The Halls of Greatness

There are the ordinary literary works. And then there is that small group of very rare literary works whose impact transcends its time, and whose individual reputation precedes it. These are works which have long been minted into the halls of the literary Parthenon. These seminal works played key roles in the appreciation of the different aspects of the recent cultural revolutions. Without a doubt, Margaret Mitchell’s prestigious tour de force, Gone With the Wind belongs to these hallowed halls of greatness.

The cultural influences of Gone With the Wind goes beyond its time. A behemoth of an historical novel, it relates the story of a young woman, Scarlett O’Hara, as she grows up in her home state of Georgia. Spoiled and playful by nature, she is a debutante whose future was pretty much certain. Just when she thought that life is sailing smoothly, it deals her and her family with one of its cruelest jokes.

Beyond the horizon, trouble is brewing. The trouble would blow up and develop into a full blown war, American Civil War. The story charts Scarlett’s story during the war and how she rose from the ashes of the war during the ensuing Reconstruction Era. The debutante develops into a bulwark of strength for those around her. She grows and matures into a domineering woman, shaped by the circumstances surrounding her and the challenges and the prejudices that she has faced.

“I was never one to patiently pick up broken fragments and glue them together again and tell myself that the mended whole was as good as new. What is broken is broken – and I’d rather remember it as it was at its best than mend it and see the broken places as long as I lived.” ~ Margaret Mitchell, Gone With the Wind

A Kaleidoscope of Vibrant Colors

In many an instance, certain facets define the story. In the case of Gone With the Wind, the centrifugal figure is Scarlett O’Hara. The story begun and ended with her. Many of the critical junctures in the story stemmed from her and her decisions. It was her psyche and persona that made nearly one half of the story and attracted the diverse reactions from the readers. Mitchell did a stellar job in creating a character who could elicit a wide-range of reactions from readers. In Scarlett, Mitchell was able to draw the archetype of the Southern belle – physically attractive but full of charm and sophisticated social skills.

Whilst Scarlett’s coming-of-age forms a healthy portion of the novel’a backdrop, its historical undercurrents also create a beguiling background to an already compelling story. Two defining elements of the Deep American South history was incorporated into the story. The first defining moment was the American Civil War and the ensuing Reconstruction period. The elements of war gave the story a different texture and complexion which is akin to Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

Another key element in the history of the Deep South is slavery, a ubiquitous subject that has been dealt with in a lot of stories. The caste system of the Deep South – basically the Whites and African Americans – was thoroughly captured by Mitchell in  the novel. More importantly, Mitchell gave the slaves in the story voices. Their role in the Deep South society and history was highlighted, one that is rarely captured. The slaves were treated not as secondary characters but main characters who also influence the flow of the story. Mammy, Scarlett’s maid, in particular, is a fine example.

“No, my dear, I’m not in love with you, no more than you are with me, and if I were, you would be the last person I’d ever tell. God help the man who ever really loves you. You’d break his heart, my darling, cruel, destructive little cat who is so careless and confident she doesn’t even trouble to sheathe her claws.” ~ Margaret Mitchell, Gone With the Wind

A Character Study

Amidst the plethora of subjects and varying themes, one centrifugal element stands out all through out the narrative. From the onset, the prevailing theme was survival; even Mitchell herself acknowledged that it was the novel’s heart. She was once quoted saying, “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.”

But Scarlett is more than just the symbol of survival, she is the definition of feminist ideals in a society that is highly patriarchal and frowns upon the role of women. Scarlett fought against the prejudices on her sex. She stood tall, with dignity, and sometimes, pride, and proved to her every detractor that she can do it. As the adage goes, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Her independence and strong-will, however, also attracts trouble.

Although Scarlett was emotionally hardened by the various adversaries that came after her from various corners, she still possessed a softer side. However, Scarlett has that weakness that is universal – the yearning for romance and romantic love. These different dimensions in Scarlett’s personality makes her relateable. Mitchell found the perfect equilibrium by creating an equally independent character in Rhett Butler. Her on and off romance with Rhett is a searing element of the story.

“She was darkness and he was darkness and there had never been anything before this time, only darkness and his lips upon her. She tried to speak and his mouth was over hers again. Suddenly she had a wild thrill such as she had never known; joy, fear, madness, excitement, surrender to arms that were too strong, lips too bruising, fate that moved too fast.” ~ Margaret Mitchell, Gone With the Wind

The Great American Novel

The winner of the 1937 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Gone With the Wind is a multi-dimensional literary work that encompasses a plethora of subjects. It was not, however, in this facet that Mitchell’s real genius lie. The real genius in the novel lies in Mitchell’s writing and her capability of sewing these various subjects, themes and elements together into one cohesive work of fiction, a wonderful tapestry even.

