By: Nikole Darnell
At first glance, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (1936) is incredibly daunting. At 1024 pages, people will often pass over it in favor of something shorter. However, those who decide to take on the challenge of reading the whole book are certainly in for an incredible story.
When I was young, I fell in love with the beautiful dresses the Southern belles wore and the parties they went to and their various dances. I fell in love with Scarlett O’Hara: men wanted her and women wanted to be her. Nothing stood in her way: not Yankees, not Carpetbaggers, and certainly not that “scallywag” Rhett Butler. As I grew older, I began to appreciate Margaret Mitchell’s writing style and the way that the book made me feel on an emotional level. My heart began to break for Scarlett because of all the challenges that she was forced to overcome at such a young age.
Yet, I also began to think beyond the character of Scarlett O’Hara and the people around her who weren’t given nearly as much of a voice: her slaves. The book clearly presents a romantic view of the Old South and also unfortunately glorifies slavery. One can hardly think about Gone with the Wind without thinking of the old south and all that goes with it—slavery included. Although the major plantation owners in the book all own slaves, the issue of slavery is hardly even addressed. Gone with the Wind follows the notoriously vain Scarlett O’Hara and her adventures in the south during the Civil War and Reconstruction eras. Slaves are present throughout the pages, but don’t play a major role in the story. In fact, even though the novel is well over a thousand pages, the word “slave(s)” only appears 82 times. It seems to me that a book that takes place in the Deep South during the 1860s would focus largely on slavery, but this isn’t the case. The purpose of Gone with the Wind is to follow the life of a young girl who grows up during this time period.
Scarlett O’Hara is more concerned with her romantic life and money than with the changing social and political environment around her. Even after Union soldiers had damaged Tara, her beloved plantation, Scarlett only worries about finding someone to marry so she can have access to his money. She stops at nothing to get what she wants and even goes as far as stealing her sister’s wealthy boyfriend. But something I find even stranger than Scarlett’s ignorance of the world around her is the way the slaves, particularly Mammy, regard the family.
While Mammy is not considered a main character in the novel, she plays a pivotal role in the progression of the story since she raised Scarlett and her sisters. We never learn Mammy’s real name; that is the title given to her when she was gifted to Mrs. O’Hara as a girl, and that is what she is called throughout the novel. Mammy serves as a nurse and caretaker to the O’Hara children, and this implies a faux-maternal relationship. The name “Mammy” is eerily close to the word “Mommy.” Scarlett and her sisters often regard Mammy as a second mother, and yet she is considered their property. Despite being owned by other humans and being stripped of her name, Mammy is as loyal to the O’Haras as can be. She even goes as far as to order the family around, as she commonly does with Scarlett: “It had always been a struggle to teach Scarlett that most of her natural impulses were unladylike. Mammy’s victories over Scarlett were hard-won and represented guile unknown to the white mind.” The other slaves in the book are not nearly as bold as Mammy and would never dream of standing up to the O’Haras. This difference is most likely due to the faux-maternal relationship Mammy has with the family, and Mitchell implies that Mammy can boss the family around and get away with it, even though she is considered to be an object. Mitchell also implies, in a racist manner, that African-American women have a kind of “guile” that allows them to manipulate those under their care. Adding to this racist fantasy, Mitchell further suggests that Mammy doesn’t find anything wrong with being owned by another human being. Ironically, neither do any of the other slave characters.
The novel also engages with the issue of slavery in other respects. At one point, Scarlett’s father can be heard complaining about how the Yankees want to take his “darkies” without compensation. Even Ashley Wilkes, arguably one of the more noble characters of the novel, has the following exchange with Scarlett:
“I can’t make money from the enforced labor and misery of others.”
“But you owned slaves!”
“They weren’t miserable. And besides, I’d have freed them all when Father died if the war hadn’t already freed them.”
Ashley states that his slaves weren’t miserable, as if there were nothing wrong with a human owning another human at all. Here, Ashley is insinuating that his slaves don’t mind being owned because “they weren’t miserable.” Incredibly racist passages such as these can be off-putting to readers. It is enough to make someone cringe by merely suggesting that it’s all right to own slaves as long as they aren’t unhappy. This idea is, of course, absolutely absurd. You can be kind to someone, but once you have ownership of them, every kind act you do to them is irrelevant. You cannot own someone and still believe that you have their best interests at heart.
In spite of all this, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind is by far my favorite novel. While it is true that its pages are filled with racial intolerance and ignorance, it is also a powerful coming of age story about a strong, yet incredibly self-centered, woman in the southern United States. Scarlett O’Hara is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, and while she manages to make quite a few enemies, she is also loved by many. I often feel guilty about claiming Gone with the Wind as my favorite novel because, at times, it can be appallingly racist. Because it provides us with a romantic view of the Old South in the 1860’s, it also, unfortunately, provides an interesting insight into racist depictions of slavery through its portrayal of African Americans. The film version of Gone with the Wind portrays the slaves as happy-go-lucky people with no drive or desires of their own who don’t mind being enslaved. In reality, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. When watching the movie or reading the book, one should definitely keep an eye out for the contrasts between reality and fiction. As a child, I enjoyed this story and loved it at face value—I saw only a story about a strong central female character and her challenges. As an adult, I am able to see that the novel is about so much more.
When reading the book through a lens that considers issues of racial prejudice, it becomes an entirely new story, one that forces us to confront the ugly realities of American history. However, the book still has plenty to offer and shouldn’t be dismissed just because it has unfavorable subject matter. It’s true that the story features slavery—something totally abhorrent—but it also has an impressive narrative structure and strong, developed characters. This juxtaposition of both excellent writing and horrific racism truly makes Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind a novel worth reading and thinking about for anybody interested in the interconnections between great literature/storytelling and the history of slavery.
Margaret Mitchell. Gone with the Wind. Australia: 2002. Project Gutenburg Australia. Web. 24 Feb. 2015. N.p. http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks02/0200161.txt