My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Literary speaking, this book is as well written as any I have read. Amazing, well developed characters; perfect story pacing and dialogue; a narrative style that keeps your interest throughout the 1000+ pages of novel; enough historical detail to give it authenticity without becoming a scholarly drag; an epic storyline set against one of the most pivotal moments in U.S. history… there are no faults that I can find from a writing perspective. The only fault, one which I’m sure must have been addressed countless times already, is the blatant racism Mitchell displays at several points in the novel. More on that later.
As I went through the novel I kept going back to the movie sequences of what I was reading about. I have to say, for such a long book the movie adaptation was incredibly faithful, and while a lot of people will point out that the movie is about four hours long, the truth is that what was contained in this novel could have easily taken fifteen to twenty hours of screen time. That David O. Selznick and company managed to “trim it down” to four hours and still appease the public with what would become a classic among classics is nothing sort of spectacular. Remember, this book was the greatest bestseller of its time, and the frenzy it created could perhaps be compared in modern times to Harry Potter (different audience, obviously), and so would the demand for as faithful an adaptation as possible. The casting was spot on, and that, too, made it into my imagination as I read. Clark Gable as Rhett Butler and Vivian Leigh as Scarlett O’ Hara got to be some of the best cast roles of all time. They were legendary in the movie, and they were legendary in the novel.
The story centers mostly around Scarlett and her growth from a fifteen year old spoiled girl to a twenty eight year old woman. By the end of the story she is by no means a “finished product”; there is still plenty of room for further growth in her character, but she has gone through a lot and she is very different from how she began. The point was never to make her a heroine (if anything, she is sort of an anti-heroine), but to show her relentlessness against all odds, and how that drive will not only allow her to survive the devastating effects of the Civil War, but to prosper – first from the state of economical poverty she was thrown in by the war, and later from the moral poverty she suffered of from the get go. The rest of the cast in the story is there to chip away and mold the character that is Scarlett O’Hara into what she “finally” becomes. They are as much tools in her development as the sequence of events that are set into motion.
Two characters in particular, beside Scarlett, held my sympathy and attention: Rhett Butler and Melanie Wilkes. Rhett is the quintessential dashing rogue, the rebel that will play his own game and get ahead of the rest of his society, a society which adheres to antiquated rules and is eventually forced to change in order to survive. Because of this, Rhett is despised and/or envied by most, except for Melanie Wilkes, whose saintlike (or perhaps, naive) personality only allows her to see the good in people. In the wrong hands this character would have been trite, uninteresting and unrealistic; but Mitchell knew what she was doing, and as with the rest of her cast she built a solid foundation from which Melanie emerged as one of the most sympathetic characters I have ever read. Her last scene – the result of which I knew already from the movie – still managed to move me, and even had me wondering as of what she really knew of the relationship between Scarlett and her husband Ashley Wilkes. Both Rhett and Melanie were perfect complements to Scarlett: Rhett’s personality allowed him to see Scarlett for what she really was and still – and thus, purely – love her just the same, while Melanie’s blinded her to Scarlett’s many faults, allowing her to become the fiercely loyal friend Scarlett needed to endure many of her calamities.
As for the racism, it didn’t bother me for the most part. I simply took it as a Southern story told by a Southerner, to which feeling superior to blacks was as normal as breathing. It gave the story an added authenticity that would be lost nowadays in the politically correct climate we live in. The problem is that at some points Mitchell went on a rampage, blaming the “inferior” blacks as much as the Yankee Republicans (who were the true villains of the story) for all the sufferings of the poor, defeated state of Georgia. While the racism was left to the background as an afterthought it was easy to handle, but when Mitchell pushed it to the forefront for no other reason than to denigrate blacks it became an infuriating experience. Mark Twain was just as authentic with his Adventures of Huckleberry Finn without being offensive; Margaret Mitchell’s true colors shone here, and that was the one thing were the movie can claim to be superior to the novel, since David O. Selznick made a point to cut the offensive parts from his adaptation.
All in all, however, Gone with the Wind is one of the greatest novels I have ever read, and a superior product to its classic adaptation. Then again, this shouldn’t come as a surprise; books usually are superior to their movies.