"Gone with the Wind" Chapter 1 Three Novels of Love and War

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“Gone with the Wind”


i propose to start my examination of  the three novels on the twin themes of love and war with Gone with the Wind and end with A Leaf in the Storm, since the former shows us a society where almost all the main characters envisage life in terms of Will, while the latter puts in the foreground a figure, Lao Peng, who specifically views the World as Idea, or Spectacle    he is a Zen Buddhist — and whose world-view seems, with some reservations, to be shared by the (Chinese born) author. War and Peace is situated squarely in the middle, having a foot in both camps.


            The society depicted in Gone with the Wind fits neatly into the three categories of the Olympic Games simile. The southern gentry are the equivalent of the athletes : they are healthy, self-confident, move in a world of thoroughbred horses, gossip, balls, poker games, duels and barbecues. They have no culture to speak of, no interest in abstract ideas, and their religious beliefs are either completely lacking or utterly superficial. The men particularly are overgrown children but for all that good-humoured and vital; they are ‘good sorts’ and generally come to each other’s assistance when it is needed.

            The Yankees, despite their peculiar notion that slavery is wrong — an idea that the Southerners do not just reject but genuinely cannot comprehend — are, viewed up close, rapacious and corrupt, certainly always on the look out for financial gain : they are obviously the equivalent of the merchants selling their goods at the Games.

            We would not expect to come across many equivalents of the  Olympic Games bystanders in this sort of society : in effect there is only one amongst the main characters, Ashley Wilkes, and he is presented by the author as an odd man out and a failure. Rhett Butler and Melanie Wilkes have some touches of the ‘intelligent bystander’ but are too dynamic and involved in life to be true spectators.


Scarlett O’Hara


The enormous figure of Scarlett O’Hara dominates — and unbalances — the book as surely as Heathcliffe dominates Wuthering Heights. In all modern fiction no one epitomises the Schopenhauerian Will as completely as Scarlett O’Hara : her only female rivals in Western literature are Becky Sharpe of Vanity Fair  and Manon Lescaut of the novel with the same title. But Scarlett O’Hara outdoes them both in sheer nerve and callousness. (I must stress that I am speaking of the Scarlett of the book, and not of the film who is a toned down, bowdlerized version of the real thing.) It never ceases to amaze me that so many women, who have always formed the bulk of Gone with the Wind’s vast readership — it was the best-selling book of its time — admire Scarlett O’Hara, perhaps more than any other fictional heroine. For Scarlett O’Hara is scheming, ruthless and opportunistic to a quite astonishing degree — “She’s a mighty cold woman and I can’t help it if I think so” as Belle Watkin sums her up.

            She is also, with all her cleverness, extremely stupid when it comes to human relations, as Grandma Fontaine tells her


“‘Oh, you’re smart enough about dollars and cents. That’s a man’s way of being smart. But you aren’t smart at all like a woman. You aren’t a speck smart about folks.’ ”

                                                (GWW, p. 704)


            The only genial traits Scarlett shows are a certain respect and tenderness for her own mother and occasional consideration for some of her negro dependents — they are, of course, not in any position to be rivals and so she can afford to be nice to them.  She insists, for example, on Pork inheriting the expensive watch of her father, and makes a point of praising Dilcey’s work in the cotton fields. Otherwise there is nothing but unadulterated ego and Will-to-Power. With the single exception of her crazy infatuation with Ashley, she is not basically interested in love, nor in having affairs, nor even in sex, simply in power, the delirious thrill of having young males at her beck and call. She cuts out other girls without a moment’s thought and although the most successful belle in the whole county, is jealous if one of her ex-beaux, let alone current beau, shows the slightest interest in anyone else.  


“She [Scarlett] had never had a girl friend, and she never felt any lack on that account. To her, all women, including her two sisters, were natural enemies in pursuit of the same prey — men.”    

