Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Do Women Still Read Gone with the Wind?

Scarlett O'Hara lives in a box. Her hat is cockeyed and her hairdo got smooshed. You may ask: why do I have a Scarlett O'Hara doll?  Well, she was a gift from my mother, who adores Scarlett.

I grew up with these bewildering facts:
  • My mother's favorite book was:  Gone with the Wind .
  • My mother's favorite movie was:  Gone with the Wind.
  • My grandmother's favorite book was:  Gone with the Wind.
  • My grandmother's favorite movie was:  Gone with the Wind.
The movie Gone with the Wind was a coming-of-age ritual. We drove, three generations of women, 40 miles to see a re-release of the film in an enormous theater with a big screen.  There were red velvet curtains in front of the screen. It was quite a moment when they drew the curtains.  We were enraptured by the vividness of the film and the actors:  the coyness and strength of Vivien Leigh, the sweetness and intelligence of Olivia de Haviland, the personable Clark Gable, and the charm of Leslie Howard.  The intermission was 15 minutes long, but there was much to discuss:  my mom liked Scarlett, but I preferred Melly because she was a "social justice" person.

I loved the movie but didn't read the book till I was 15, when I really was an Anais Nin and D. H. Lawrence person. Recently I decided to reread it because I want to understand the appeal and figure out whether women read it anymore.  And guess what?  GWTW, Margaret Mitchell's only novel, published in 1936 and the Pulitzer winner in 1937,  is a delight.  It's the kind of American pop classic that ought to be reissued by Virago, along with Valley of the Dolls and Peyton Place. Except it doesn't need to be reissued because it's still in print.

The novel is basically a Southern plantation rehash of Thackeray's Vanity Fair .  Scarlett is Becky Sharp and Melly is Amelia.  Scarlett's a flirt and bad to the bone, but she's brilliant and doesn't adhere to the feminine restrictions, but goes into business during the Civil War when all the men are gone.  Melly is gentle and intelligent, a do-gooder out of Little Women, who always mistakes Scarlett's attempts to steal Ashley for friendship.  As for Rhett,  he's can see the good in others, particularly the superiority of Melly, and is appalled when he finds out what Scarlett is really like.

The novel is well-written--not a classic--but great fun and absorbing.

Are women reading it anymore?

The problem, I'm sure, is the Confederate attitude toward African-Americans.  The slaves are called "darkies," though many are characterized as smarter than their masters and are much respected.  Several of the families, including Scarlett's, feel a strong affection for their slaves. Mammy is loyal, smart, and very much in charge of Scarlett.  Jeems, the Tarleton twins' slave, is much brighter than they and can answer their questions about the moods of Scarlett:  they are simply too dull to understand.

It's a historical novel, written in 1936, and words like "nigger" are used as they wouldn't be today in literature.  But it is set in the South during the Civil War, and there is much that is good in this novel. 


Ellen said...

There was a generation for whom it was an important book. I'm named Ellen, partly because of Ellen O'Hara. I sat with my older daughter, Laura, watching GWTW. When I read memoirs of women I know I am with a fellow soul, when she cites GWTW as one of her books. And they do cite them -- at least those now in print. The book I was paid to review (the Jane Austen sequel) the woman alluded to Jane Eyre, Little Women, GWTW. I don't know how old that author is; my older daughter is 31/32. The younger one though has not read GWTW.

These are white books though.

And derisory treatment ceaselessly repeated will shame readers. Mitchell is no more reactionary than Walter Scott but he is forgiven.

I have a hunch some still see the movie -- which loses what feminism there is.


Frisbee said...

I haven't seen the movie in many, many years, but the novel is much better than I'd remembered. and you're absolutely right about the derisory treatment of some writers. Perhaps the "sequel" treatment of GWTW invites scorn: S The Wind Done Gone, a black person's treatment of the story, is supposed to be funny, isn't it? When I looked up Mitchell on the internet, women seem to enjoy it but cite the "racism." The racism in the first 100 pages doesn't seem strong: it's a slave-owner's story, and the slaves are not poorly treated on these plantations. But I have 900 pages to go.

Frisbee said...

P.S. Racism and sexism are obstacles when it comes to appreciating a book. For instance, I've never been able to read Norman Mailer. So far with GWTW I haven't read any of the parts about Prissie. In the movie they are awful! But I'll have to see how Mitchell depicts her.