We decided to read Gone With The Wind after our planned ‘light’ read of the Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. Ya-ya, for its part, was supposed to be our reprieve after Moby Dick. It turned out to be a great read though definitely heavier than expected. It plumbed the best and worst of dynamics between mothers and daughters not to mention mental illness, child abuse, women’s friendships, resilience, and even redemption. (You can read Torey’s review here (add link).)
And the Gone with the Wind connection in Ya-Ya is powerful and nuanced. The girls travel to Atlanta with plans to see the premier of the movie and high hopes of glimpsing Clark Gable or Vivian Leigh. Their hosts view them as bumpkins and shock them with their snobbery and overtly hostile racism toward the black maid who traveled with them, serving as their chaperone. Founding Ya-Ya Vivi stands up for the maid and puts the son in his place and the girls end up missing the movie and being sent home in disgrace because of her outburst. But even as Vivi can’t stomach the hostility of the Atlanta elitists, she is childish and lacking empathy when she finds the maid in tears, missing her family. And she remains largely blind to the divisions of class and race in her own world thereafter. She (like many of her peers) was raised by black women. And while she remains close to and even dependent on them as an adult (and is loved well in return and her children protected by them), she never seems to acknowledge, much less address, the ways that their relationship isn’t reciprocal. But it remains poignantly obvious to us as readers. (All of which reminds me of Viola Davis’ understandable concern about her role in The Help.)
The point is that GWTW seemed a natural choice after Ya-Ya. But there’s no doubt that it’s a strange time in history to be reading a story that can be rightly characterized as glorifying the South and it’s slave-dependent plantations. I admit I slogged through the first three quarters of the book. Torey kept asking me, ‘do you like it any better?’ and I’d just shake my head. For the last bit, I started getting hopeful the book would turn out better than my faint childhood memories of the movie (spoiler: it didn’t).
Scarlett O’Hara is known as one of the most singularly unlikable characters in the past two hundred years or so. Not to pile on, but rightly so. It’s true she’s enduring various forms of hell and privation and often seems to be the only woman not on the edge of a swoon. And she’s a survivor. I respect that as well as her ability to fight for those in need, even if she does it begrudgingly. But she remains more child than woman and utterly incapable, until near the end of the saga, of empathy. Yes, she survives but usually does so neck deep in betrayal, spite, and sheer meanness. And Ashley? I was weary of his mealy-mouthed foppishness and incompetence well before he left to fight in a war he didn’t believe in.
Rhett sees through Scarlett and loves her anyway. He’s a scoundrel who has no qualms about getting rich on the fear or foolishness of others. But somewhere under his roguishness is a tender soul. His ability to infuriate Scarlett turns out to be attempts to win her heart. He’s gentlest and most generous with the least (including Scarlett’s children from her first two marriages) and unsparing toward hypocrites. I found myself rooting for him in spite of myself.
But the slaves who become former slaves? Mamie and Uncle Peter and Prissy and the rest aren’t much more than caricatures of human beings who barely speak English. They are good and loyal and capable but their real stories and struggles are hardly a subtext in the novel. We’re apparently expected to be proud of them for their ‘loyalty’ to the O’Hara and Wilkes families, glad they’ve continued to ‘remember their place’ or whatever. We’re meant to celebrate the fact that they’ve stayed on to serve their former masters and raise their children and that they make snide comments about ‘free-borns.’
All of which is closely related to the classism. The so-called white trash is held responsible for Ellen’s death and are, as a group, presumably irredeemable. Any gains they make are attributed to acquisitiveness and consorting with low lives and carpetbaggers.
And then there’s Melanie. She’s certainly the kindest and, in many ways, the most courageous character. She is fiercely loyal. Even in her frailty, she takes care of those who depend on her (including her husband Ashley), and welcomes strangers. But the truth is that Melanie is the most dangerous of them all. We can’t help but see her tender heart or her goodness. While she’s physically weak and childlike, she’s not a just a lady, she’s the strongest woman in the story (other than the former slaves whose lives we don’t see enough of to know for sure). But she is the embodiment of the kind of prejudices that lead to generational hatred and violence. She is presented as unselfconsciously good. But in the name of misplaced loyalty, she embraces hate not only for herself but also as the birthright of her children. After refusing to meet “any Republican or any Scallawag,” she explains why:
“…oh, Scarlett!’ Suddenly words began to bubble out, swift hot words and there was inflexible hate in the low voice. ‘Can you forget what these people did to use? Can you forget darling Charlie dead and Ashley’s health ruined and Twelve Oaks burned…it was these same people who robbed us and tortured us and left us to starve that you invited to your party! The same people who have set the darkies up to lord it over us, who are robbing us and keeping our men from voting! I can’t forget. I won’t forget. I won’t let my Beau forget and I’ll teach my grandchildren to hate these people—and my grandchildren’s grandchildren if God lets me live that long!” (810-811).
She vows to not merely hold onto to hate for herself but to cultivate it. She will refuse, as much as it depends on her, to let her descendants make peace with Yankees. And, it’s assumed, anyone who was or might have been enslaved by her family who doesn’t remain subservient.
This kind of complicated vendetta certainly isn’t unique to the United States. But it is part of our history as a nation. It’s racism, yes, and that is our original sin that’s tainted so much (and not just in the South). But it’s more than that. It’s a willingness to demonize enemies and their children in perpetuity and to feel righteous doing it. In the current contentious climate, Melanie’s words ring out as indictment. They resonate as invitation to be different and do better. To do the work, wherever we live, of actually loving our neighbors and those with whom we may disagree. Which starts with recognizing their humanity and our own. Which means listening to their stories and choosing to care about what happens to their children as well as our own. Which feels just right about now.
This, by the way, is why we read books we don’t always enjoy. It’s why we read stories with protagonists whose choices we find objectionable or worse at times. Speaking about ‘boring’ literature, Clare writes, “…we have the choice to direct our attention to what matters, which gives us perhaps some agency against larger forces that attempt to manipulate it to their own ends. Being attentive may not be so easy in practice, and focusing on something means we miss noticing other things (just Google the Harvard experiment “gorillas and attention”), but it’s imperative that we try.”
 Clare, Ralph, “How We Think of Our Lives: Boredom in Contemporary Literature” in IAI News, https://iai.tv/articles/how-we-think-of-our-lives-boredom-in-contemporary-literature-auid-1209