                                 Gone with the Wind  (p.62)


            She is not even a femme fatale who has an intellectual curiosity about human psychology : even on her own territory she is never a thinker, always a pragmatist:


 she knew nothing of the inner working of any human being’s mind, not even her own. She knew only that if she did or said thus-and-so, men would unerringly respond.”


            Unsurprisingly, “mathematics [understand arithmetic] was the one subject that had come easy to her in her schooldays” (p. 62) and she certainly manages to do the accounts efficiently when she eventually gets her hand on her second husband’s business affairs.

            It is not just book knowledge and culture that she despises : even her interest in hats and dresses is not the disinterested appreciation of the aesthete, it is the interest a hired killer has in guns and holsters.  

            Scarlett is quite literally unconcerned about everything which does not advance her own interests. Alone of all the characters in Gone with the Wind  she does not even feel any solidarity for her own class, the Southern gentry, and the ‘Cause’ bores her completely. Military strategy, casualties, the destruction of armies and the defeat of the entire South are not subjects she avoids because she fears to hear or think the truth : they are  simply topics of no interest because they don’t concern her personally:  


 “Except for the ever-present torment that Ashley might be killed, the war interested her not at all, and nursing was simply something she did simply because she did not know how to get out of it.”

                                                                      (p. 157)


            She muses that even nursing   


 “might have been endurable if she had been permitted to use her charms on the convalescent men, for many of them were attractive and well born, but this she could not do in her widowed state.”  (p. 157)


            In the majority of women, self-interest usually extends as far as their own offspring — or so we males fondly believe — but not in Scarlett’s case. Children are to be avoided if at all possible because they are a nuisance to look after, and, more important still, increase your waistline. Wade, her first born, is permanently frightened of his mother  and Scarlett ridicules and threatens her ‘favourite’, Bonnie, because the little girl is scared of the dark and subject to nightmares.

            As a businesswoman, Scarlett has no compunction in selling timber she knows is shoddy at inflated prices and she employs convicts and puts them under the control of a bullying foreman who half-starves them, steals their food, and even kills one of them. When asked by Rhett why she does not “steal from the rich and strong instead of the poor and weak” she makes the staggering reply, “Because,” said Scarlett shortly, “it’s a sight easier to steal — as you call it — from the poor”.   

            One might try to make excuses for Scarlett because of her youth. : she is not even thirty at the end of the book. But Scarlett is not selfish in the thoughtless way in which, for example, the Tarleton twins are : she is, from the beginning selfish in a mature calculating way.

            Readers of Gone with the Wind might protest that they do not recognize their heroine in this poison pen portrait. But there is only one thing I have left out : beauty. Had Scarlett been ugly, no one would have taken the slightest notice of her, or rather would have swatted her aside without a moment’s thought. And the reader would not find her sympathetic either — I don’t think anyone finds Suellen, Scarlett’s plain and equally selfish sister at all engaging, or even of interest. Glamour, it seems, successfully covers a multitude of sins. This is a somewhat melancholy comment on society, or rather on life itself — sexual appeal in a female, like strength and virulence in a male, both have solid Darwinian credentials whether Christians and moralists accept the fact or not.

            Like all devoted followers of the World as Will, Scarlett’s  worldly successes do not bring her any satisfaction and right at the end of the book she has a rare moment of self-appreciation, or rather self-depreciation :


“She had never understood either of the men she had loved and so she had lost them both. Now, she had a fumbling knowledge that had she ever understood Ashley, she would never have loved him; had she ever understood Rhett, she would never have lost him. She wondered forlornly if she had ever understood anyone in the world.”


            But this encouraging moment of enlightenment doesn’t last long ; a few minutes later she is her old boastful, confident self


“She could get Rhett back. She knew she could. There had never been a man she couldn’t get, once she set her mind upon him.”


