Gone With the Wind: Part Three

GW2 Day Six:

Great stories generally have great settings. As I mowed my way through the first four hundred pages of Gone With the Wind, I had convinced myself that the great setting of the story was Tara. After all, Scarlett’s father won the land in a poker match, built the plantation with his own stubbornness, then raised his daughters and buried his sons there. Understandably, Scarlett’s affection for Tara motivates her sell her own happiness to maintain it and then sustain it. Having come to a stop tonight around page eight hundred, I realize my mistake. The great setting of GW2 is not Tara but the South itself and Scarlett’s relationship to it.

[Scarlett] “wasn’t like these people who had gambled everything on a Cause that was gone and were content to be proud of having lost that Cause, because it was worth any sacrifice,” Margaret Mitchell writes. “They drew their courage from the past. She was drawing hers from the future.”

The great settings that serve as a backdrop for this epic drama are the many faces of the South. Afternoon parties at Twelve Oaks Plantation. Wartime weddings in Atlanta. Dusk at the saw mill. Each of these scenes relies upon inlaid detail of the physical setting and the characters interacting on those various stages.

Tara may well feature prominently near the end of the book, but that location alone has not been enough to sustain Scarlett. With the last hundred and fifty pages ahead of me, I think Mitchell is too coy to allow one physical location to dominate the story. I suspect that even Scarlett, who is quick to rail against other southerners if it suits her ambitions, cannot function outside the setting of the South.


GW2 Day Seven:

How much pain can one person endure? After nine-hundred-fifty pages of this epic story, Margaret Mitchell crams a miscarriage, the death of a child and then a sister-in-law, plus lost love in the last fifty pages. “Now, [Scarlett] had a fumbling knowledge that had she even understood Ashley, she would never have loved him; had she ever understood Rhett, she would never had lost him.” Poor Scarlett.

I started this novel one week ago with an eagerness to understand what makes Gone With the Wind so remarkable, so enduring. Certainly great characters that are well paced and believable are key ingredients. Plot twists carried by rich dialogue against a terrific setting help as well. But having completed the entire novel, none of those ingredients alone or in combination explain the greatness of Mitchell’s novel for me. They are like well-oiled gears in a clock, each crafted and inserted in such as way as to make the story tick. For me, what gives this novel an exceptional quality seems to be Mitchell’s ability to tap into universal themes of humanity.

Neither Scarlett nor Rhett, neither Ashley nor Melanie are archetypal characters. Each is richly complex, which makes them believable. But even Scarlett’s character arch as she comes of age cannot insulate her from carrying the burdened of consequences from her earlier decisions. Mitchell’s novel is a microcosm of our own lives, with expectations and disappointments. Even a reader picking up the book seventy-eight years after its initial publication can find all the joy of love and loss that the best stories offer.

In my mind, Gone With the Wind has earned its reputation as one of the greatest novels ever written. And that’s something I’ll think about tomorrow…and beyond.