Recently I had an urge to reread Gone With The Wind for the first time. I have reread passages of course, but I’ve only read it the whole way through since I was twelve when there was a craze at school. How super cool we were!
When I first read it I expected a love story, not unsurprisingly. Gone With The Wind has oft been enthusiastically marketed as such, presumably because it suited the film version and also because some of the subjects are quite controversial. Incidentally, I’m not concerning myself in the slightest about spoilers in this one. It’s nearly a hundred years old. If you’re that fussed, you really should have read it by now.
Back to the non love story. I know, I know. Rhett and Scarlett, the greatest lovers ever. Rubbish. This story is about one person only and that is Scarlett O’Hara. The themes are many, but they are all played out through Scarlett. Rhett is only included where he impacts on Scarlett’s life. We are never concerned with his inner life, at least not until he and Scarlett are actually married. In fact, for most of the story he seems to exist only to encourage Scarlett to become more than her training as a southern belle.
The book traces the fortunes of the South from happy land of plenty to defeated victims, to a state finding its feet again as part of an united America. At it’s heart, that is what Gone With The Wind is about. The story opens, quite literally, on the eve of the civil war. Scarlett lives at Tara, a cotton plantation built from nothing by her Irish immigrant father. She is pretty and spoiled and has been groomed for marriage by her mother and her Mammy, the house slave who raised her. Slaves are a vital part of this civilization, and that is one of the most controversial parts of the book. Of course slavery was a massive part of the American civil war and widely agreed to have been a bad thing, but here there is no apology, and no attempt to soften Scarlett’s attitude towards slavery, which is a good thing. Scarlett is shown in these opening chapters to be a child of her circumstances, and slaves are a massive part of those circumstances. The evening is overshadowed by the prospect of a huge society barbeque the following day, and it’s during that barbeque that war is announced. At that moment, the world Scarlett was prepared for and is comfortable in collapses.
A big part of the book is the dichotomy between Rhett and Ashley. Ashley Wilkes is a society boy, a little estranged from his culture we learn, but fundamentally a part of it as much as Scarlett is. He is capable of doing so many of the things that characterise manliness, drinking, shooting, hunting, but deep down he is a cerebral being, loving books and poetry. He is not equipped for his world to end, and yet it does. He is honest and honorable, and Scarlett loves him fiercely. Rhett, by contrast, has cast himself out of society. He is a shocking figure, and loves to be so. He thinks of nothing but what suits him, and holds society in utter contempt. As a result, Scarlett hates him.
Love has very difficult to do with it when it comes to marriage in Gone With The Wind, at least for the ladies. Scarlett marries three times, and not one of them is for love. The first, to Charles Hamilton, is an impulse decision, fuelled by anger and spite, and it is one she comes to bitterly regret. The second, to Frank Kennedy, is done out of necessity, because she and Tara needs money. And finally she marries Rhett, but theirs is a tremendously unsuccessful reunion. She marries him for fun, not realising that he loves her, and perhaps it would have worked were it not for the birth of their child, Bonnie. In the face of fatherhood, Rhett comes to regret all the snubs he has dealt society, and the unwomanly way he encouraged Scarlett to behave. Suddenly he sees consequences, not just for himself but for his child. He yearns for his daughter to be able to enter society and cuts Scarlett off to achieve it. This, plus his knowledge of her love for Ashley, creates such a rift between them that when the unthinkable happens and Bonnie dies, they are unable to come together as a couple. At the final moment, when Scarlett realises she loves Rhett, it is too late. The marriage is over.
I know many readers like to imagine Scarlett and Rhett reuniting. There’s a whole book dedicated to that fantasy. And of course, twelve year old me wanted that too. But more adult me recognises that the ending is better left alone. Scarlett and Rhett are not capable of being a happy couple. Their characters area far too similar, and although they both wish to flout convention in favour of what they want, they don’t communicate enough to do this in tandem. To me it is a lost cause. Definitely tragic. But still a lost cause.