                                             (GWW p. 1011)


            In this particular situation, her stance is more bravado than anything else but it demonstrates her essential quality which cannot but command respect — Scarlett O’Hara is the supreme survivor. There are obviously situations in which we need persons like her, and the situation in Georgia after the loss of the war was one of them. She has all the essential qualities of the survivor, raw courage, perseverance, the ability to make rapid decisions, a complete lack of sentimentality. She has “the spirit of her people who would not know defeat, even when it stared them in the face”. This is the ‘positive’ side of  Will, a side Schopenhauer refused to recognize and which it was left to Nietzsche to develop and applaud. 

            Suellen, Scarlett’s younger sister, is selfish in a way that could never benefit anyone else in any circumstances whatsoever, since Suellen is cowardly and self-pitying, but Scarlett is different.  While still a young  woman in her early twenties, she takes command of the entire household, organizes everything from how to to grow cotton to doing the accounts, calmly shoots dead a Yankee marauder and buries him in the ground behind the house without a hint of remorse, and, last and worst of all by the standards of Southern gentry, she does not shrink from the ignominy of working in the cotton fields herself at the cost of ruining her precious hands. In extreme situations, self-centredness transmutes into what one might call heroic realism. At one point there is talk of a family marriage that goes against protocol. But this cuts little ice with Scarlett.  “’What a pity he can’t marry her now!’ she thought. ‘That would be one less mouth to feed!’  Excellent!   


Ashley Wilkes


The foil for Scarlett is Ashley Wilkes, the dreamer and impractical idealist, a sort of Prince Andrei (from War and Peace) who lacks the latter’s staying power and judgment. Like Prince Andrei he is a landowner, owns slaves, and voluntarily enlists in a war with whose aims he has only partial sympathy  — which does not stop him from  fighting gallantly.

            Another author, George Eliot for example, would have made him the main character — as I would myself — but Margaret Mitchell has little time for him, although she portrays him convincingly enough and tells us enough to make him, to me at any rate, the most interesting  (but not the most impressive) character in the book. 


            From the beginning, Ashley is presented as an odd man out amongst the Southern gentry, someone who, in Beatrice Tarleton’s scornful put-down, “would prefer books to going on a hunt, he really would!”  


         “Ashley was born of a line of men who used their leisure for thinking, not doing, for spinning brightly coloured dreams that had in them no touch of reality. (…) He stood alone [from the other planters] in his interest in books and music and his fondness for writing poetry. (…)He moved in an inner world that was more beautiful than Georgia and came back to reality with reluctance.”


                                                         (GWW p. 28)


            For him life is clearly spectacle, not action, Idea not Will :   he is  to be classed amongst the bystanders in the Pythagorean schema. But, though regarded with a certain suspicion, he just about passes muster within the macho Southern society because he is a good horseman and a good poker player —  he is not mocked as a buffoon  like  Pierre in War and Peace.

            Ashley Wilkes is a ‘philosophe manqué’ and at the beginning of the novel he actually looks like the real thing. He has seemingly  attained the coveted state of ataraxia, the ‘positive indifference’ which was held out as the goal of Stoic and Epicurean phislophy alike :


         He looked on people and he neither liked nor disliked them, and was neither hearted nor saddened. He accepted the universe and his place in it for what they were and, shrugging, turned to music and books and his better world.”  

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     (GWW p. 28)


            His tragedy, and it is a tragedy, is that he is incapable of retaining this philosophic attitude when things go wrong, not even that, when things begin to get too real. The attitude of  Stoical ataraxia is not only supposed to help you retain a sense of proportion in the boom times —  the voice in the ear of the Roman Emperor during his investiture repeated ‘Remember you are mortal!’ — but it is also supposed to tide you over disaster as well. The reality of the front line, likewise confrontation with woman in all her power as represented by Scarlett O’Hara, is too much for him :


         “I don’t know when it was that the bleak realization came over me that my own private shadow show was over. Perhaps it was in the first five minutes at Bull Run when I saw the first man I killed drop to the ground. But I knew it was over and that I could no longer be a spectator. I suddenly found myself on the curtain, an actor, posturing and making futile gestures.

