I’ve been trying to review this book for the past several days. Talk about epic! Margaret Mitchell is a brilliant story teller and this, her first novel, is…brilliant. It’s such an intense, densely packed read, it’s hard to pick and choose what to comment about. I could talk about the war, the politics of Reconstruction, the KKK, or slavery, but I won’t. Instead, I’ll comment on our main players. Otherwise, I’l be here all day trying to hit on the finer points of this literary masterpiece. So here I offer my clumsy two cents.
SPOILER ALERT: If you have not yet read this book and plan to in the future, do NOT read further!! You have been warned
This novel is set against the rich backdrop of the utter and horrific change of the Civil War and Reconstruction. What I found fascinating is that our quartet of main characters – Scarlett O’Hara, Ashley Wilkes, Melanie Hamilton Wilkes, and Rhett Butler – do not alter in character at all…or do they? In an era where everyone was forced to weigh his or her character, their limits, their morals, their ethics and scruples, here are four people who’s characters do not necessarily alter under trial but rather whose traits are intensified, exacerbated, and solidified under the extreme pressure of social & political upheaval. Let’s begin with the leading lady.
SCARLETT O’HARA – I don’t believe I have ever disliked a character so much as I do Scarlett O’Hara. Mitchell did an incredible job creating a character who is as brutal and intense as the Civil War itself. If there was ever a person who was everything objectionable, conniving, manipulative, selfish, and disagreeable about the female sex, it is Scarlett O’Hara. Her complete disregard of the feelings of the people around her, her selfishness and lack of scruples thoroughly disgusted me. From the moment I was introduced to her on the front porch of Tara, flirting shamelessly with the Tarleton twins, I knew I was dealing with a self-absorbed, boy-crazy Southern Belle who’s view of the world is colored by her desire to be completely admired and completely unbothered with anything of a serious or unpleasant nature. She sulks when she doesn’t get her way. She secretly curses those who deny her the pleasures she craves. Her love is quite conditional and she doesn’t seem to be concerned with making or keeping real friends. And none of this changes throughout the entire novel! By the end of the book I wondered if Scarlett would have turned out the same had there been no war. I believe so. As much as she wanted to be like her kind, long-suffering mother, her desire for comfort and beauty overpowered any thoughts of attaining the nobler qualities of life. She would have used and manipulated people just as mercilessly in peace time just as she did during the War and Reconstruction. If there is any saving grace to be had in Scarlett, perhaps it is her tenacity and refusal to give up. That still doesn’t make up for her complete disregard of others. She absolutely deserved what she got in the end.
ASHLEY WILKES – I felt rather sorry for this guy…at times. His loyalty to the South, even though he knows she can’t stay alive in the national struggle, is admirable to be sure and he is completely kind and has grand ideals, but I still can’t make up my mind if his inability to adapt to Reconstruction and buckle down and make something of himself excites my pity as much as it turns me off. I want to say he’s brave for fighting in the war but I also want to say he’s completely spineless in his inability to cope with horrors of the aftermath. Reconstruction subjected him to a sense of disillusionment, loss, and a disenfranchisement in an existence that simply had no place for him anymore. He was robbed of everything his life was made of and it was sad to watch his already delicate spirit just wither away into hopelessness.
On a different note however, his treatment of Scarlett is quite unfair, in my opinion. If only he had evaluated his feelings for her for what they were and told her, Scarlett, though kicking and screaming to be sure, would’ve gotten over him eventually. Oh the shoulda, woulda coulda…
MELANIE HAMILTON WILKES – Oh dear, sweet Mrs. Wilkes!! Melanie is everything Scarlett is not. So much so that it’s heartbreaking to witness their relationship. She’s untouched by the horrors of war. Her sweet temper and love is undefiled by the devastation and upheaval around her. If possible, her grace is only heightened, her long-suffering only extended. Physically, she was frail, but emotionally, she was the strongest person in the story. She was really the glue that holds these people together. Ashely described her as the only dream that became a reality in his life. Rhett found comfort in her after the death of his beloved daughter. And shall we count the ways that Melanie supported and fought for and unconditionally loved Scarlett? I so badly wanted to tell her how naive she was being about Scarlett, how much she was being taken advantage of, but I know it would be to no avail, because she’d been told that and more by all the others in her life. Until the very end she spoke not one word against or to Scarlett and would not allow anyone else to do so in her presence. Her loyalty is the stuff true love is made of and it should be cherished and cared for tenderly. Unfortunately, Scarlett mercilessly trampled on it time after time after time. Poor, dear woman!
RHETT BUTLER – By the end of the story, my heart went out to Rhett. I didn’t like him at first. He’s cocky and rash. He’s arrogant and self-absorbed. And he’s unscrupulous in his quest for profit as a blockader, caring absolutely nothing of his reputation as a gentleman. Thus, he’s completely right when he says that he and Scarlett are meant for each other. They are exactly alike. However, he, perhaps, may be the exception to my general evaluation. It could be argued that he did change as he fell in love with Scarlett. He hoped to make her love him as much as he loved and admired her. But then perhaps this wasn’t so much a change of character so much as a peeling back of a layer of callous indifference that was a result of his childhood circumstances. After all, he proved his capabilities of respect and regard with his treatment of Melanie and later the depth of his affection and tenderness with his daughter Bonnie. Perhaps, despite his uncouth, repulsive ways, there’s more to him than even he’s willing to admit. I don’t know. Did he change or just shed a few layers? I still haven’t fully figured him out.
CONCLUSION The conclusion is left up to the reader. Mitchell doesn’t give us satisfactory ending. Or does she? We know that Scarlett loses the love of her life just when she realizes that he is the love of her life! But does Scarlett eventually win Rhett back? How does her relationship with Ashley proceed after Melanie’s death? Maybe Mitchell did that on purpose as a reflection of Reconstruction. All that struggle and disillusionment, but for what? Reconstruction ended with no official solutions or answers. What was gained? It took decades for the South to fully recover. What was learned? As far as Scarlett is concerned, I can’t say that she learns a thing, but that’s just my opinion. I mean, after a 959 page track record it’s hard to imagine a Scarlett O’Hara who understands what love truly is. But who knows? Did I hear tell about a sequel?
When I closed the book, my first thought was, That was depressing! I’m never going to read this book again!. But like a great work of literature should, it stayed with me for several days and I realized just how much I truly appreciated it. It is, indeed, a brilliant story! One that I could spend much more time dissecting. All throughout the book I kept asking myself how I would handle myself if I were in that situation. I prayed I’d never turn into a Scarlett and tried to imagine what it’d be like to be a Melanie. I found myself sympathizing with Ashley cause I understand what it’s like to want to stay in the glorious past instead of facing the uncertain future. And I hoped that if I ever find a man who loves me as much as Rhett loved Scarlett that I won’t take advantage of that love or take him for granted so mercilessly.
There you have it! My meager thoughts on this epic novel! I’d love to hear what ya’ll think of Mitchell’s masterpiece :).