What a year it has been! During my teaching career, it is rare that I get to read a book for myself. Most of the time I read what my students are reading, either to develop a literary curriculum or to preview the educational value of a novel.
But not this time.
During the school closures of 2020 and the first part of 2021, I decided to use some of my extra time at home to read a novel for myself.
And oh boy, did I pick a doozy.
I grew up loving the film Gone with the Wind, my parents using it as a teaching tool to explain reconstruction, racism, and women empowerment. Yet, something is missing in the film that I could never put my thumb on until I read the novel.
Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell has become one of my all-time favorite novels. With its length, this is not an easy novel to tackle, but it is addicting. Even with all the soap-opera qualities of Scarlett O’Hara’s relationships, there is a historical factor and commentary worth pulling out. A realistic grit and perspective to life that is glossed over in the film.
There is so much to this story that one could write a novel in of itself about the characters and themes they present. For the purposes of this post, I am going to focus on one character: our protagonist Scarlett O’Hara. And I am going to discuss details that I think are sorely forgotten or brushed aside in comparing her to her film counterpart. And thirdly, why discussing and reading a Civil War novel from the 1930’s still matters.
I loved 'book Scarlett,' so much more so than the 'film Scarlett.' For all her faults and imperfections, she was someone very real to me. In a way, I saw her as an anti-hero, a woman with questionable ethics desperately vying to adapt to a modern world, with family and friends that solely depend on her. Yet, she is still bogged down by the preconceived, racist, and chauvinistic attitudes she was raised with.
Scarlett is truly a wealthy white southerner who would’ve lived during the Civil War and Reconstruction eras in the south. She gave insight into how the white and wealthy class lived and thought. She also provided commentary on their horrific faults. My stomach churned when she shared her thoughts on slavery, putting a rose-colored lens on its horrors. I had to remind myself that historically, these were truly the thoughts of these kinds of people and how they justified their unspeakable actions.
But her constant criticism of the ‘lost cause’ narration was a large redeeming factor to her character. While the film is a product of its time, glorifying the lost cause, Scarlett condemns it multiple times throughout the novel (although her condemning of the lost cause is far from altruistic). This was accompanied by her commentary on how the old southerners around her needed to change for the upcoming modern times, which was lost in the film. I admired her fierce defiance, a step in the right direction in breaking free of the society she was raised in. She became a business women when working women were looked down upon, and went against the sphere of influence women were supposed to live within. Throughout the novel, she thinks of how she should be like her mother: a perfect southern plantation lady. And yet, she comes to despise everything her mother was. She is torn between admiring and loathing. Scarlett does things that she is is told only men do and comes to realize the south she once loved was but a fantasy. After running her own lumber business and tasting independence, she admits that she likes this new world better. She prefers reality and hopes that the world continues to change.
So why does any of this matter today?
To be honest, I was drawn to this novel because of the movements happening around us now. In teaching social studies, I realized that students do not know enough about the history behind these movements and the historical events that drive them. I remember in my high school years glossing over the Civil War and briefly studying reconstruction. Fortunately, I had parents who filled in gaps. I wanted to read a narrative book about this era of US history that has impacted us today.
Will my reading stop here? Definitely not. This is only one perspective, one side of the story. There is a vast number of books about this era that need to be reread and revisited.
Thank you for reading, as always--enjoy life!