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Breadcrumb Reads

This is the companion blog to my main book blog, Breadcrumb Reads. My reading tastes veer towards the classics, literary fiction, creative non-fiction and historical fiction.

Gone with the Wind - Margaret Mitchell I finished Gone with the Wind this weekend. There is still a part of me that wishes I had prolonged the last few chapters, given myself time to savour the final pages of this indescribable epic. It is such a powerful story of magnificent proportions in terms, not only of story, but of background, setting, and characterization. Seriously, I think Mitchell has a gift for drawing out her characters with such subtle complexity. As Mel says in his review of the same – The characters were amazingly well developed. Just as soon as you think you have a character all figured out they do something that shocks you but you realize it is right in character and you just did not understand them well enough.

Naturally, the most incredibly fascinating of all her characters is Scarlett O’Hara. I hated her. I was fascinated by her. I admired her. I despised her. Oh, and definitely at the end I admired her all over again. I can’t say that at any point I loved her or even liked her much. But I admired her traits of common sense although I did not agree with the means through which she worked for her gains. And, of course, the strength she has to survive and help all those, who depend on her strength, to survive as well.

The rest of this post is full of spoilers since it is mainly an analysis of sorts. I've left the labels open and the rest is for those eyes that have already read the novel, and/or for the curious. :D

The “destruction” and “reconstruction” of Scarlett
Right from the start we see glimpses of a Scarlett we cannot much like. We see how she cannot stand it when any of her beau are attracted to her contemporaries. We also see how she “steals” them away with her whiles and charms. We see a determined young woman (I refrain from saying ‘lady’) who is used to getting her way and knows exactly how to get what she wants. She is like a spoilt child, and there is so little of the woman in her, really. As the story moves on we begin to be aware of her instincts of a survivor. She is strong, so much so, that the only person who truly knows and understands her, Rhett Butler, leaves her alone with four helpless dependents to find their way back to Tara. He knows that she will make it home without getting into danger. As a result we find that Scarlett has no use and spares not pity for the weak. This would explain the utter contempt she feels for Melanie, and later admiration when the latter shows that her spirit is strong even if her body is weak. And yet, considering that she despises weakness in others, she cannot understand that Ashley stands for the kind of weakness she has no patience with. She is so completely obsessed with him that it is too late by the time she realises that the two people she really loves are the two people she has shunned from the start – Melanie and Rhett. Then there is her obsession with money. Her greatest fear is such a basic one and such an earthy one that her drive to never be hungry again causes her so much in terms of the things that truly matter. At the end, though, when she realises that she loves Rhett Butler, she even understands that if they were poor it would not really matter as long as she had love.

I believe all this realisation and loss begins the process of her growing from a willful child to a determined woman. Strange, though, isn’t it, that this process begins only toward the end of the novel, not to mention, that in spite of all the trials she goes through up to that point she can still maintain the cruel ignorance of a child. Personally, I like how this entire process of her personality parallels that of the “destruction” of Georgia and the “reconstruction” of the same. In the last page we see that Scarlett is not broken but is as determined as ever to get her way. One can only hope that this time around she would go about it in a more mature manner.

Character foils for Scarlett
I suspect that Mitchell set up almost every character beside that of Scarlett’s. The three other main characters are Melanie, Ashley and Rhett. It is quite ironic that the two of these three characters Scarlett has the most in common with, she hates, while she loves Ashley without really understanding or knowing him. Melanie and Scarlett are both survivors. They are both strong in spirit, though Melanie lack physical strength. However, the strong fighting spirits are quite different. Scarlett fights with a will to come up on top, to never be hungry or without money again. Her driving force centres about herself. On the other hand, Melanie’s strength is for others. They lean on her and see her as a beacon of light – Ashely, the genteel people of Atlanta, the riff-raff of the same, and quite surprisingly Rhett Butler himself. Of course, Scarlett depends on her a great deal too. Something she realises only when she loses Melanie. If only Scarlett had recognised that the true strength of Melanie was what Scarlett herself understood only as a weakness. Up against Melanie, we see that Scarlett could have survived without losing her soul if only her aim had not been money.

Rhett Butler also serves as a foil to Scarlett. He is also there to show us how much of herself Scarlett destroys in order to never be hungry again. While these two characters are so completely alike in being selfish and unscrupulous in their means, we find that Rhett is still humane. He knows what kind of person he is. He knows the truth about himself. And so, while he laughs at the world he jeers at himself too. He is a cynical man. But he recognises what kind of people he comes across. He realises that Melanie is truly “a great lady” and not hypocrite hiding behind social etiquette. He knows why Ashley cannot survive in the world after the Civil War. Seeing what Rhett is one cannot help but notice that Scarlett is completely devoid of introspection. She is shrewd, smart, but as ignorant as a selfish child. Everything she sees and understands revolve around her insignificant self and so she never realises the worth of the people who are closest to her.

Ashley Wilkes is the one Scarlett has the least in common with. In fact, apart from their background they share nothing else except delusion. They are both so deluded about the other, each thinking that they know the other so well. I found it so frustrating when both of them said things that took for granted that they each understood the other. Even at the end, when Scarlett realises that Ashley is as much a child as she is, and is way more lost than she has ever been, she does not truly understand why this is so.

Ashley, a whimp?

