It’s been quite a few years since I started reading seriously and yet it was surprising to many that I had not yet read ‘Gone With the Wind’. Its fame as an epic novel, a not-to-be-missed novel however did not make me take it up until last week. And now that I have read it I wonder why I never read it before.
For one it’s a mighty lengthy novel and I love those. I like to put up a challenge for myself each time and check my reading speed with my comprehension and retention. And this time I must say I was at one of my best because its such a wonderful book.
The setting of the strife-torn years of the American Civil War gives the writer a lot of space to play with characters. Their desire to have the happy old days back and the necessity to adjust to the changed times to survive, gives every character sufficient space to make his presence felt and add to the story. Be it the heroine Scarlett or the former convict Archie, each one creates an impression upon the final outcome of the book.
The story is of Scarlett O’Hara, a beautiful and headstrong girl of 16 years who is in love with Ashely Wilkes, though almost all the county boys are in love with her. However when she learns of his engagement to Melanie Hamilton, a rather plain looking girl who also happens to be his cousin, she is enraged and in a fit of anger decides to marry Charles, Melanie’s brother. A few days after the wedding Charles and Ashley go off to fight the war and soon Charles is dead and Scarlett is with his baby. But she continues to love Ashley. Widowhood and baby leave her depressed for she wishes to enjoy life, and the real story begins when she reaches
All this happens against the backdrop of the American Civil War and I think no history book could have explained the nuances of the Civil War as this book does. Though wars are fought on the battlefield, the real war is in the homes of the thousands of sufferers. The real war begins only after the end of that on the battlefield. And Gone With The Wind portrays this fabulously. The dire socio-economic conditions created by the war bring home to the reader the futility of war. The sudden descend to poverty of the region, the need to work on fields, and as labor, the starvation and money-mindedness that develops through it among the characters, the complete chaos in the social order, are so well documented, that not only does one understand the implications of the American Civil War but War as a whole. Though one despises Rhett Butler for making money out of the destruction, we also nod in agreement with him, for survival without such an attitude would be impossible in those conditions. Such conditions also force Scarlett to do a man’s work for which she is criticized and hated, but which at the same time marks the ushering in of the empowerment of women. It speaks of the strength - both physical and psychological - of the womenfolk and makes us realize that without their support and the work that they do behind the scenes, no society would recuperate from the wounds of a war. It could be the baking activity of Mrs. Merriweather, an otherwise conservative and ‘contentious’ woman or the lumber mills of Scarlett, it all adds to the restructuring of society.
Moving on to the characters, I think that of Scarlett is very well-written and that every girl would be able to relate to her to differing extents. Scarlett loves being the belle of the county, and wants people to know her as kind and gentle as her mother and at the same time has that negative side to her. Her selfishness, almost wicked ways of facing the times and making and thinking money, make one think if that is not what we would do in similar circumstances. Though her means are ‘wrong’ and actions hateful, it is difficult to not like her and feel sorry at times. And when she finally realizes her love for the charming Rhett Butler, only to be shaken off by him, one cannot help but feel sorry for her. All through the novel her portrayal as a tough and headstrong woman is quite appealing, especially to a person in our times of women’s lib and against the backdrop of the descriptions of behavior expected of a lady then.
I would definitely like to mention that the vivid descriptions of ‘ladylike behavior’ though romantic in a manner are also quite disgusting, for they mean that the only purpose of a woman’s life is to ‘catch a good man’. Right from the outer dressing of the girl to her conscience, everything is decided by the norms of behavior set down by society and through the initial part of the book they seem to be the best for a girl. Any deviation is looked at with disgust and at times even the reader is lead into believing that Scarlett’s behavior is ‘wrong’. It is commendable that the writer has the power to make the reader think as if in those times.
Another very strong character in the novel is Rhett Butler, the most despicable man around but who carries a heart full of love for Scarlett and his little daughter Bonnie. His cunning ways and talk have a charm to them that would appeal to any young lady, for each one looks for a streak of cunningness to her man to add spice to the adventure of life. But yet he is despised because he is such, has the gall to talk against the ‘Cause’, make money out of the destruction of people and show least respect for any woman around. With the arrival of his daughter Bonnie, out of wedlock with Scarlett, a perfect match to say the least, a new dimension of his character is unfolded. The indefinable love he showers upon his child, the change in attitude and behavior only for her sake, make him quite dear to the reader. And his grief upon her death and disillusionment of sorts after Scarlett’s illness, get him the readers’ sympathy. One also feels sorry for Scarlett because she is unable to understand his love. Rhett Butler is that charming, debonair and cunning man whom you can neither choose to love nor hate.
That apart the writer has come up with a very strong but weak character, which in spite of appearing at the fringes of the story is a very important part of it all. Melanie Hamilton, the plain and genuinely kind wife of Ashley Wilkes. She is physically not very attractive and also weak, but the kindness of her heart makes people rally around her and she becomes the ‘unlikely’ centre of attraction. Her genuinity and innocence at times seem exaggerated but one also wants to believe that such people exist in this world. She is not very prominent and appears in bits and pieces throughout the novel. Yet her presence across the book and through the unfolding of the story is unmistakable. She comes forth as a pillar of strength for Ashley and Scarlett, though Scarlett is apparently the stronger character. This is evident at the time of her death and also in the various instances where Scarlett fears not the criticism of the society but rather being upbraided by Melanie. Even Rhett Butler is shown as respecting only her as a real lady. Her inner strength is displayed at the time of the Yankee soldier’s killing, the discovery of Scarlett and Ashely’s relationship, her capacity to pacify the grieving
Gone With The Wind with its numerous characters and story spread across a thousand pages is difficult to summaries in a few words. Each character deserves at least some space and so I shall stop with discussing the three ‘central’ characters.
The language of the book is simple, though at times the language of the blacks becomes uncomprehendable. However it adds to the dialogue-like feel of the book. Each character is vividly described and were I a painter, I would have had no problems painting every one of them. The social situation, the turmoil of the times and the disastrous impact of it on the lives of the characters are very well put forth and help complete the visualization for the reader. Another very important aspect of the book according to me is that it is devoid of any elaborate and unnecessary sex scenes. For most of the times such instances instead of adding to the novel, divert the reader from the main theme and one can make out that they have been added only to either increase the length of the book or because ‘readers’ like it’. It’s applaudable that the writer has kept away from any such temptations and not spoilt the fun of the book through such tricks, though there is ample space in the book for them too.
All in all it is a must read, though I would definitely say that it should be read at a time when one is mature enough to have patience and stamina to read it out within maximum a week’s time, as the atmosphere such a reading creates aids the understanding of the characters and would definitely make the reader appreciate the book better.