Poisoned by Mitchell's Ugly Fantasy of Race Relations

Apr 14, 2002 (Updated Apr 14, 2002)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:The characters of Scarlett and Rhett.

Cons:Ugly and deadening depiction of race relations.

The Bottom Line: While the characterizations can be good, and the plot is occasionally nice, Mitchell's bizarre view of race destroys the vigor of her narrative.

Long review warning: 1600+ words ahead

Gone With the Wind. If you haven’t, already, take a look at the other reviews. There are nineteen, as of the time of my writing, four four stars and fifteen five star reviews. In short, Margaret Mitchell seems to walk on water. The novel is full of “universal values of hope and tenacity” and “characters I can identify with.”

Which is, alas, overblown rhetoric and hyperbole, and ignores some of the salient features of the novel.

Before I start to give it the rubbishing it richly deserves, I need to give a few caveats. Prime amongst them is my complete understanding as to why novel is so popular, particularly amongst women. It is hard to find a novel about a honestly strong and resourceful woman, and for all its numerous faults, Gone With the Wind has a strong female character who is as ruthless, cold and calculating as any man. I like Scarlett O’Hara. I also honestly liked, most of the time, Rhett Butler, as a character. And since they’re, pretty much, the stars of the show that’s a good thing. Not good enough to overcome the grinding faults, the faults that several times during the course of the novel almost stopped me from going on, faults that lifted their ugly head and smashed at my mind like waves against a sinking ship. I only barely managed to finish the novel and while I found parts of the novel quite charming I am reviewing it as a whole.

For those of you who haven’t read the book or seen the movie, Gone With the Wind is about the trials of Scarlett O’Hara, a Southern belle on the eve of the American Civil War whose world is turned upside down and almost destroyed by that conflict. Scarlett goes around violating social and sexual taboos, paying a dramatic social price, not only marrying repeatedly but running her own business with ruthless aggression but the focus is on Scarlett’s various romances. On a larger scale, the book is about the devastation wrought by the Civil War and, almost, the nature and character of Southern gentility.

What is it, then, that abraded my soul while reading this book? In short: slavery.

Okay, okay, before we go any farther, allow me to say that I did my best to give allowances for the fact that Gone With the Wind is about Southern gentility. It would be absurd to think that Southern gentility would, as a group, have anything good to say about abolition or honestly think of black people as fully articulated human beings. Furthermore, I am well aware that if disliked every book because the author held an idea I found to be detestable than I would never like any books. But what Mitchell does in Gone With the Wind is invent a fantasyland of plantation slavery in order to justify the character’s infatuation for that foul institution.

For instance, none of the slave characters are ever whipped. Not just in the context of the book – their owners literally never whip them, not for anything. There is only one brief and passing mention of slave concubinage and then Scarlett absurdly stays in her thoughts that the number of mulatto children has vastly increased since the Northerners came – not once recognizing that the beaux she relentlessly flirted with in her belle days often went home and took on their sexual frustrations on female slaves. No. The plantations in Gone With the Wind are filled with happy slaves who never feel the sting of the whip, who never see their women raped by white plantation owners, and who never feel an urge to run away.

One of the more galling bits is how every black character in the novel thinks of emancipated slaves as “free issue n*gger trash.” Every black character in the novel, every one, thinks that black people are better off as slaves and willingly serve their masters.

After Scarlett and her white family have to pick small amounts of cotton for a couple of seasons, and Scarlett recognizes its brutally hard work, she maintains constantly that it is for “black hands” to do. The absolute horror of the slave’s existence, being forced to do a task Scarlett herself loathes under threat of the lash, doing it more often and far longer, while reaping none of the benefits of that labor, is never mentioned. Even the only field hand who has dialogue seems to be damn happy to go back to the fields to enrich white folks. Yas’m, massa!

There are no abolitionists in the book other than passing references to Northerners. Even Rhett Butler, who spends a fair bit of time in the novel killing variously Southern sacred cows, stays free of abolition. Even Ashley Wilkes, ostensibly the intellectual of the novel, doesn’t recognize the morally ludicrous stance of slavery.

