I wanted to solicit opinions from others on this book, especially those who live in Civil War territory and/or are scholars of the war's history. I fall into neither category, and thus entered this experience with only having seen the film, back when I was a kid, and knowing it was about a pretty lady named Scarlett O'Hara who wore humongously huge hoop skirts, and a rogue named Rhett Butler who told her, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn."
Now I see it's a bit more. I daresay it's what Cold Mountain was trying to do. I actually liked Cold Mountain, but came away from it feeling so very bummed out. Somehow Gone with the Wind, though covering almost the exact same range of topics, keeps its spirits throughout. This is due in large part to Scarlett: the narrative focus is squarely upon her, and she is all about survival--and not just scraping-by survival, but fine horses and carriages and flirting and pretty clothes; in short, fun survival.
She takes it to extremes. Lots of times, she asserts that all she wants is money. "As God is my witness, I will never be hungry again," she vows, famously, outraged and insulted at finding herself scrabbling for withered radishes in the neighbors' gardens after the Yankees have been through. Understandable--but just having enough to eat won't do for Scarlett. She wants riches; she wants to do whatever she likes and lie in feather beds half the day and tell the world to go to hell if they don't approve. (There's a quote to that effect somewhere, but in 1024 pages it's hard to find.) And, as with all good heroes, she gets what she wants, but pays a steep price for it.
Her interaction with her friends, family, slaves, and Georgia "society" is of course the most important factor in her survival, not money; but it takes her the greater part of the book to realize it. Her hatred of Melanie, the too-good-to-be-true sister-in-law (and unwitting romantic rival), is hilarious at times. Only the self-centered irritability of a teenage girl, such as Scarlett is at the beginning of the book, could find so much to hate in such a sweet person. And yet we can't hate Scarlett. Not only is she funny, but she is stronger than she thinks; and more loving than she thinks as well. It is particularly moving, at the end, when Scarlett finally comprehends that Melanie is probably her best friend in the world, and that losing her will hurt as much as losing her own mother. (Question for discussion: does Melanie know about Ashley and Scarlett?)
Rhett Butler, as everyone knows, takes her down a notch; not just at the end, with his not giving a damn, but at every opportunity. His attraction to Scarlett is "tough love" of the most entertaining kind. I think we can safely claim that a massive percentage of genre romance novels postdating Gone with the Wind have attempted to recreate the Rhett/Scarlett dynamic. He's as self-centered and opportunistic as she is, but, like Scarlett, does good deeds for others left and right, even if making snide remarks while doing them, and is a far better person than he wants people to believe. (Another question for discussion, the 64-million-dollar question: Will Scarlett get Rhett back?)
Then there's the politics and the race relations. Oh gracious. It's enough to make your head explode. I've heard the difference between the North and the South described as: "In the South they don't care how close blacks get, as long as they don't get too high; and in the North they don't care how high blacks get, as long as they don't get too close." Gone with the Wind illustrates this maxim perfectly. The Georgia folk are outraged that the Yankees would impose their slave-freeing mentality upon them, raising "darkies" to free status, insisting that they get to vote. Horrors! And yet...Scarlett is the one who gets angry when rumors say the Southerners mistreated their slaves; and when some Northern ladies say they wouldn't trust darkies. The slaves at Tara were well taken care of, and Scarlett knows how lovable and trustworthy her own personal slaves have been, and would not lose them for the world. She would set her buggy whip to those Yankee gals for their prejudice if she wasn't such a lady. And yet...Scarlett's slaves were still slaves.
Turning illiterate slaves loose and exhorting them to start voting, hating their former owners, and doing whatever they please would (and did) result in massive social problems. We still see the unproductive "victim mentality" among some minority groups today as a result. And yet...slavery was wrong. No question about that. So, on the one hand, I understood the outrage of the Southerners, for having their states' rights ignored and martial law imposed and unfair rumors spread; but, on the other hand, we couldn't exactly go on allowing slavery, could we? All in all it makes me glad I have renounced my keen participation in politics.
I could go on and on. But next up I should see the film again and kvetch about that. Oh, and I don't think anyone qualifies as a red-blooded young woman if she reads this book and doesn't want to try on at least half of Scarlett's wardrobe. Not that many of us could fit into that 17-inch waist.