The glamorizing of antebellum slavery and the appalling descriptions of the effects of African American enfranchisement are, to say the least, off-putting.
However, the political controversy surrounding the book wasn’t what made me reluctant to read it. To me, saying that there are “books people shouldn’t read” is almost as bad as banning books. The question should never be whether people shouldn’t read a book at all, but rather what context is necessary to properly understand the book. Anyone who reads Gone With The Wind as history, instead of as fiction, is a fool.
Rather, my concern was: do I really want to read a thousand-page romance?
It’s hard for me to imagine anything less interesting than the emotional convulsions of a 16-year-old girl trying to attract the attention of all of the boys at an antebellum ball. Yet, even in the earliest pages of the book, I couldn’t put it down. The prose is so rich, and the descriptions of Scarlett’s thoughts so vivid and compelling, that the reader is immediately drawn into the world. Having just finished the novel, I wish there were another thousand pages to read.
In Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut wrote: “There is one other book, that can teach you everything you need to know about life… it’s The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, but that’s not enough anymore.” Maybe he could have filled that void with Gone With The Wind, a novel that takes the typical “serious” subjects of philosophical novels and dashes them against the rocks of reality. Scarlett is confused by high art, dismissive of any religious sentiment, and contemptuous of the “Cause” that guides her Southern contemporaries throughout the novel. That is understandable: none of those ephemeral concepts did her a lick of good in the fires of Atlanta or the desolation of Tara. She was saved, and saved those around her, through willpower alone.
As I read Gone With The Wind, I kept thinking of psychologist Irvin Yalom’s observation, “The neurotic obliterates the present by trying to find the past in the future.” (Link.) All of the main characters are, in one way or another, stuck in a past that is – you’ll have to excuse this phrase – gone with the wind. Indeed, the whole of Southern society is stuck in the dream of rebuilding for themselves a world that will not and can not exist again.
Scarlett, however, has taken a truly Stoic view of the situation, putting aside nagging thoughts about the past and its principles with the mantra, “I will think about this later”– except, importantly, when it comes to Ashley Wilkes, into whom Scarlett has unwittingly channeled the entirety of her unreasonable nostalgia. Even Rhett Butler, described by Scarlett as “strong and unscrupulous, passionate and earthy,” is at core driven by a sentimentality so deep he does not even realize its effects.
As psychologist Donald Winnicott observed, “the absence of psychoneurotic illness may be health, but it is not life,” (link) and it is in that “illness” that Gone With The Wind comes alive.
For AMB’s take on Gone with the Wind, see: (1) Should We Change How We Talk & Write About the Civil War?; (2) How Young is Too Young to Read Gone with the Wind?