It’s a wonder that I was allowed to watch movies when I was little, because I would usually bombard my parents with questions for days afterwards. I would want to know why Luke Skywalker had to go back to the Death Star and fight with Darth Vader, whose voice it really was that Ray Kinsella heard in the cornfields, why Harry Beaton wanted to run away, and why everyone was so happy when Truman escaped from the Truman Show, even though they had loved watching that show so much. (These questions are in reference to Star Wars VI, Field of Dreams, Brigadoon, and The Truman Show respectively) Then, when I ran out of questions to ask about the plot, I’d want to know what the point of the movie was. I just assumed that any movie other than the most simple and banal cartoon was making some specific and philosophical point. My little kid self wouldn’t have had much of an appreciation for sappy chick flicks. Actually, my non-little-kid self doesn’t care much for most chick flicks either, although I have noticed that non-intellectual genres aren’t necessarily devoid of interesting and intelligent ideas. That’s even more true in the case of books than of movies.

Margaret Mitchell

Although it’s considered a great classic, Gone with the Wind isn’t exactly the most intellectually deep book. In my opinion, it’s actually quite a light read, even though it’s just as long as War and Peace, which is known for not being a light read. I’m not saying I don’t like Gone with the Wind; in fact, it’s actually one of my favorite books, and I read it about once a year. (In case this isn’t obvious by implication, I’m reading it right now) I wouldn’t even say that there’s nothing thought-provoking about it, but most of the interesting ideas it discusses are spelled out in specific detail. As far as I’m aware, there are no subtle meanings in minor plot points, no hidden metaphors in the descriptive sections and the imagery, and no room for analyzing the characters’ personalities or motives, because everything is explained specifically in the text. One doesn’t even need to wonder what the point of the book is, because Margaret Mitchell tells readers: It’s about what she calls gumption.  In my copy of the book, there’s a blurb with a quote from the author that says, “If the novel has a theme, it is that of survival. What makes some people come through catastrophes and others, apparently just as able, strong and brave go under? It happens in every upheaval. Some people survive; others don’t. What qualities are in those who fight their way through triumphantly that are lacking in those that go under? I only know that survivors used to call that quality ‘gumption’. So I wrote about people who had gumption and people who didn’t.”

Is it merely a coincidence that the author of the book and the actress who played the main character in the movie look so much like each other?

It seems to me that in that quote, Margaret Mitchell was being unnecessarily simple and concise. Her book is about a little bit more than people who have gumption and people who don’t. I think that Gone with the Wind is about the differences between people’s personalities in a more general sense. I once read a non-fiction book that used the four main characters in Gone with the Wind (Scarlett O’Hara, Rhett Butler, Ashley Wilkes, and Melanie Hamilton Wilkes) as examples of four distinct personality types. I’m not in favor of trying to sort people into a small number of personality types, but for the sake of that book’s argument, Gone with the Wind was an ideal example. Each of the main characters’ personalities is in contrast with all of the others’.

Gumption isn’t the only personality trait that Margaret Mitchell uses to differentiate the personalities of the different characters. The other main one is analytical thought. It’s pretty obvious because there are quite a few instances throughout the book in which Mitchell explains a character’s response to something by introducing it with the phrase, ‘Never analytical…’ Scarlett is frequently described as being ‘never analytical’. She takes everything at face value and acts impulsively. She shares this trait with her father and many of the residents of the plantations in the early chapters, but most of the other main characters- Ashley, Melanie, Ellen O’Hara, Mammy, Dilcey, Will- are very analytical. Rhett Butler kind of falls into either category, depending upon the situation. Actually, I suppose that the same could be said for Scarlett, because she’s certainly capable of being analytical when nobody else is there to think things through for her. I think it’s worth noting that, in terms of gumption and of analytical-ness, Ashley Wilkes’ personality is almost completely opposite Scarlett’s, while Rhett Butler’s is almost identical to hers.

I say almost because there’s one significant way in which Scarlett is very much like Ashley and very much unlike Rhett, at least in the first few chapters. She changes her mind about it throughout the book and has several meaningful conversations about it with numerous other characters, which I take as an indication that it’s another very central point of Gone with the Wind. It is the question of whether or not it’s important to adhere to social norms. Scarlett resents many things about the culture in which she lives and the restrictions that it places on her, but she is deeply rooted in the mindset behind them, and so she is reluctant to openly defy them. The combination of necessity and Rhett Butler’s influence persuade her, time and again, to go back on the principles instilled in her, to the point that she becomes alienated from her own culture, rather than being exemplary of it, as she appears to be in the first couple chapters. I said earlier that the book doesn’t leave many questions unanswered, but one that it does leave unanswered is which point of view is right. There are several instances where Scarlett asks someone, usually Rhett or Ashley, if she has done the right thing by rejecting societal values for survivalist ones, and they always give ambiguous answers, even though their own views are quite obvious. From the little that I know of Margaret Mitchell, I think she wasn’t entirely clear on what she thought of that question.

True love, according to the movies

One claim that I am not going to make about the point of Gone with the Wind is that it is a love story. I know that both the movie and the book (which are incidentally more similar than movies and books usually are) have been classified as quintessential love stories, but I think that’s silly. If one reads Gone with the Wind as a love story, it is a pretty bad one, because almost all of the characters are absurdly selfish. Scarlett and Rhett especially are, and they are held up as a prime example of the ideal literary romance. I could go more into detail about the selfishness of all of the main characters and most of the minor ones (with the exceptions of a couple of the slaves, Scarlett’s mother, and Melanie) but that’s not really my point. My point is that Gone with the Wind, just like pop culture in general, throws the word ‘love’ around very loosely and doesn’t really mean much of anything by it. Most of the relationships in the book, romantic or otherwise, are characterized more by selfishness or unbreakable social connections, than by anything that ought to be called love.

The purpose of this picture here is to add color. That’s all.

But although the people in the book don’t love each other, one other prevalent theme in Gone with the Wind is love of the land. In fact, I would argue that it is maybe even more central than the themes of personality differences and societal norms. The plantation Tara and the city Atlanta are described in such detail and are so important to Scarlett that it’s impossible to treat that point as being insignificant, and many of the major events in the plot are related to Scarlett’s love for one or the other place. Besides that, in the section of the book that occurs during the Civil War, there are frequent factual interludes that describe military maneuvers in great detail. Even though it was obviously something that the characters were aware of and concerned about, it seems a little out of place to have those kinds of details scattered throughout a story that is essentially a literary version of the ultimate chick flick. I know that Gone with the Wind is a war story and that Margaret Mitchell wanted to show the horrors of war, but she does that much better in the hospital scenes and the descriptions of the blighted countryside. The stories of the Yankees travelling through the South don’t add much to that, unless the real point is land and ownership of land. And I can think of quite a few quotes from the book (including some from the very beginning and the very end) that would back up that argument.

Thus ends my rambling and hastily written list of opinions about Gone with the Wind. And it somehow ended up being over 1500 words. I’m not quite sure how that happened.