(…) I tried to avoid you too, Scarlett. You were too full of living and too real and I was cowardly enough to prefer shadows and dreams.”


            He is, in his own thoughts at least, bold enough  since, alone of all the Southerners (apart from Rhett Butler), he not only does not believe in the war aims but actually disapproves of war altogether. Melanie, the only person who understands him, says at one point


 “He thinks the war is all wrong but he’s willing to fight and die anyway, and that takes lots more courage than fighting for something you think is right.”


                                                                                                        (GWW p. 230)


            This is well said and puts Aunt Pitty in her place decisively. All this, along with his distaste for Scarlett’s business methods and his surprising admission late in the book that he actually intended emancipating his slaves once his father died, make Ashley a deep and problematical character torn by moral dilemmas, exactly the sort of character modern writers are especially fond of, male novelists anyway. 

            What is damning about him is that he is no survivor, and he happens to be living in an era when the qualities of the survivor, not the gentleman or the philosopher, are what the time and place require. Instead of confronting the present, he relapses into nostalgia mixed with self-pity. As Grandma Fontaine puts it :


“Ashley was bred to read books and nothing else. That doesn’t help a man pull himself out of a tough fix, like we’re all in now. From what I hear, he’s the worst plough hand in the County!”       

                                                                                         (GWW p. 678)


            Scarlett O’Hara’s passion for him is the pointless and self-defeating attraction of opposites, it is certainly not love in any positive sense. She is interested in him because he is different and because he eludes her  — “The things about him she could not understand only made her love him the more” (p. 29). But her aim is to reduce him to her level, not to raise herself to his. When her father says


“‘Now, Puss, tell  me true, do you understand his folderol about books and poetry and music and oil paintings and such foolishness?’

‘Oh, Pa,’ cried Scarlett impatiently, ‘if I married him, I’d change all that!”

                                                            (GWW p. 37)


            By a ludicrous mismatch the incarnation of Will falls in love with the incarnation of the World as Idea, and vice-versa. Scarlett, like all characters from the Will side, has neither self-knowledge not understanding of other people and can only justify her obsession with Ashley by deceiving herself, or trying to, that ‘underneath’ Ashley is not like that. Ashley, however, the observer of life and sound psychologist, has no contrary illusions about Scarlett whom he recognizes as the incarnation of Will in its negative and positive aspects.

            In the portrait she gives of Ashley Wilkes, Margaret Mitchell is in effect attacking the philosophic position taken by Schopenhauer and by Pythagoras in the Olympian Games passage. Ashley is a genuine philosopher up to a point, he does see through the prejudices of the society around him, he is by temperament an observer rather than an actor and is free from both humbug and ambition. He even makes a succinct statement of his view of life, a view that the ancient Greek philosophers would have wholeheartedly approved of : “You see, Scarlett, I’ve never wanted to get anywhere at all. I’ve only wanted to be myself” (p. 900).   


            The problem is that Ashley is not resigned in an inspiring way, he is more disheartened and demoralised than truly resigned. His favourite tone is the elegiac and it comes too easily to him, rapidly turning to self-indulgence. Even Scarlett, in her last tête à tête with him, starts getting sucked into his all-enveloping Southern nostalgia. But then — rightly for once — she breaks out of it


“ ‘But why are we talking like old people talk?’ she thought with dreary surprise. ‘Old people looking back fifty years. And we’re not old!’ ”

                                                         (GWW p. 902)     


            This is a point scored against the Schopenhauerian view of life : it is an old person’s view, and that limits it severely.


Rhett Butler


a more successful foil for Scarlett O’Hara is Rhett Butler, an ambivalent and attractive figure, poised halfway between the World as Will and the World as Idea. He also is a survivor and even goes further than Scarlett — because he can afford to — in despising the Southern gentry with their absurd pretensions and ludicrous morality.   He participates up to a point in the ‘Olympic Games’, Southern gentry style — he is a good shot, a good poker player and belatedly even fights in the war  — but he is also an unscrupulous money-maker who gets on perfectly well with the Yankees. In effect he flits between all three categories of the Olympic Games simile, is now participant, now businessman, now observer, and he is more or less at ease in each role, which is a considerable achievement.

