Friday, 25 March 2011

Gone With The Wind By Margaret Mitchell

Tomorrow is another day...
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Set against the dramatic backdrop of the American Civil War in 1860s Atlanta, Margaret Mitchell's magnificemt historical epic is an unforgettable story of love and loss, of a nation mortally divided and a people forever changed. Above all, it tells one of the most famous and enduring love stories of all time - between Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler.
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I didn't want this book to end. I loved it!
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In a way I think it is slightly misadvertised as 'the most famous and enduring love story'. I felt it was more about the way people lived their lives during the civil war and how the times were changed because of it and how people adapted to them. In a way it is a love story in the way Wuthering Heights is a love story. The relationship between Rhett and Scarlett is definitely passionate but not always because of love but sometimes because of hate.
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Now, before I read this book I hardly knew anything about the American Civil War since it was never taught to me at school because it's not seen as such an important topic in the UK. So it was quite an eye opener to read about it in Gone With The Wind. To put it simplistically, the South are happy with the way life is but the North want change, therefore war ensues between the two. Basically the North say they want to free the slaves and give them the same rights as everybody else, including the right to vote and gain jobs on equal footing. Whereas the South think that there should be distinctive classes within society that depend on many parameters such as how rich you are or even right down to the colour of your skin. At times I felt it completely shocking to read about the racism in this book but I thought it gave a real insight into how it was an unrelentingly prevalent issue in this time period. I also found it completely ironic how a family treated their 'house' slaves with respect as if they were almost a part of the family and yet treated some random 'darkie' (as they are called in the book) as somebody to be avoided.
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Scarlett O'Hara is the main protagonist. At the start she is seen as the 'belle of the county' and is incredibly self-centred, selfish and manipulative. She uses her charms to get any 'beau' to lust after her even if it means stealing them from under the noses of the other local girls. She has never failed in snaring men except for Ashley, which makes her want him even more. Throughout the whole book she never gives up on her dream of making Ashley give up everything for her. Even though I disliked Scarlett, I still admired her determination to make herself known in the world. Overall, she is a survivor. She will do whatever it takes to survive even if it means lying, cheating and giving up her morals. Whereas the South clinged to their idea of the past, Scarlett pushes ahead and looks to the future and is willing to work like a man to get the money she craves so she will never go hungry again, which is why most of the Southerners end up disliking her because she is ready to give up the southern traditions and trade them with the changing times.
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Rhett Butler is a charming and dashing character and is the only person that can stand up to Scarlett and won't be manipulated by her (it doesn't stop her from trying though). He takes a pleasure in making her so angry that she ends up in a rage and yet he seems to be able to keep his cool and just laugh at her. I'm not sure I liked Rhett as a character either. There's no denying that he is charming and it is refreshing to have somebody that speaks his mind honestly and bluntly instead of just thinking it, but at the same time I think he is almost as selfish as Scarlett. He only does something if it will benefit himself in some way or another. Saying that I feel that he was probably hiding a vein of compassion under his sarcastic and nonchalant exterior. There is an intelligence about him but unfortunatetly he uses it to mock his neighbours and especially Scarlett (not that she doesn't deserve it half the time).
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Now there is one character that is undeniably selfless in this book and that is the kind and considerate Melanie Wilkes. As the book is most of the time seen through the eyes of Scarlett, there were times when I thought Melly to be weak and naive but then I realised that Scarlett's voice was manipulating my judgement of her and in fact she is probably the most moral and courageous character in the book. She stands up for what she believes in and has a fierce loyalty to her family and friends and chooses to see the good in people first before anything else. Her husband Ashley, the man Scarlett believes herself to be in love with, is similar to Melanie in the way that he wants to have peace in his life and even in America. There is one quote that I loved that I think sums up his personality:
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'It's a curse - this not wanting to look on naked realities. Until the war, life was never more real to me than a shadow on a curtain. And I preferred it so. I do not like the outlines of things to be too sharp. I like them gently blurred, a little hazy.'
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He prefers to live in his dreams and books and the war has made him realise that life in reality is hard and unforgiving. However, unlike Melanie, it is clear that he is obviously lost in a world that is no longer recognisable to him and his inability to decide what he really wants or how to achieve that means that he is sort of in limbo and just trudging through life.
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One thing that I thought was so heartbreaking was how Mitchell depicted the suffering that the people had to go through with the war and even though deep down they knew there was no way they were going to win they still fought anyway. It takes immense bravery to stand up for what you believe in whilst knowing that you are fighting a losing battle. The details of the losses, illnesses and hunger caused by the war that swept the South were vivid. Even the rich lost everything and were forced to turn their hands to work since they no longer had any slaves and there was one quote that I thought particulary fitting to their situation:
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'Time's never change when there's a need for honest work to be done.'
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The one thing I did like about Scarlett was her love for her homeland, Tara. Whenever she lost sight of the reasons why she had given up the moral teachings of her mother she thought upon what would happen to her beloved home if she was not able to raise the money to support it. So even though she may have used several people (including her husbands) to get money quick she did it all so she could keep Tara alive. However, initially she did have to work hard and honestly to keep her family from starving in the middle of the war. With limited supplies of food she foraged for every last crumb and even laid her hands to cotton picking.
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This book is full of vibrant and passionate characters and even though I disliked Scarlett at times, I still admired her. So, this is probably the first book where the main character actually annoyed me on numerous occasions and yet loved it because of it. I recommend it to everyone; an epic read!
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[Sorry if my review is slightly long and meandering. It's so hard to write a review on a book you loved so much and yet want to do nothing but write and talk about it ]
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Random Passage: They loved their men, they believed in them, they trusted them to the last breaths of their bodies. How could disaster ever come to women such as they when their stalwart grey line stood between them and the Yankies? Had there ever been such men as these since the first dawn of the world, so heroic, so reckless, so gallant, so tender? How could anything but overwhelming victory come to a Cause as just and right as their? A Cause they loved as much as they loved their men, a Cause they served with their hands and their hearts, a Cause they talked about, thought about, dreamed about - a Cause to which they would sacrifice these men if need be, and bear their loss as proudly as the men bore their battle flags.

2 comments:

mummazappa said...

I really must read this soon. There's so many classics I want to read, and then there's some that I just can't believe I haven't got around to reading yet, and this is one of them! The American Civil War fascinates me, in particular why people in the south continue to recreate it, I just don't really understand why, so that makes me want to read this more, and try to figure it out a bit more. Great review too :-)

The Library Owl said...

Thanks!I know what you mean about not getting around to some of the classics. Gone With The Wind was on my bookshelf for over a year and half and I've only just got around to it. I don't know what took me so long!