The biggest complaint I’m used to hearing about Gone with the Wind is that it glorifies the Old South and the Confederacy, ignoring the serious problems with the society in favor of a perverse longing for a society that never actually existed. I’d actually expected to find this more valid than the racism, and instead have to disagree with everybody who argues it. This book not only knows the romanticized South various characters long for never existed, it actively exploits the conflict between reality and that dream. It’s right there in the central conflict of the book, the great Ashley v Rhett showdown. Ashley is the dream, Rhett reality, and Rhett wins. No contest.
There’s no question about whether or not this was deliberate. Ashley and Rhett are formed from the same initial character clay. Ashley got molded and seasoned in the pre-war self-imagery of the South, and Rhett got the same treatment with practical reality. No really, they’re the same character aside from that. It’s not just that they both lust after Scarlett; they were both anti-war, neither of them believed the war would be quick and easy, they both value education and learning (I love every scene where Rhett picks on Scarlett’s ignorance), neither has a fundamental problem with yankees, they both respect the hell out of Melanie, they’re both anti-Klan, they both revile the other mode of living…I could go on forever here. They even agree on their assessments of each other.
“But the Ashleys of this world have the same chances and don’t take them. They just aren’t smart, Scarlett, and only the smart deserve to survive.”
“Why, Ashley said…Once at Tara he said something about the – a – dusk of the gods and about the end of the world and some such foolishness.”
“Ah, the Götterdämmerung…so he knows. Then that makes it harder for him. Most of them don’t know and will never know.” (765-766)
The repeated references to Götterdämmerung is one of the little details in the book I find the most delightful. Ashley and Rhett both bring it up, both use it to talk about the loss of the pre-war society, explicitly in terms of losing a dream, and Scarlett never really does get it. It’s a conversation they have with each other, through Scarlett. Ashley starts it in the orchard at Tara while he’s sucking at splitting kindling, and Rhett answers him later, in Atlanta with a confirmation. The dream is over, and the dreamers who can’t wake up to deal with that are in trouble.
“I’ve got to say it and I haven’t any right. But I’ve got to say it. Your – Rhett Butler. Everything he touches he poisons. And he has taken you who were so sweet and generous and gentle, for all your spirited ways, and he has done this to you – hardened you, brutalized you by his contact.” (883)
That’s Ashley speak for, “You’re interacting too much with reality and I blame my foil. Curses, why am I losing this fight?” And he’s losing because, as you may remember me writing before, Ashley is a waste of space. The book is not shy about it. Rhett says so several times, Ashley says so once or twice, and even Scarlett has figured it out by the end. Hell, loving Ashley is the flaw that makes Melanie bearable. There are people glorifying the good old days all over this book, and this book is cruel to them.
The cast of secondary characters is full of people who got over the past and went on to be successful. Mrs. Merriweather and her pies, Renee Picard, even Hugh Elsing once he gets a job he’s qualified for all move on from resting on their aristocratic upbringings and go on to find happiness. This tier of characters does really well, especially given the fates of the primary caste. Melanie is the embodiment of the pre-war idealism and she’s dead. Ashley’s the other half of it, and he’d be better off dead. Rhett, as expounded upon at length earlier this week, is the one who walks away.
There are a couple reasons one could argue that the book comes down in agreement with the glorification employed by some of its characters. The first of these is that it so unfailingly supports Melanie. Supporting Melanie is the gold standard in this book for “Are you a good person,” and since Melanie becomes, in post-war Atlanta, the embodiment of the Southern ideal, there’s a lot of mileage in that argument. But there are a couple important things to note about this. First, Melanie and Ashley were anti-secession, and abolitionists to boot. Ashley was in the Klan, but not a supporter and worked with Rhett to dismantle it. (OMG, I kinda want fanfic about Ashley and Rhett working together to dismantle the Klan. The seething mutual loathing…) Their version of the pre-war South wouldn’t have included a war, and would have ended with an amicable dissolution of slavery. It’s the lost potential for that, the opportunity for the South to take care of its own moral centering, that Melanie and Ashley embody, and that’s the vision the book relentlessly endorses. And you know what? I’m down with that. It wasn’t possible, obviously, but that would have been better all around. Lamenting that missed opportunity is fine by me.
Another point one could make to disagree with me is that Scarlett’s maturation and development into a worthwhile adult involves the cessation of her utter refusal to look back, and her sudden valuing of the old-guard society she’s shunned in favor of *gasp* Republicans and scalawags. This, combined with her return to Tara because she’s finally, despite having three different people tell her, figured out that she’s dependent on it. Again, there’s a lot of mileage to these arguments, but when taken in context with the rest of the book, I think there’s a simpler, more effective reading here. It’s not the dream-version of the past being valued. The argument isn’t that Scarlett should fall in love with the old South, but that she should respect her heritage. Her heritage, the roots she’s returning to when she goes back to Tara, aren’t grounded in the old South at all. The opening of the book spends a ton of time going into detail about the O’Hara clan in Ireland and the Robillards back to France through Haiti. The rest of the book consistently reminds us of these roots and squeezes fabulous juice from them. Any argument that Scarlett’s return to Tara is an endorsement of the Confederacy needs to account for the focus spent on her longer history and I can’t find a way to do it.
As for Scarlett suddenly valuing the old-guard and realizing that all of her yankee friends were worthless, well. People who’ve known you since childhood, shared your life experiences, and bootstrapped themselves without selling their souls vs new friends interested in you because you’re rich and make them feel like they’re part of the in-crowd? This is not a hard decision, really. You can read a lot into the fact that this was how the society in the book fell out, i.e. that all the new people were shallow worthless people while all the old people happened to be good ones, but the book spends a lot of time nuancing those broad strokes. Belle and Rhett poke holes in the hypocrisy of the old guard all over the place, the officers when Rhett is in jail and on the night of the Klan ambush, and Melanie’s repeated arguments based on the premise that good yankees exist add dimension to the new-guard. The real argument here is that one should feel a sense of solidarity with your community and respect your ties to your culture. In other words, more heritage.
How neat was that, to pick up a book you remember loving because its a family tradition and find a mirror that shows you the foibles and flaws and potential for greatness in that family and the places they’re from. It doesn’t paint a picture of a beautiful past that never was, it shows a path to a future I don’t think the South will ever get. Too many people in the South are telling the wrong stories, highlighting the wrong details, dreaming the wrong dreams. Gone with the Wind gives us Melanie, and it gives us Rhett. It creates a place that says, “I understand. Here are the people you know, doing the things you know they do, and I can be compassionate. Look what happens to them and pay attention.” If Southerners don’t, if the movie strips the subtle jabs and elegant judgements, that’s a tragedy in the audience. But, like Scarlett, the audience can learn, mature, come to value the right things. The book will still be there, ready.
Also, Rhett Butler is a hottie.