He’s only a gentleman caught in a world he doesn’t belong in, trying to make a poor best of it by the rules of the world that’s gone. (p.1015)

This is how Rhett describes Ashley to Scarlett when she finds that the latter is not what she had thought him to be. Do I believe Ashley is a whimp? I doubt it. We only say so in comparison to Rhett. But we know that he is indeed noble, honourable and full of physical courage. As he tells Scarlett when she says she fears hunger, he does not fear starvation. What he really fears is living in a world that he does not know, a world that is far removed from the libraries of home. He is, by nature, a gentle man – a man brought up in times of leisure, who lives in dreams, in the writings of the past, in all things that are beautiful, that is art. With the war Ashley has lost his “mainspring”. I love the speech that a minor character, Will Benteen, gives at the funeral of Gerald O’Hara:

Everybody’s mainspring is different. And I want to say this – folks whose mainsprings are busted are better dead. There ain’t no place for them these days, and they’re happier bein’ dead… (p.704)

I think Ashley’s mainspring was Georgia of the past. With it went his will to survive. He was afraid of living. He did not know how he was to live in a world he was not brought up in. I believe those who survived the war, in the real sense, were those who loved a good challenge. The kind of people who perk when something dares them. One has only to look at the aristocrat Rene, and his lame friend, Tommy – both of who obviously reveled in the challenge to remake their lives. And then the determination of others, like Mrs Merriweather, who refused to let anything defeat them. For those like her they were still fighting a war that they had to win. But Ashely had never believed in this war. All he longed for was the past. And he was not alone in his longing.

Everything in their old world had changed but the old forms. The old usages went on, must go on, for the forms were all that were left to them. They were holding tightly to the things they knew best and loved best in the old days, the leisured manners, the courtesy, the pleasant casualness in human contacts and, most of all, the protecting attitude of the men toward their women. (p.598)

Ashley simply didn’t have the heart to fight because he never had wanted to fight. Ashley, we see, isn’t a doer. He is a dreamer, and so completely misplaced. I doubt, though, that that gives anyone call to say that he is a weakling or a whimp.

Ashley and Rhett
Strangely, whenever I came across either character I never thought of their differences but their similiarities. It’s quite amazing how much these two, seemingly different men, actually have in common. As Rhett says (or was it Ashley who did? I cannot recall), fundamentally both men are alike. They come from similar backgrounds and upbringing, even to the extent of their bookish knowledge. Both of them strongly believe that the war is useless, that no good but loss of lives and a way of living can come out of the war. We see how it is the two of them that work to stop the Klan from functioning. And really, it is not ironical. Both are aware of the concept of the “winnowing of the weak”. In fact, both of them, at different times tell Scarlett this using almost the same words. Both of them are very self-aware. They have no illusions about themselves. Ashley is aware that he is not made of the mettle needed to survive the aftermath of the war, and he understands why. Rhett knows himself to be unscrupulous and self-centred.

It strikes me as interesting that Melanie is what Ellen O’Hara, Scarlett’s mother, would have been had she survived the war. The person Scarlett most admired and loved was her mother, and yet she was as unlike her mother as night is to day. It comes to mind how often Scarlett thinks of her mother’s teachings only to put them aside saying, none of it makes sense if she and her dependents are not to starve. Yet Melanie retains her gentleness and kindness in the midst of strife, while growing in strength and offering it to others. Really, I think Melanie is the strongest character in the story. She is the pillar of strength where Ashley, Scarlett and Rhett and even Atlanta, are concerned. It is she who boosts up the morale of all the other characters.
Melanie and Rhett
I like the similarity between these two characters. I like how each of them is strength behind their deluded halves. How they are both the reason Ashley and Scarlett, respectively, make it through as far as the end of the novel, and how the latter two realise this only once they have both lost Melanie and Rhett, respectively. I also love the relationship these two have with each other – one of mutual respect and kindly love.

Mitchell’s mouthpieces
I noticed how Mitchell uses certain characters to voice insights into others and the real, underlying situation in Georgia’s Southern society. Among these characters Mitchell uses, rather prominently, Ashley and Rhett. They are both observers of the world around them and constantly seek to enlighten Scarlett, and there-by the reader about people, their situations and their motives. Quite often, in fact, Rhett serves as an analyser of Scarlett’s nature. Another character who plays an interesting part in the revelation of insights into peoples’ nature is Old Mrs Fontaine. While she does tend to miss the mark where Scarlett is concerned (really, I believe Rhett is the only one knows her) she is spot on with every other character including, and especially, Ashley Wilkes and Melanie.

Mitchell’s thoughts?
I do not presume to know what Mitchell was thinking as she wrote this story, but it seems to me that Mitchell is just as admiring and despising of Scarlett as most readers are bound to feel. I doubt she particularly likes Scarlett. You can see how much she jeers at her own character even to describing her as having a “shrewd shallow brain” – an absolutely apt description, I think. It also seems to me that Rhett is really Mitchell, or in other words, Mitchell uses Rhett as the portrayer of her feelings regarding, not only Scarlett, but society and its strange sense of honour and dignity when pitted against common sense. And yet, it would seem, in spite of herself, even as Rhett does, that she cannot help but admire this society and admire the strength that is Scarlett’s. Perhaps, even in spite of Scarlett, Mitchell loves her as does Rhett.

However, from what I’ve heard, Mitchell’s true heroine is really Melanie. I think this becomes quite apparent when Melanie dies as we see who this affects all the people around her including the other main characters. All of them realise that she was their foundation, in a manner of speaking – the person they depended on for love and kindness and generosity. I think Mitchell also sets Melanie up against Scarlett in showing us how, in order to survive, one need not lose one’s humaneness and natural courtesy. Yet, now that I think about it, I wonder, if, in order for Melanie to retain her gentle nature and survive if she did not need Scarlett a great deal in her turn. I think that might be true or Melanie could not have survived – physically that is.

And there you have it...my thoughts on Gone with the Wind. :)