal of society during the Civil War. A more realistic portrayal of slavery is perhaps seen in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin which brings to light the atrocities committed by white masters over black slaves, especially the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which made it illegal for anyone in the United States to offer aid or assistance to a runaway slave. Mitchell on the other hand, almost glorifies slavery, depicting it as a symbiotic relationship between the blacks and whites.
Also, since the novel’s protagonist is a woman, and women were in general left out of sensitive political debates and discussions, we only get to witness the War from two perspectives – that of Melanie Hamilton’s and of Scarlett’s. Melanie is representative of a loyal Confederate woman, who believes in the Cause and supports it without any doubts. Elite southern women like Melanie were exceptional women totally devoted to the Cause. The other view on the war is through Scarlett’s eyes. She pretends her loyalty because she fears alienation from the society, but she disagrees with the war, considers it unnecessary evil and she is not willing to sacrifice herself for the Cause. The readers are not given any more insights into the different perspectives on the War.
Apart from pointing out the inaccuracies in the novel’s plot, we can also say that Mitchell focuses more on the evolution of Scarlett’s character and her various romances. The novel opens with a description of how the Tarleton twins are “enchanted” by Scarlett and by the way her “green eyes danced, how deep her dimples were when she laughed, how tiny her hands and feet and what a small waist she had.” Scarlett is “constitutionally unable to endure any man being in love with any woman not herself” and so entraps the twins in her charming nature. She also flatters and wears low-cut gowns to manipulate men at the Wilkes’ barbeque party. Like Scarlett, Mitchell herself had a flirtatious nature. Critic Christina Lewis claims, “Much like her heroine Scarlett O’Hara, Margaret enjoyed social events and being the center of attention. She was a lively and spirited girl with a great sense of humor. She was flirtatious and charming and always had a long string of beaux.”
At the same time, Scarlett is obsessively infatuated by Ashley Wilkes. This obsession with Ashley is what drives and motivates her throughout the novel. Mitchell explains that she had “wanted him as simply and unreasoningly as she wanted food to eat, horses to ride and a soft bed on which to lay herself.” A highly tempestuous and impulsive sixteen-year old Scarlett decides to announce her love for Ashley as soon as she learns of his engagement to Melanie Hamilton. He rejects her, but Scarlett remains consumed by the hope of being able to attain him one day. So devoted is she to him that she looks after a frail Melanie while she gives birth to her first child, solely in the hope of making Ashley happy. In the absence of a doctor, Scarlett delivers her baby and also takes Melanie back to Tara from Atlanta, single-handedly driving the horse-carriage after Rhett abandons them.
Rhett Butler is another romantic entanglement. He is nothing short of her Knight in Shining Armour, coming to her rescue when she is most afflicted. He arrives at Miss Pittypat’s when Scarlett is preparing to leave Atlanta and return home: “He came into view and the light of the lamp showed him plainly. His dress was as debonair as if he were going to a ball, well-tailored white lien coat and trousers, embroidered grey watered-silk waistcoat and a hint of ruffle on his shirt bosom. His wide Panama hat was set dashingly on one side of his head and in the belt of his trousers were thrust two ivory-handled, long-barrelled duelling pistols.” Rhett’s grand entry is typical of the romance genre where the hero is powerful, potent persona overflowing with masculine energy. Scarlett does not fall for him initially but remembers him in times of trouble.
Scarlett’s associations with Ashley and Rhett form the main plot of the novel. The first is a misplaced, deluded infatuation, and the other a thwarted union of two passionate spirits. She is a lovesick wretch pining for Ashley’s affections but surviving on Rhett’s adorations. Also running parallelly are her marriages first to Charles Hamilton and then to Frank Kennedy. Scarlett’s realisation of her love for Rhett does not come until the very end of the text when Melanie dies and she realises that Ashley isn’t right for her for a host of reasons. Even though she marries Rhett after the death of Frank, it is mainly to sustain herself and live a life of riches as she has vowed to “never go hungry again.”
The major complexity in the love-triangle arises right towards the end when a love-lorn Scarlett runs after Rhett and confesses her love for him only to hear him say, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Scarlett, whose marriages were all undertaken for ulterior motives, is left ultimately abandoned at the juncture where she actually realises her true love. It may thus be asserted that Gone With the Wind is by any yardstick a romance novel with the Civil War as its dramatic backdrop. Nowhere in the story do we get an actual description of the on-going war. We are only shown snippets of the atrocities of the battlefield in the scenes where Scarlett attends on wounded soldiers. Even when she returns to Tara from Atlanta and finds her home in ruins, we see it as a new stage of her life and find her entering adulthood. The primary focus remains on Scarlett’s life and her coming-of-age through her various romances and relationships.