Sunday, April 17, 2011

Critic Claims Gone with the Wind is Not a Romance

Critic John Cloud recently wrote an essay in Time magazine, stating that, generally, Gone with the Wind is "still mistaken for a romance.  It's actually a gritty eulogy."

Gone with the Wind was published in the summer of 1936 and hit the markets at $3, the equivalent of $50 today, and sold a million copies by Christmas.  It now ranks among the best-selling books ever published in English.  Gone with the Wind continues to "transcend criticism, like Star Wars or Lady Gaga, while never losing its relevance."  Apparently, Cloud had a great-great-grandfather that fought in the Civil War and got so hungry after the journey home from Appomattox that he "ate hulls from an old pea patch and promptly vomited."  He goes on to say that hunger is a constant theme in the novel, and that Southerners' humiliation at having lost the war was compounded by the knowledge that they never had a chance and the reckoning that came after. 

Cloud cites Eric Foner's A Short History of Reconstruction, in which he so obviously states that "more than a quarter-million men were dead, and many cities and villages lay in near total ruin.  The region had even lost nearly a third of its horses."  In order to rebuild, the government needed to rely on taxes, but there was nothing left to tax except the ground itself.  Cloud states that most people see Gone with the Wind as a romance novel, but the "force" that drives Scarlett O'Hara the most is having to pay the property taxes on Tara.  She steals her sister's businessman fiance, robs a man she shoots in the face, and runs a mill that sells wood at "punishing" prices to former friends, all to accomplish the huge feat of paying property taxes.  Cloud then goes on to say that the South's aversion to taxes has never quite abated, despite the infinitely dismal public schools and almost "nonexistent safety net."

Cloud claims that Gone with the Wind also helps explain why the South sends so many of its sons and daughters to fight wars.  Essentially, he writes that in the South, the hotheads (the ones all geared up for war) usually prevail.  He states that the novel is not really a tale of North vs. South, but more of an old South vs. new.  Ashley represents the old; he "was born of a line of men who used their leisure for thinking, not doing, for spinning brightly colored dreams."  Scarlett, however, is "diamond hard." 

He ends the essay saying, "with its loving descriptions of organdy and horsemanship, Gone with the Wind seems genteel, but it is actually an unrelenting tale of how honor gives in to greed.  Mitchell knew that loss was as tragic and inevitable as the South's self-imposed despoiling."

All that being said, I agree with him.  I have read Gone with the Wind and seen the movie, and I believe that the novel is much more than just a love story.  Mitchell, however inexperienced, wrote a compelling story that drew millions of people in.  There is much more beneath the surface, though, and I find Cloud's take on it greatly interesting.

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