            He is philosophe and observer enough to see, what the Southern gentry cannot, that their own struggle against the Yankees is just another episode in the endless human struggle for existence, and that the collapse of their world is not the collapse of the world. Only two persons do in fact realize this, making them the only two ‘knowing’ persons in the book, Rhett Butler and Ashley Wilkes, and although they are rivals and dislike each other they know they are of a kind, while the rest of the Southern gentry are of another type entirely — an inferior type. Right at the end of the book, Scarlett turns against Ashley and calls him a “helpless, poor-spirited creature, for all his prattle about truth and honour” (p. 1002) but, to her surprise, Rhett won’t have this


“ ‘No,’ said Rhett. ‘If you must see him as he is, see him straight. He’s only a gentleman caught in a world he doesn’t belong in, trying to make a poor best of it by the rules of the world that’s gone.’”

                                                         (GWW  p. 1002)    


            But whereas knowledge of the way of the world is a handicap for Ashley, in Rhett Butler’s case it helps him to accommodate himself to changing social realities : Southern gentry or Yankees, in the last resort it’s all down to self-interest, making money, attaining status, in a word to Will. For Ashley, knowledge impedes survival, for Rhett it improves his prospects in life.   

            But not only does Rhett Butler distance himself from the people around him, but from society as a whole : he views the whole world with sceptical, but not narrowly self-interested, eyes. He is the sceptic who has seen the limitations of scepticism. Not only does he have sincere respect for Melanie, and, to a lesser extent, one or two of the other ladies in Atlanta, but he actually matches his feelings with actions, by discreetly supplying them with money. He is fond of children and treats women, notably Scarlett, a good deal better than they deserve. He is not the seducing Vicomte  from Les Liaisons Dangereuses. He falls under the spell of Scarlett not just because of her femme fatale persona, but because he recognizes a person who is his superior in worldliness and ruthless self-interest : she is a force of nature in a sense in which he is not. A romantic who does not dare to speak his name, he shows his ‘true’ character by enlisting in the Confederate Army when the war is lost, and by remaining true to his infatuation with Scarlett right up to the end, despite having every reason to dislike her.



Melanie Wilkes


melanie wilkes is Scarlett O’Hara’s most formidable rival precisely because she does not see herself as a rival at all. One could call her a successful representative of the World as Idea, inasmuch as this is feasible. Whereas Ashley is contemplative at the wrong time and the wrong moment, Melanie Wilkes, though a natural ‘observer’ on the scene of life (because of her lack of ambition) is capable of being extremely energetic when circumstances require it. Not only does she applaud Scarlett for shooting the marauder, but she helps her dig the grave and conceal the body.

            Melanie Wilkes is the ‘exception that proves the law’ inasmuch as she is a character who has very little going for her, who is perpetually confronted with one misfortune after another and yet who is nearer to being happy than anyone else in the book.  “Such an unworldly face, a face with no defences against life”, Rhett says of her. It would seem that it is precisely this defencelessness that is her protection : she is certainly not ‘knowing’ — Scarlett despises her for being so easily hoodwinked — but she is trusting and, oddly enough, this trusting nature of hers wins out because everyone likes her.

            She is not easy to characterise in terms of the three Pythagorean categories though clearly more of a bystander than a main actress. She has enough willpower and vitality to stop herself lapsing into the helplessness of her husband, indeed it is this aspect of her which responds to Scarlett whom she sees as Will in the ‘good’ sense.  Though reduced by the author almost to the status of a minor character, Melanie Wilkes is a considerable creation, since she is  a ‘good’ person who is actually likeable and, up to a point, even holds her own, by a combination of naivety and good sense, against someone who is the opposite of good, Scarlett O’Hara.


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