Saturday, September 08, 2012

Gone With The Wind

Gone With the Wind has been on my to-read list for many years now. I'm finally reading it, and except for a 6 week break while I crammed in a summer semester of biology, I haven't been able to put it down. It's a shame Margaret Mitchell only created one book, but what a masterpiece she left to her world. One thinks primarily of the movie, and of the relationship between Rhett and Scarlett mostly, but the 1939 epic fails to capture the complexities of the Civil War South, its aftermath and the effect it has on the novel's two primary characters. Ms. Mitchell's story leads to an exploring of the societal bonds and rituals that were simultaneously held dear and hated by an old, genteel class of Southerners. They are elite, ignorant, optimistic, and eventually crushed by a rising tide of time and modernity that they cannot stop. Within a generation, the Southern culture they took for granted is gone, their traditions face extinction, and they must survive in the newly established world of the post-Civil War era, with its new hierarchy and class system. The book's characters are left reeling, saddened, and uncomprehending. They cannot understand the changes that encompass them and they are left to be broken or made in the new era. Yes, the book is appallingly factual with all its depicted brutality of land and families torn apart by war; the white, Southern contemptuous attitudes towards black people and cringe-inducing (and politically incorrect) grammar; all the sad details of a hate-filled and near disastrous Reconstruction-era, with all the rage, greed and social-climbing ambitions portrayed so accurately - and yet this book is fascinating. Perhaps it is the way the author propels us into a story of weak vs. strong, leading us to believe Scarlett, with all her might, strength, and beauty, is the protagonist. It is only towards the story's end that we learn otherwise as Ms. Mitchell questions our notions of strength and weakness. Perhaps it is the way controversial elements are handled; presented with little commentary from the author (Ms. Mitchell preserves her opinions for descriptions of the Yankee army's pillage of her beloved South), she tells us a story based on a monumental historical event which ushered in the light beginnings of the modern era, and we are left to draw our own conclusions from its consequences.  

“Perhaps - I want the old days back again and they'll never come back, and I am haunted by the memory of them and of the world falling about my ears. ”Gone With The Wind
There are many reasons to like or dislike this book, per your feelings of the South - and many reasons to probe it and ask ourselves the questions whose answers eluded even its author. Perhaps I find myself drawn in because, like Ms. Mitchell's characters, I love the traditions and established lifestyles of the past but am finding that I cannot refuse the siren song of the new, exciting, modern times we live in. Technology, medical advances, global traversing, and all the ethical dilemmas they present are something I struggle to reconcile while using the advantages they offer. Maybe one day someone will write about the paradoxes of our age; the disappearance of the still, quiet, uncomplicated lifestyles that we traded in for convenience and connectivity; the generations before us who paved the way with their inventions and scientific discoveries (probably never guessing what we have ended up with!) and the dilemmas we eschew for the sake of convenience, tolerance, and guilt-free lifestyles... 

Maybe, one day, someone will probe fully the complexities of our era. For now, I'm content to probe the complexities of another, past.

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