Reading a nearly-1,000-page book is in itself an endeavor and a tedious one at that. Mitchell, piqued her readers’ interest with her beguiling and fiery characters, and her  subplots. However, it was her writing that made these various elements stand out. Moreover, there was a balance in all of these elements. Mitchell did a commendable job in finding the balance.

Mitchell used various elements that she had in hand – a colorful background that is filled with interesting history and stories,  and a wealth of experience from living being surrounded by this background. The different elements were finely and powerfully translated into a colossal work of fiction. Gone With the Wind is the height of great American literature. It had nearly everything perfect. Its status as one of literature’s greatest work is nothing but a foregone conclusion.

“Hunger gnawed at her empty stomach again and she said aloud: ‘As God is my witness, and God is my witness, the Yankees aren’t going to lick me. I’m going to live through this, and when it’s over, I’m never going to be hungry again. No, nor any of my folks. If I have to steal or kill – as God is my witness, I’m never going to be hungry again.” ~ Margaret Mitchell, Gone With the Wind

Gone With the Wind was Mitchell’s only published work in her lifetime. But it was more than enough to cement her status as one of America’s premier storytellers. Mitchell proved that one powerful and quality act can inspire a movement and a change. A murmur with a wonderful message can become a loud voice that echoes through the din.

Based on a 2014 poll, Gone With the Wind lags behind the Bible as the second most favorite book of American readers. This only shows Gone With the Wind’s impact. Whilst Gone With the Wind is a story that was molded from the past, it is a story whose finer details reverberate towards the future. It is a novel that will forever be embedded in every reader’s mind.

Rating:

95%

Characters (30%) – 27%
Plot (30%) – 29%
Writing (25%) – 25%
Overall Impact (15%) – 15%

I’ve always been intimidated by this colossal Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece. It has earned numerous accolades and many a literary pundit look up to it. Its reputation precedes it and even though I barely had any iota on what the story was about, I was still daunted. Before reading this classic, I only knew two things about the book – Scarlett O’Hara’s ubiquitous name and the novel’s movie adaptation. My naivete even made me confuse it with Tom Hanks’ film, Cast Away.

Being hemmed into the vivid tapestry of the novel, I found my initial intimidation unfounded. The same experience I had with Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace began to resonate. Both are literary classics and lengthy, hence, the intimidation. It was a pleasant surprise finding it an easy read, albeit complex.

Book Specs

Author: Margaret Mitchell
Publisher:
Scribner
Publishing Date: 2011
Number of Pages: 959 pages
Genre: Historical

Synopsis

Margaret Mitchell’s epic saga of love and war has long been heralded as The Great American Novel. Gone With the Wind explores the depths of human passions with indelible depictions of the burning fields and cities of Civil War and Reconstruction America. In the two main characters, the irresistible, tenacious Scarlett O’Hara and the formidable, debonair Rhett Butler, Margaret Mitchell gives us a timeless story of survival and two of the most famous lovers in the English-speaking world since Romeo and Juliet. Gone With the Wind is a thrilling, haunting, and vivid book that readers will remember for the rest of their lives.

About the Author

800px-Margaret_Mitchell_NYWTS.jpg

(Picture by Wikipedia) Margaret Munnerlyn Mitchell was born on November 8, 1900 in Atlanta, Georgia to a wealth and politically prominent family. She grew up on Jackson Hill in downtown Atlanta.

The young Mitchell was an avid reader, indulging mostly in “boy’s stories”. Reading was nurtured in her family and she was influenced by a variety of works at a young age. It didn’t take long before she would give writing a hand. She started with stories about animals before going to fairy tales and adventure stories.

While attending school at Atlanta’s Washington Seminary (now The Westminster Schools), Mitchell was active in her schools’ drama club. She also received encouragement for her writing from her English teacher. Despite her father’s protests, Mitchell was enrolled by her mother in Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts after graduating from the Washington Seminary.

Mitchell’s writing career shifted to journalism in order to support herself during her marriage to Berrien “Red” Kinnard Upshaw. She got a job writing feature articles for The Atlanta Journal. After leaving her job at The Atlanta Journal in 1926, Mitchell begun writing what was to define her literary career – Gone With the Wind. Ten years later, it was published and went on to become a literary sensation, winning the prestigious Pulitzer Prize in 1937.

While on her way to see the movie A Canterbury Tale on the evening of August 11, 1949, she was struck by a speeding automobile as she crossed Peachtree Street at 13th Street in Atlanta. She passed away five days later.