Opening line: “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.”
I assume you know the plot of GWTW, so let’s just get right to it. Much like my recent post on P&P, and my long-delayed post on JE, GWTW is not a book that I can just give a straightforward review on. I have a relationship with this book.
I first read GWTW just as I was beginning my freshman year of college. I arrived early on the first day of my Exodus/Deuteronomy class, and like all shy studious freshmen, I decided to pass the time by reading my book. I was in choir that year and I had met everyone already during choir camp, so I knew the girl sitting in front of me was Amanda, but we hadn’t really talked. When I pulled out GWTW, her eyes lit up. It’s her favorite book. With her customary warmth and friendliness, she drew me into conversation and that was it. We’ve been best friends ever since.
So. If that wasn’t enough, the book itself has proven to be one of the best I’ve ever read. It mystifies me, knowing that critics don’t like it. I think they’re missing out and forgetting what reading is all about.
Reading is about getting pulled into a story, being put in situations you could never imagine, walking hundreds of miles in someone else’s shoes, learning and learning, having your heart broken and built, and at the end of it all, coming away with a little more knowledge and a lot more empathy.
That’s what reading is for me, and that’s what GWTW does. This story is about one of the most vilified groups of people in US history: the Confederacy. And through one brave woman, Margaret Mitchell helps me understand a time that was more complex than I was taught in school. She helps me understand that even in a “just” war, there are evil people and good people on both sides. She helps me understand that the story told by the conquerors is not the only right one.
It also mystifies me that people don’t like Scarlett O’Hara. I love her. She is the reason gumption is one of my favorite qualities in characters. I love that she is brutally practical and single-minded. I can’t help but see myself in her. Although often well-intentioned, Scarlett is one of the few sinners to actually act out nearly every bad deed that pops into her head. It’s not that I love her because she does bad things; I just understand where she’s coming from. I love her because I know that no matter what horrible situation she gets into, she’ll survive somehow. She is selfish, yes—a quality many people have told me they can’t stand. But she isn’t incapable of self-sacrifice. She’s just extremely picky about who and what she chooses to sacrifice for: Ashley, Tara, and her family.
I want to also point out that Scarlett does many other good things, some we only learn about second-hand from Melanie: staying with Melanie through childbirth, giving Melanie the best bed and the only shoes throughout her recovery, going without food so that the others at Tara can eat, giving Pork her father’s watch, protecting her former slaves, and working harder than anyone to make sure everyone in her keeping is happy and well fed.
I also love Scarlett not based on her own merit, but based on the merit of one other person who loves her. Melanie Wilkes, whom she despises so much, comes to her rescue and single-handedly saves Scarlett from the scorn of Atlanta. Melanie is the epitome of grace: although Scarlett has sinned against her worse than she has against anyone else, Melanie protects and forgives her. She even refuses to believe that Scarlett would hurt her. And Scarlett, to her credit, is ashamed. I think we all know how that feels—to not get what you deserve.
And Rhett. Oh, Rhett. He’s so much more sentimental than he appears. His relationship with Scarlett is heartbreaking; despite how much he loves her and just wants to cherish her, he knows that to appear weak in front of her would be the end of their relationship. She simply doesn’t understand people who care more about others than they do about themselves. Scarlett makes a classic mistake: she made up an image of the “perfect” man for her, forced it on Ashley, and fell in love with it. And that love made her completely blind to Rhett’s generosity and kindness. Rather than bringing out the best in each other, they bring out the worst. It’s so incredibly sad.
But the book doesn’t just end on that sad note. Nope. Ironically, this new hardship brings out the best in Scarlett: her bravery, her love for Tara, and her sheer determination to survive.
Recently, my relationship with GWTW grew as I traveled to Georgia for a work conference and had a few spare hours to visit the Margaret Mitchell House in Atlanta. Seeing famous Peachtree St. and learning about how similar Margaret was to the iconic character she created made the book come even more alive for me.