Last February, I went to hear a panel of romance writers discuss their work. Since the event was being held in a bookstore and it was close to Valentine's Day, the moderator—a bookseller—asked the panelists to tell the audience what they thought was the most romantic book they'd ever read. Gone With the Wind, gushed several of the authors.
I read Gone With the Wind when I was a teenager—or I should say, more correctly, I tried to read Gone With the Wind. After putting it down several times, out of sheer frustration, I finally just threw it against the wall. I'm older, crankier, and less patient with books now than when I was younger, and it used to be a point of honor for me to finish a book—regardless of how long the story, how plodding the pace, or how irritating the characters. And I still believe it’s important to give books a fighting chance. Some, like Steig Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, take a while to get going (in Tattoo’s case, about 125 pages); others, like Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain, really only make sense after you've finished them and taken some time to digest all the complex imagery.
But Gone with the Wind?
I understand the themes. It’s the struggle between the romantic illusions of the old South as embodied by Ashley Wilkes and the emergence of a brash, new realism, as embodied by Rhett Butler. And I get the appeal of Scarlett's fierce dedication to the land and to preserving her family heritage. (Tom Horwitz's Confederates in the Attic has a fascinating chapter on the popularity of Gone With the Wind in Japan; it turns out Gone with the Wind was one of the first color movies shown in the country after World War II. Not surprisingly, the image of a woman on the losing side of a war declaring her determination to rebuild her family home had a powerful appeal.)
Before I started working on this piece, I went back to look at the book, to see if perhaps I'd been mistaken about its romantic allure. The copyright has apparently expired, so thanks to the Gutenberg project, I was able to download a copy for free. As I started reading, once again, I found myself wondering what it is that makes people love Scarlett O'Hara. Seriously. In addition to Margaret Mitchell's famous description of her heroine’s green eyes and 17-inch waist, she describes her heroine as “predatory.”
When Scarlett sees a man flirting with another woman, she immediately sets her sights on him. Once she’s lured him away, she generally finds him boring and dumps him. Isn’t that the definition of a 21st-century mean girl?
By the way, what bores Scarlett? Books, music, and art.
Yeah, I know, Southern belles weren't well educated, and Scarlett’s disdain for education is a foreshadowing of the critical difference between Rhett Butler and Scarlett and her great unrequited love, Ashley Wilkes. Ashley's a dreamer, and Rhett and Scarlett are doers. But when I first read the book, I couldn't help thinking Scarlett wasn't too bright, an opinion that was reinforced by her actions throughout the course of the book.
Scarlett sets her sights on Ashley Wilkes, a man who is engaged, and then married, to another woman. Despite being told why she and Ashley can never be together by half the characters in the book, including Ashley, she continues to pursue him. (See previous opinion of “not too bright.“ Or, as my mother, a true Southern belle from Vicksburg, Mississippi, would say, ”Dense? I'd love to.”) Moreover, Scarlett has no respect for Ashley's choice and no sympathy for his wife, Melanie, even after Ashley and Melanie have a child together.
To me, Scarlett's obsession with Ashley isn't a misguided romantic illusion—it's selfish, self-centered, and, even worse for a romantic heroine, dishonorable. When Ashley rebuffs Scarlett, she impulsively agrees to marry Charles Hamilton, a man who loves her, but for whom she has no affection. She's cruel to him, and even crueler to the child they have together.
At what point am I supposed to start liking this woman?
As for Rhett, when we first meet him, we learn he's been ostracized from polite society after taking a girl for a carriage ride, keeping her out all night, and then refusing to marry her—thereby destroying her reputation. Upon hearing this tale, Scarlett secretly admires Rhett for being honest about his feelings, and considers him brave for bucking society's rules. It's a pattern Rhett continues with Scarlett, seeking to seduce her, proposing to keep her as his mistress. He encourages her to buck society’s rules, which is presented as “freeing her,” when in fact, what it does is make her unacceptable to any man but Rhett. And while some might argue that Rhett refrains from revealing his love for Scarlett for fear that she isn't over Ashley, his treatment of her frequently borders on cruel and destructive.
A great part of the appeal of the romantic hero is his ability to see the heroine for precisely who she is, and to love her in spite of her flaws, But what does it say about Rhett that—as he constantly tells Scarlett—he sees them both as selfish, manipulative, and determined to get what they want at any cost?
And yes, I hung in long enough to get that it's Scarlett's selfish determination that enables her to rise above the terrible experiences of the war, the deaths, and the destruction of her family home. And I know that she pays a terrible price for her stubborn blindness with the death of her daughter Bonnie (though arguably Bonnie pays a higher price) and the loss of Rhett, whom it takes her an interminably long time to realize she loves.
But has Scarlett learned her lesson by the end of the book? Do I believe she will and thus win Rhett back? Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn.
Before turning her hand to writing commercial fiction, Joanna Novins spent over a decade working for the Central Intelligence Agency. She does not kill people who ask her about her previous job, though she came close once with an aging Navy SEAL who handed her a training grenade despite warnings that she throws like a girl. Published in historical romance by Berkley, Joanna also writes YA spy novels as Jody Novins.