Gone with the Wind, one of the best-selling novels of all time, is the story of the beautiful, headstrong daughter of a wealthy plantation owner who, when reduced to poverty and hardship in the wake of Union general William Tecumseh Sherman’s destruction of the countryside, uses her femininity to regain her lost wealth. Having at last attained this goal, she is unable to hold the one man she really loves.
A historical romance of prodigious proportions, this first novel by a then-unknown author went through twelve printings within two months of publication. Its 1,037 pages have enthralled millions, and the sales in a single year exceeded two million copies. The novel has been translated into more than two dozen languages and, even after many years, sales have continued at a pace brisk enough to please any publisher. The motion picture version lives up to Hollywood’s superlatives.
The unprecedented success of Margaret Mitchell’s only novel may be attributed to a combination of the author’s style—a sustained narrative power combined with remarkable character delineation—and the universality of her subject: the struggle for survival when the life to which one is accustomed is abruptly swept away. In spite of the fast-moving narrative, one is aware of this underlying thread.
Perhaps the most lasting impression one gets from the novel, however, is the skill with which Mitchell handles her characterizations. Scarlett O’Hara is, without question, one of the most memorable characters in fiction. So lifelike did she become in the public mind that the producers of the motion picture preferred not to risk an established actress in the role and thus be accused of miscasting. For this reason, among others (including the reaping of enormous publicity in the “search for Scarlett”), Vivien Leigh was chosen.
The story of Scarlett alone would be reason enough for a best seller; many books have achieved such fame on far less. This daughter of Irish temper and French sensibilities displays emotions, many of them unladylike, that grip the reader. One follows her intense, futile love for Ashley Wilkes, her spiteful marriage to Charles Hamilton, her opportunistic stealing of her sister’s fiancé, Frank Kennedy, and her grasping arrangement of convenience with Rhett Butler. One is sometimes appalled at her callous use of her sex to gain her ends; one looks in vain for some sign of lofty ideals in this woman; and yet, in spite of all of this, one finds laudable her will to survive and her contempt for her conquerors. She is a feminist and a romantic heroine at the same time. Those who would disparage her do so at the risk of belittling themselves, as envious schoolchildren might in making fun of the most popular girl in the school.
Three other characters stand out, admirably drawn but not quite inspiring the amount of interest created by Scarlett. Rhett Butler, dissolute son of Charleston blue bloods, is a cynical, materialistic blockade runner who consorts openly with the enemy and scoffs at patriotic ideals. Forceful and masculine, he is accustomed to taking what he wants. His one unfulfilled desire is the love of Scarlett, and this frustration finally breaks his spirit. When at last, after several years of unhappy marriage, he gains her love as Ashley fails her, Rhett, a bitter, fleshy drinker, has already reached his decision to leave her.
Ashley, the weak-willed object of Scarlett’s misguided passion, depicts the impractical idealist dependent on a stronger will to solve life’s problems for him. When Scarlett observes his unstable reaction to his wife’s death, she is finally able to see him as he really is. Shorn of his cavalier manners and the aura of courtly romance she has bestowed upon him, he becomes an ineffectual weakling in her eyes, and the sterility of her love for him is at last apparent.
Melanie, in a way a winner despite her death at the end of the novel, finds happiness and tranquillity in her devotion to her insecure husband. Reticent, ladylike, saccharine, but intellectually attuned to Ashley, there is never any question that she, not Scarlett, should be Ashley’s wife.
High-spirited Scarlett is sixteen years old when the Civil War begins. She fancies herself in love with Ashley, the sensitive, sophisticated son at a neighboring plantation, but he does not acknowledge her love. Upon the announcement of his engagement to his soft-spoken cousin Melanie Hamilton, Scarlett impetuously marries Melanie’s brother Charles, to that surprised young man’s pride and delight. Less than a year later, Scarlett is a war widow and an unwilling mother. Leaving her father’s plantation, Tara, in the middle of a war, Scarlett travels to Atlanta to stay with her dead husband’s relatives. Later, as Atlanta is besieged by Sherman’s troops, Scarlett returns home to Tara, crossing the battle lines at night in a wagon provided by Rhett. With her are Melanie and Ashley’s day-old son, whom Scarlett delivered as guns sounded in the distance. She returns to find her home in ruins and her family nearly destroyed. These events shape the character of Scarlett, and they explain the hardness and avarice that prompt many of her actions. For example, she is determined to hold on to Tara, and when the carpetbaggers arbitrarily levy an extra three-hundred-dollar tax, with the expectation of taking over the property for unpaid taxes, Scarlett unhesitatingly marries store owner Frank Kennedy, who is engaged to her sister Suellen. He dutifully pays the three-hundred-dollar tax.
Mitchell’s art makes such reprehensible acts seem normal under the circumstances, for the author brings readers along the same harsh road Scarlett has traveled. Once Scarlett learns the law of war, her native abilities come into their own. Borrowing money from Rhett, she buys and successfully operates a sawmill and soon is financially secure. When Frank is killed by occupation troops, she marries Rhett, who has amassed half a million dollars during the war as a blockade runner. Even the birth of a child, Bonnie Blue, does not bring happiness to this union, however, because of the love for Ashley to which Scarlett absurdly clings. Rhett, always jealous of her contrary emotion, is unable to cope. Ironically, Rhett overcomes his love for Scarlett just as she discovers that it is he, not Ashley, whom she loves. When she tries to tell him this, Rhett announces brusquely that she is too late, that he is leaving her forever. There is no mistaking the finality of his words, but, characteristically, Scarlett, the self-confident schemer, does not accept them as such. Gone with the Wind is not a happy book. There are flicks of humor, but, for the most part, a deadly seriousness pervades the novel, and in the end the callous, grasping cynicism of the leading characters mocks them and, properly, leaves them with an empty loneliness. Gone with the Wind will remain a memorable work of literature not only because Scarlett O’Hara embodies some of the most admirable, if not respectable, qualities of human behavior but also because it chronicles a period and culture of American history that have become mythic in their proportions.