Monday, August 1, 2011

Margaret Mitchell--Gone with the Wind (1936)

          This was my favorite novel in seventh grade--partly because I was so darned proud of myself for reading a book that was 1448 pages, but also because it was exciting and romantic and had courageous characters who were impatient with gender expectations.  It was so gratifying to have a heroine to identify with who "was no lady." 

          I was a bit worried about reading it critically now, as I've enjoyed it as a beach kind of read for so long.  However, I was gratified to rediscover how useful it's going to be for my work on ugly women in Southern literature: page one: "Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful."  Well, there you go.  

          It is a problematic book.  Just starting with race, for a novel from 1936, it's pretty reactionary and racist.  The first African American character in the novel is Jeems, the body servant of the Tarleton twins.  Despite the fact that the narrator notes that neither Scarlett nor the Tarletons value book smarts, and “the boys had less grammar than most of their poor Cracker neighbors” (2), their speech is recounted in standard English, while that of Jeems is phonetically-spelled vernacular.  Jeems is presented as one who is wily and spies on the white folks.  He’s also presented as lacking in the “gentlemanly attributes” which it is implied make rich plantation owners (and their sons) inherently worthy of their wealth—such as when Jeems is afraid to make the kinds of jumps on horseback which the twins enjoy (14).

           The second African American character presented is Mammy, who is also such a problematic character: “Mammy felt that she owned the O’Haras, body and soul” (14).  As an aside, it’s interesting to note that she is described as “shining black, pure African, devoted to her last drop of blood to the O’Haras” (15)—the use of the word blood here is interesting to me.  Blood was such a prominent image in the description of the land that I can’t help but connect Mammy to the land.  But blood also evokes breeding—either breeding in terms of the kind of stock that Mrs. Tarleton is obsessed with, or in terms of bloodlines.  Even though Mammy is “shining black,” I can’t help but be interested in her own bloodline.  She was “raised in the bedroom of Solange Robillard, Ellen O’Hara’s mother” (15).  Who was Mammy’s father?

          The class and economic statuses pre- and post-war are an important theme in the book, showing both what was lost and what was resilient enough to return.  While the tone of the narration casts doubt on the usefulness of absolute allegiance to the Southern Cause, the inherent worthiness of economic and class status (while shown as mutable to some extent) is always ultimately affirmed.  

In fact, those of slave status are often characterized as affirming these systems of oppression.   Jeems expresses disdain for the poor white trash Slatterys, while the narrator explains how the composition of the Troop reflects the local class hierarchy: while small planters such as Able Wynder, while not rich like the big plantation owners, were respectable enough to lead the Troop, poor whites such as the Slatterys are not (11).  Such distinctions include gentlemanly behavior: “raising good cotton, riding well, shooting straight, dancing lightly, squiring the ladies with elegance  and carrying one’s liquor like a gentleman” (2).  Class and gender are implicated in these distinctions, as the narrator claims that “There was little snobbery in the troop.  Too many of their fathers and grandfathers had come up to wealth from the small farmer class for that….But the planters’ ladies and the planters’ slaves could not overlook the fact that he was not born a gentleman, even if their men folks could” (12).

This idea that men, who interact with the “real world” of war and finance, are more forgiving of slights against caste and class is a common one throughout the novel.  The pre-war women’s sphere is incredibly limited and strongly policed: women cannot afford to be as forgiving as men because the world does not forgive them.  The difference between Scarlett’s status and Rhett’s socioeconomic mobility is partly to demonstrate this.  There is a definite (albeit—that word again—problematic) attempt at a feminist undercurrent to the novel, as not only does Scarlett rebel against the strictures expected of her gender, but there’s definitely a moment that I would characterize as a consciousness-raising moment: “A startling thought this, that a woman could handle business matters as well as or better than a man, a revolutionary thought to Scarlett who had been reared in the tradition that men were omniscient and women none too bright.  Of course, she had discovered that this was not altogether true but the pleasant fiction still stuck in her mind.  Never before had she put this remarkable idea into words….during the lean months at Tara she had done a man’s work and done it well. She had been brought up to believe that a woman alone could accomplish nothing, yet she had managed the plantation without men to help her until Will came.  Why, why, her mind stuttered, I believe women could manage everything in the world without men’s help—except having babies, and God knows, no woman in her right mind would have babies if she could help it.  With the idea that she was as capable as a man came a sudden rush of pride and violent longing to prove it, to make money for herself as men made money” (862-3).

Right after this consciousness-raising realization, however, Rhett comes in to see if she needs his financial rescuing, and shows himself to be much more reactionary than Scarlett.  Though Rhett claims to admire women who value practicality over virtue, he is ultimately much less able to rid himself of the kinds of reactionary values over lost causes and virtues and romanticism than Scarlett is, as he admits to killing the black man who was “uppity to a lady, and what else could a Southern gentleman do?  And while I’m confessing, I must admit that I shot a Yankee cavalryman after some words in a barroom” (867).  Scarlett is about to criticize, but then remembers her own lack of regrets over killing a Yankee.  However, Scarlett kills the Yankee for self-preservation, while Rhett’s murders are over these ridiculous, racist/classist/regionalist?  outmoded Southern notions of honor.

He says that “I always felt that women had a hardness and endurance unknown to men, despite the pretty idea taught me in childhood that women are frail, tender, sensitive creatures” (866).  When complaining about Ashley, he says that “Among men, there’s a very unpleasant name for men who permit women to support them” (875).  All in all, on this reading, I did not find Rhett nearly as dashing and attractive as on my first read.  Of course, I found most people less sympathetic, except (surprisingly) perhaps Melanie.  [spoiler alert!] I was surprised at how saddened I was by her death on this reading.  

I’m also curious about just what the novel is saying about the South.  There is ultimately (to me) a critical tone toward the mythic idea of the South.  I’m not done thinking about either how the novel defines the South or what it’s ultimate tone toward this definition is.

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