And the names! The two main black characters are called Mammy and Pork. Yeah, I bet that their parents called them that upon their birth. They never rise above the level of caricature.

However, what stopped me in my tracks wasn’t what happened in character. I accept that the book is about Southern gentility. Scarlett is not, herself, terribly introspective and given how selfish she is it makes perfect sense that she would think slavery natural and good. The majority of Southern aristocrats actually worse than Scarlett, trying to create pseudo-intellectual justifications to support chattel slavery – which is an exercise in moral futility. I further understand that Margaret Mitchell was, herself, a Southern woman who viewed the past with nostalgia, and wrote during the 1930s, which wasn’t precisely a time of open-mindedness about race issues. But Gone With the Wind is filled with several long, explicative passages that are not told from any particular character’s point of view. They come from Mitchell. And they are amongst the most intellectually spurious pieces of trash I’ve had the misfortune to read. They read, literally, like some of the more turgid passages from Mien Kampf. Black people, the book insists over and over again, are childlike and stupid, unable to make basic decisions in their life and both needing and, ultimately, desiring to be ruled over by white people. The book insists, continually, that black people have worth only as servants of white people, doing those tasks that white people are too “good” go do – ultimately, the most difficult and degrading tasks in society.

Margaret Mitchell also, in several places, eulogizes the Klu Klux Klan as being a necessary thing to control “uppity n*ggers.” God forbid black people, after two and a half centuries of chattel slavery have a bad attitude against the people who held them in bondage, who whipped them, their wives, their children, their parents, forced them into brutal and degrading work while reaping none of the profits! So, of course, if a black person gets “uppity” they should be murdered!

The book also presents the only good black person as one who, despite emancipation, chooses to exist in a slave-like state for white people. With the exception of one black character put in the novel seemingly to “prove” that all “free issue n*gger trash” are evil, the only black characters that have any dialogue are former slaves that choose to stay “loyal” to their former masters.

There are no free black people of merit in the books. There isn’t a single black person who was free before the war represented in the pages. There isn’t a single black tradesman, much less a black intellectual or orator, in the book. The book insists that blacks who stayed loyal to their masters are good, and the rest are “free issue n*gger trash.”

In short, in Gone With the Wind, the only good black person is a willing slave.

Should I just shrug and say that Margaret Mitchell was a product of her culture? When Mitchell isn’t being racist, the novel is quite good, but there is a larger problem with her representations of race. It creates a literary problem.

Mitchell was well read about the Civil War. So, in the course of the novel, when the slaves are freed or offered the opportunity to escape to the North, overwhelmingly that is what they did. Of the O’Hara’s slaves, of over a hundred, five choose to stay. Five percent. The other ninety-five percent leave Tara and never return.

Yet, Mitchell insists that slavery is the natural state of black people. Mitchell insists that the bonds between slave and master are essentially unbreakable. Yet, even in the novel, Mitchell can’t break with reality enough to say that even with the saintly O’Haras – who don’t beat or abuse their slaves – that slaves wanted to stay. Ninety-five percent of them didn’t.

Which is it? Is the natural condition of black people slavery and the bonds between slave and master unbreakable, or is it the case that black people preferred their own freedom, even though it created grave deprivations for them.

The second literary flaw that Mitchell’s surreal vision of race relations in the South creates is . . . how is a person who has even passing knowledge of the actual conditions of plantations supposed to feel sorry for these rich plantation owners who are forced to live in conditions similar to their slaves? How are we supposed to feel sorry for these formerly privileged wealthy plantation owners who, for a few years, are forced to live with a few – and only a few – of the privations of slaves? (After all, the Southern gentry was far freer than their slaves – they could go where they willed and do as they pleased.) I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t summon sympathy for their plight. To my mind the misery of those chained millions destroyed my ability to feel sorry for their masters when they were reduced, temporarily, to poverty.

So, all said and done, I just can’t say that Gone With the Wind is a good book. It has some good elements – particularly the characters of Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler – but the book is massively flawed. It’s fantasy depictions of race relations poisons the book, creating contradictions of narrative that Mitchell doesn’t overcome.

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