I have heard a lot of people say that a book has the power to change one’s life. This is a statement which sounds so beautiful that one would instantly want to believe it. The irony is that this statement is as difficult to believe as it is easy to understand. It stands true even for bibliophiles like me. All of us pretend to believe it till we find a book that translates this metaphysical concept into a reality.
After years of being an avid reader, I found my reality in an age old classic “Gone with the Wind.” The book is so exquisitely detailed that it’s impossible to not fall in love with the twisted and charming characters. Be it Scarlett’s coquetry before the war started, or her determination and hard work after it ended, Margaret Mitchell did justice to each and every quirk that her characters possessed. Rhett Butler’s sharp mind and promiscuous ways instantly draws the reader’s attention to him and every time a chapter ends with him leaving, the reader is left asking for more.
The backdrop of the American Civil War is as important to the plot as are the characters. The oppression of the slaves was a harsh reality which has been portrayed by innumerable books and movies. This book sparked a debate about the way Mitchell has portrayed her black characters. From Mammy to Pork, all her black characters fit into the pre-war southern society wherein they adore their masters and mistresses and respect their culture more than the white characters do. They do not join the north and stay till with the O’ Haras till the end. The slaves are portrayed as normal employees, are rewarded with presents like the master’s pocket watch if they’ve been appropriately loyal, and are allowed to scold the young mistress of the house as if they were a part of the family. Big Sam leaves Tara only when ordered and with extreme reluctance and later saves Scarlett at serious risk to his own life. This has led to the book being branded as a symbol of the neo-confederate movement, white supremacy etc. It has been accused of white-washing the treacherous conditions that the slaves had to live in. I agree that the book is racist at multiple levels but having said that, Margaret Mitchell’s imagination was backed by real stories that she had been hearing while growing up. Yes, slavery is a horrendous thing and all of us know that now. We are well aware of human rights and everything that follows but at the time in which the book is set in, slavery was condemned by some and upheld by some others. This book talks about a set of people who upheld the notion of slavery because they did not understand any other form of living. The books portrays how their entire civilization had gone with the wind and how these white characters found ways to survive in a completely new atmosphere. The wiping off of one’s civilization is never easy to recuperate from. Yes, the civil war brought about a welcome change in the society but the sufferings of the privileged classes after the war was over was not a myth. It was as real as slavery.
I insist once again that the racism and bigotry depicted in the book is in no way acceptable but what we need today is an open mind. Today’s readers are well informed about the history of the oppression of the slaves and are very unlikely to form a rosy opinion about slavery based on their understanding of this book. We must appreciate a literary work for what it teaches us. Scarlett teaches us to never give up. She fights in the face of adversity and toils in the face of hunger. From a hedonistic girl who is used to having her way, Scarlett catapults into a headstrong woman who is not afraid of what people in society say about her actions. Rhett Butler teaches us practicality. He keeps questioning the war. He is shrewd and knows how to make the best of what he has. He very rightly points out that there is as much money to be made in the wreckage of a civilization as in its inception. His character shows more humanity than Scarlett’s because despite is bravado, his heart turns out to be his Achilles’ heel. He keeps fighting the deep love that he develops for Scarlett but is more often than not, unsuccessful in doing so. His deep pain and loneliness is palpable even when he finally breaks away from his poisonous relationship with her. His biting and demeaning words are but a shroud for the anguish that he feels inside.
In today’s world, these characters still live on. We still meet people like Melanie who may look meek but have immense strength and loyalty embedded in their hearts, we still meet people like Ashley who are so hung on the past that they would prefer death to moving on and adjusting to new ways of life. Every single page of this book gives me hope, it gives me the strength to work hard and to never give up because- “After all, tomorrow is another day.”
– Contributed by Vinny