Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind

Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind is a book I first read (and reread at least twice) while home sick during the Summer of my fourteenth year, and I returned to this irresistible literary comfort food again during the shut-in Summer of 2020, more than 40 years later. The book admittedly must answer for the crime of inspiring nearly a century’s worth of bad bodice-ripping historical fiction, and for indoctrinating generations of Southern girls in those particular self- defeating aspirations that thwart more than aid us in negotiating our millennial times.

Further, I wondered whether the novel’s appeal could hold up under the weight of its outdated racial tropes and idealized depiction of an Old South that never existed outside the popular imagination. Fortunately, it did -- as a study of human behavior under the stress of watershed historical changes, the story continues to ring as true as ever. And Mitchell’s faultlessly-constructed fictional world is so palpable that I couldn’t help but buy into it as instantly and unquestioningly as I had in my teenage years. But reading it from the perspective of middle age, I found myself charmed by aspects of the story very different than those which had held my adolescent self mesmerized so many years earlier.

The 19th century’s most famous Bizarre Love Triangle – Scarlett, Rhett and Ashley - seemed shopworn, probably because I’ve now seen the movie of this epic, under its own name and countless others, way too many times. Yet I found myself lingering over a handful of irresistible minor characters who failed to make the transfer to film: the old doyenne down the road who instructs Scarlett in the lessons of her own survival and resilience; the wounded veteran who comes to Tara by accident and remains to become Scarlett’s confidant and trusted lieutenant; the irascible ex-convict who lambasts Scarlett in comic straightforward fashion as he chauffeurs her on errands; and the enslaved woman, brought to Tara as the story opens, who radiates a brand of patrician reserve and toughness unapproached by any other character except Melanie, Scarlett’s nemesis. And speaking of Melanie: the greatest epiphany in my recent re-read was to recognize for the first time what an unknowable cipher of a character she is.

How deeply complex her motivations must have been, and what a wonderful story she might have told from her own point of view! She’s a puzzle I’m still pondering. S.M.

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