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In any review of Mitchell's only novel, one must offer an obligatory nod to how there is convergence between the historical and the personal. Other modes of analysis will focus on other aspects of the work. Yet, I think that the way in which Mitchell attempts to speak to a personal and political condition is what makes her work so distinctive. Mitchell's novel articulates how both realities were evident in the Southern experience of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Mitchell is able to write a novel that simultaneously explores the human frailty that exists in both historical and emotional reality. This might be due to a life lesson that Mitchell herself learned at a very early age. Mitchell's beloved Aunt Sis told her of the two type of people in the world, an image that embedded itself on Mitchell and her writing:
There was just two kinds of people...wheat people and buckwheat people. Take wheat — when it's ripe and a strong wind comes along, it's laid flat on the ground and it never rises again. But buckwheat yields to the wind, is flattened, but when the wind passes, it rises up just as straight as ever. Wheat people can't stand a wind; buckwheat people can.
Gone With the Wind is the exploration of this dichotomy. On both personal and political levels, the book seeks to examine "gumption" and mental strength. Its findings resonate with the reader because they seek to explain historical consciousness and human identity.
Gone With the Wind begins with life in the Pre- Civil War South. The main characters are shown in life before the war. They are presented as either being swept up by the war hysteria that grips the South, or acting in a manner that repels it. Southern life in this time is defined by the coming war with "the Yankees." Plantation owners in the South are shown as operating with a code of ethos that makes them predisposed to believe they are ready for war, without having a real clue as to what it entails. The Southern case for winning is shown to be associated with a code of being "a gentleman." Mitchell asserts that this was present throughout the South, influencing both human action and political development. Families like the Tareltons, the Wilkeses, and the O'Haras believed in the South's capacity to "lick the Yankees" and return back as heroic figures enshrined in the South's mythological self- perception. When Gerald O'Hara describes the value of land, it is clear that he speaks for the entire Southern experience in the Pre- Civil War South: "Land is the only thing in the world that amounts to anything…for 'tis the only thing in this world that lasts, and don't you be forgetting it! 'Tis the only thing worth working for, worth fighting for—worth dying for." This becomes the critical element of the plot in the novel's exposition.
Within this frame of reference is Scarlett O'Hara. One of the most dynamic characters of the novel, Scarlett's own bildungsroman is reflective of the worlds that the South straddles. On one hand, Scarlett anticipates the war with a sense of excitement, but like the South, she is completely misguided about it. She believes that her beloved Ashley Wilkes will choose her because of an almost destined perception attached to her being. As with the South, Scarlett cannot understand that the world to which she is attached is literally "gone with the wind." Her love of Ashley and the love of self that the South holds for its ways are shown to parallel one another. Both realities prevent full examination and recognition of the changing world. Both are wheat elements in a world that respects only buckwheat.
From this point, the narrative develops into the Civil War and how people survive it. The book's exploration of the war's destruction of the Southern morale, complete with Sherman's March to the Sea, is enhanced with Reconstruction. The South is shown to never fully regain its own footing with the world that has so easily passed it once its truly frail nature was revealed with the war's outcome. Scarlett experiences the war from different points of view. She sees the initial wave of success permeating the South, and then recognizes the agonizingly interminable length of the war eating away at hopes for victory. Scarlett sees Charleston and Savannah reduced to being a blip on Sherman's screen from being places with "aged grandmothers fanning themselves placidly in the sun." She also sees beloved Tara reduced to rubble. She experiences poverty and degradation, like the South itself. The days of Scarlett carelessly remarking with her trademark ""Fiddle-dee-dee!" are long gone. In its place is a steely resolve to never go hungry again.
From this point, Mitchell constructs Scarlett in divergence from her beloved South. What was once "warmth and youth and softness" has now become a "shell of hardness." Scarlett becomes realistic and harshly pragmatic, recognizing the need to marry for money when it makes sense, and to embrace economic profit and control in order to survive. Scarlett is a buckwheat character while the entirety of the South becomes more like wheat. In contrast to her beloved Ashley Wilkes, Scarlett is brutally realistic about the world in which she lives and what she must do to prosper in it. Will Brenteen's impressions of Ashley trying to survive as a farmer linger in Scarlett's mind, almost as poison: "God knows he tries his best but he warn't cut out for farmin' and he knows it as well as I do…It ain't his fault. He just warn't bred for it." Ashley's failures in the world outside of Scarlett's once falsely romanticized mind is contrasted with Rhett Butler's pragmatism and practical calculation. As a professional, Scarlett is maniacal about profit. She has no care about social expectation and "established norms" when she generates profit both as a woman and as a capitalist. Like Rhett, she cares about herself and demonstrates a grounded approach to doing so. Scarlett's dualism in love shows a reflective quality that the South, even in defeat, lacks. Scarlett understands that "had she ever understood Ashley, she would never have loved him; had she ever understood Rhett, she would never have lost him." Such a quality of reflection does not save her from being alone. However, it does enable Scarlett to persevere because "tomorrow is another day." Mitchell creates Scarlett as one equipped to handle the pain and uncertainty of the future, something that the South does not seem able to do upon the conclusion of the novel. With her commitment never to be "licked" again, the Scarlett that emerges is one of buckwheat amidst a field of wheat.
The exploration of "gumption" in both the South and in Scarlett becomes a dominant theme in the novel. The novel explores what it means to be human during times of struggle. The reaction to adversity becomes a critical element of the novel. This adversity can be brought about by external reality, such as war and upheaval. It can also come in the form of social stigma and judgments. Mitchell spends a considerable amount of time examining how social perceptions play a role in the forging of individual identity. The hierarchy that existed in Southern culture is repudiated, in a manner of thought, upon the South's totalizing loss in the war. How individuals construct reality in the wake of such a structure and in its absence is important to the novel's thematic development. The parallel failures of love is another of the novel's themes. The South's love of the past and mythology is what drives it to war and provides to solace in the stinging rebuke which accompanies failure. Scarlett is shown to also have to grapple with failed love, something that she merely channels into her own dreams and drive of success and personal fulfillment. In the novel's exploration of such themes, an introspective portrait of what defines human beings on both political and personal levels emerges.
Scarlett's willingness to adapt is one of the novel's lasting lessons. Scarlett is dynamic because Mitchell creates her as one of the few characters who adapts to a new world. The change that she undergoes is reflective of how individuals must face persevering situations. Mitchell writes Gone With the Wind in the midst of the Great Depression. Showing Scarlett as an agent of adaptation in order to survive in a changing world is reflective of the values transmitted to the reader during the Great Depression. Scarlett is a flawed character. Yet, her value is seen in the life lessons that she embodies in terms of "gumption" and representing what it means to be of "buckwheat" are intrinsic to her being. At the same time, Scarlett's adaptability reminds the reader that success through adversity is dependent on how individuals adapt and react to situations around them. This becomes a life lesson not only valid in the time within which the book was written or the time period in which it is set. The reader finds such a lesson to be relevant to their own world, as well.
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