And here we come, at last, to the selection closest to my dark and twisty heart, Margaret Mitchell's hideous bitch-goddess of a novel, Gone With the Wind. It's awful! It's wonderful! It's Marlboro Reds. Apparently, in a 2008 poll, it clocked in at second place (behind The Bible) as the favorite book of the American people. If that doesn't explain your local news reports, what will?
I'd love to be able to say, as one does about C.S. Lewis, "oh, I didn't get the super-offensive subtext about how Muslims inadvertently worship a flaming devil-beast, even though Jesus will still consider taking them to heaven so long as they don't also have normal teenage yearnings for boys and lipstick." This is not that. The things that are horribly, terribly wrong with Gone With the Wind are not even given a thin patina of lion-based allegory. It's all right there to see. Mitchell just plain doesn't like black people. Or, well, doesn't like black people who might have their own desires and wants and needs and agendas and inner lives and historical memories and dreams and green-sprigged muslin dresses with stains you could probably cover up with a brooch, but what if Melanie has sharp eyes?
At this point, it would be fun to segue into THAT BEING SAID, THE DRESSES! THE PARTIES! THE LUSSSST! Obviously. It's a tremendously entertaining book, and it's beautifully written. I'm certainly never going to write a book as good as Gone With The Wind. And we're absolutely going to get to the dresses! parties! lust! stuff, but let's just take another minute first to say: this is kind of a fucked-up thing, this book. And it's perfect for young teenage girls, because it could have been called: Gone With the Wind: The Triumph of the Self. This is a book of pure and perfect ego. I'm always saying that Scarlett is a sociopath, and she probably is, but I think that draws an artificial distinction between mental illness and the expression of unbridled self-will. Everyone likes survivors, as Scarlett so assuredly is, and likes to think of themselves as survivors, as though there was a real… alternative… to surviving. I mean, you can kill yourself, but apart from that, everyone just sort of muddles through as best they can, right? And let's not do the SCARLETT WAS ENSLAVED TOO… BY SOCIETY bit. I mean, sign me up, you know? The South was not full of Scarletts, whatever the weird plantation-wedding-industry would like us to believe. For every Scarlett there were a couple hundred Emmie Slatteries getting fed the same line of nonsense by the powers that be.
Okay. Dresses! Parties! Lust! Weren't those dresses fabulous? The black bombazine, too matronly, perhaps? The parties, even the lousy charitable parties to raise money for the pointless Cause (I guess we can give Mitchell some credit for making The Cause seem particularly pointless) were pretty boss. The lust: GOD, that scene when they're out by the pigpen and Ashley finally slips Scarlett some tongue is… pretty great. As is, um, the sort-of-rape, sort-of-not-rape night of ecstasy with Rhett. The characters pop, I'll give her that. When you think about alternative narrators, a la The Wind Done Gone, it's a long list. I'd happily read a Gone With the Wind from India Wilkes' perspective, or Melanie's, or Dilcey's, or Mammy's, or Carreen's…
Which leads us into this: are we supposed to like Scarlett? I always liked Scarlett, and I always wanted her to get the things she desired (and then, right, to be happy with those things once she had them, which seemed to be a bigger hurdle.) What's to like, when you think about it? She's a terrible friend, she's borderline illiterate, she's racist, she's violent, she's ungrateful, she wallows in minor bouts of regret for being such a shitty person once she's achieved her next aim, and she accepts expensive gifts from gentlemen without thinking of the consequences. (Just candy and flowers, darlings! Keep your virtue with you at all times!)
And, not to be all "I have a chiiiiiild now" about the whole thing, but WHAT ABOUT WADE AND ELLA? CHRIST ON A FUCKING CROSS. We all remember Bonnie, because she broke her neck, and had a bit of a personality (Margaret Mitchell did not seem like a kid-friendly individual, no?), but those sad, bland, dull children with dead fathers, dragged along behind her curtain-dresses and treated slightly less well than her ill-treated friends and acquaintances are far more tragic figures than smokin' hot twenty-eight year olds who went from being rich to very briefly poor to substantially richer over the course of a thousand pages. (I know, I know, her parents kicked it, which was very sad, and she had to wear black, which was uncomfortably hot, etc.)
If we weren't supposed to like Scarlett (duly punished at the end of the novel, as the proprieties insist), I have to imagine we wouldn't have Scarlett, the yeeeeeeesh authorized sequel, based entirely on the idea that no one wants to live in a world where Scarlett doesn't get Rhett back. Everyone knows she's going to get Rhett back in the end. She is, right? She has to. Come on.
• No, seriously, why didn't she just pick one of the damn Tartleton twins? Pleasant, devoted, rich, handsome, horsey… like upscale Weasley twins. TEAM STU.
• What's the uncanny valley on waist size like? At what point do you start looking "freakish" instead of "Jessica Rabbit"? I'm pretty sure it kicks in long before Scarlett's seventeen inches.
• Did/do you like Scarlett? Safe space. PLEASE, if you don't like her, let it all hang out. She's the worst!
• Will she get Rhett back? Or will she decide to just eat Ashley Wilkes for dinner, yet again?
• Ashley, Ashley, Ashley! GET IT TOGETHER, guy. Seriously. Right?
• Never having been south of the Mason-Dixon line, everything I know about the South comes from several college courses, this book, and Justified. What am I missing?
• Oh, the war! A war happens in this book. It's not the best part. Dresses! Which was your favourite dress?
• Did you like The Wind Done Gone? I have not heard great things.
• Melanie, guys. Was she for real, or what?
• Ellen O'Hara, guys. Was she for real, or what?
• Did anyone else picture Gerald as Ted Kennedy? I swear to God, I saw Ted Kennedy taking that fence on his horse every. single. time.
And for next time, let's pay tribute to the late Mike McGrady and do Naked Came the Stranger.
Previously: Wideacre and The Autobiography Of Henry VIII
Nicole Cliffe is the books editor of The Hairpin and the proprietress of Lazy Self-Indulgent Book Reviews.