AN ALMOST PERFECT NOVEL
“As God is my witness, I’m never going to be hungry again.”
That’s not a Weight Watchers commercial: it’s a line midway through Margaret Mitchell’s magnificent historical novel, Gone with the Wind.
GWTW, as many abbreviate it, is one of my favorite novels, and I have plenty of company. According to a recent Harris poll, GWTW is second only to the Bible in popularity among Americans. And there are a lot of reasons for that: it’s a great story, an easily-digested history lesson, and, for writers, it’s like a master class in storytelling.
First off, consider the storyline and the clear, linear structure: it’s not just a story about a spoiled Southern Belle, or the devastation of war, or the hardships of Reconstruction after the Civil War, or a woman struggling to preserve her family’s legacy. It’s all that—and more.
GWTW carries a timeless theme. In Margaret Mitchell’s own words, “If the novel has a theme it is that of survival. What makes some people able to come through catastrophes and others, apparently just as able, strong and brave, go under? It happens in every upheaval. Some people survive; others don’t. What qualities are in those who fight their way through triumphantly that are lacking in those who go under…? I only know that the survivors used to call that quality ‘gumption.’ So I wrote about the people who had gumption and the people who didn’t.”
And did she ever write about people with gumption! Not only that, she created a cast of complex, fascinating characters. When we first meet main character Scarlett O’Hara, we’re told right off the bat that she’s not beautiful, but “men seldom realized it when caught by her charm. . .” What a way to introduce a character! Scarlett is a study in contradictions: she’s vain, foolish and selfish, but she’s also smart, strong and brave.
Her counterpart, Rhett Butler, comes on the scene as a scalawag, a scoundrel and a cynic. However, as we get to know him, we learn he’s also an idealist, a romantic, and—who’d have guessed it?—a patriot.
GWTW is also a superb history lesson, and Ms. Mitchell delivers it in small, vivid bites, full of specific sensory detail. Writers are advised to “show, don’t tell,” and Ms. Mitchell demonstrates that repeatedly. Readers can almost feel the heat of the flames as Atlanta burns and the clench of starvation that Scarlett endures. The details feel authentic, and they probably are. Margaret Mitchell was born in 1900, and her family lived in Atlanta. Her parents and grandparents probably witnessed the Civil War firsthand and no doubt shared stories with young Margaret.
GWTW is also a spectacular model of what a love story can be. It doesn’t just have a romantic triangle; it has trapezoids and rectangles all over the place, and these are played out in a fascinating narrative.
GWTW is also the model for a modern ending. Not every complication is resolved and tied up with a tidy little bow. Ms. Mitchell left plenty of room for audience participation and interpretation. Did Rhett really not “give a damn?” Will Scarlett get him back? Theories abound.
The novel has a few flaws, of course. The language and style seem out of sync with today’s writing, and some of the dialogue is overblown and even clunky. When Sidney Howard wrote the screenplay, he shortened that famous line I quoted at the start; he removed two words, and Vivien Leigh vowed, “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again.” Much more punch in that one.
But none of this detracts from the novel’s power to cast a spell. Almost 80 years later, people still care about the book and its characters, and the ambiguous ending sparks many a spirited discussion. What more could an author hope for?