Gone with the wind & To kill a mockingbird re-visited

It's been a very long time since I read Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind. What struck me immediately was that I had forgotten what a very good book it is. Sure, there are problems associated with it - the incipient racism (although most of the black characters are treated kindly, and the principal black characters are morally superior to most of the principal white characters), a certain affection for the Ku Klux Klan, and a general sense that life was better (as indeed it probably was for wealthy white plantation owners) under slavery, so throughout the narrative there is a certain sense of moral ambiguity. I think part of this is simply down to changing tastes and beliefs, but I also think this was partly intentional as it contrasts the morality of the bigger picture (slavery, the Civil War, reconstruction) against the morality of individuals caught up in the events.

I was also struck when reading the novel of the connections with another novel that I re-read earlier this year - Harper Lee's To kill a mockingbird. There are many similarities between the lives of Harper Lee and Margaret Mitchell. Both were Pulitzer Prize winners for their only published work (although another novel by Margaret Mitchell was published posthumously, 60 years after her death). Both were brought up in the Southern States of the USA - Mitchell in Georgia, the setting for her book, and Lee in Alabama - the setting for her own novel, both were long-standing members of their communities with roots stretching back into pre-Civil War times, and both were the daughters of lawyers. What is stunningly different is the change in attitude between the two books. The central section of Gone with the wind deals with reconstruction and the fall-out from that. Lynchings are spoken of, and dealt with very casually - indeed they're supported by the most mild mannered of characters, the contrast with the attitudes of To kill a mockingbird couldn't be more different - and, yet....there were few in Mockingbird who actively supported Atticus Finch. In some ways Gone with the wind could be seen as a precursor to Mockingbird filling in the background, while Mockingbird is the portrayal of the beginning of the end of that style of life and attitudes.

Gone with the wind is a striking portrayal of a vanished way of life, and you'll seldom come across a novel with more fully rounded characters. Scarlett O'Hara is a great anti-heroine, in many ways she's extremely dislikeable, but you can't help but admire her tenacity, and dedication to her family. She's also a great feminist icon, in constant rebellion against the mores of her time. Born a hundred years later she would have been a successful and admired (if somewhat hard-edged) business woman. Rhett Butler, her lover and nemesis, is a likeable cynical scoundrel, whose love for Scarlett redeems him. Whatever you think of the politics of the novel, it's worth reading. A cracking good read which was to result in one of the highest grossing films of the twentieth century.


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