Margaret Mitchell’s romantic epic, Gone With the Wind, owes its remarkable popularity to the climate of sudden self-destruction and dreariness the Depression created. The Old South’s grandeur, coupled with its Civil War-era decadence, provided much-needed escapism for readers, as well as paralleling the U.S.’s own plight in the 20s and 30s. In addition, Scarlett O’Hara’s feminist role, her devotion to her land, and her indomitable optimism lent hope to those who had lost faith in the American Dream.A spirit of beautiful, colorful life at the onset sets up the South’s inevitable destruction and magnifies the greatness of the land and its people. “Spring had come early that year, with warm quick rains and sudden frothing of pink peach blossoms and dogwood dappling with white stars the dark river swamp and far-off hills. Already the plowing was nearly finished, and the bloody glory of the sunset colored the fresh-cut furrows of red Georgia clay to even redder hues.” (10) The foreshadowing of the “bloody glory” of sunset is striking, but idealism is the main theme presented here. Scarlett’s status as a second-generation immigrant adds further to this atmosphere of opportunity. Her father, a proud Irishman, proclaims “‘Land is the only thing in the world that amounts to anything, for tis the only thing in this world that lasts…And to anyone with a drop of Irish blood in them the land they live on is like their mother.'” (39) The idea of an undersized foreigner claiming a large stake in America as his own must surely have fueled the imagination of the great influx of recent immigrants, many of whom used GWTW as a primer to American literature.Hanging over the tranquil South is the specter of war. Rhett, introducing his role as the novel’s realist, explains to a group of war hawks, “‘Why, all we have is cotton and slaves and arrogance. [The North]’d lick us in a month.'” (113) The South’s economic dependency and lack of stability, as well as its overconfidence, mirror that of the late 1920s U.S. Indeed, the Yankees do lick the Confederates, albeit in more than forty-eight months. The landscape is much changed. “Atlanta was longer…the desperately gay place she had loved. It was a hideous place like a plague-stricken city so quiet, so dreadfully quiet after the din of the siege.” (341) The sounds of a ravaged South, too, rang familiarly in the ears of ghetto-dwellers and tenant farmers alike who lived in similar settings.But reaffirming the hope of the disenfranchised is Scarlett and her determination to resurrect her homeland. “She could not desert Tara; she belonged to the red acres far more than they could ever belong to her. Her roots went deep into the blood-colored soil and sucked up life, as did the cotton…Tomorrow there would be so many things to do.” (413-4) Her self-imposed desire for progress and the future overrides the faults of Reconstruction, perhaps indicating Mitchell’s laissez-faire approach to government. Among those faults are the Northern soldiers, one of whom enters Tara with Scarlett the only able-bodied person in the house. “As he lounged up the walk…a kaleidoscope of jumbled pictures spun in her mind, stories Aunt Pittypat had whispered of attacks on unprotected women, throat cuttings…all of the unspeakable horrors that lay bound up in the name of Yankee.'” (432) As his intentions to rape are made clear after he symbolically “[slips] his pistol back into its holster” (433) and asks “‘All alone, little lady?'” (433) Scarlett shoots him with the “heavy pistol…Charles had worn but never fired.” (432) Her utilization of a tool her ex-husband never could use is a clear literary act of feminism, as is her triumphant spirit afterwards and the ensuing sisterhood she feels with Melanie: “Her eyes went to the stubby hairy hand on the floor so close to the sewing box and suddenly she was vitally alive again, vitally glad with a cool tigerish joy…She had struck a blow for Tara – and for Ellen…There was a glow of grim pride in [Melanie’s] usually gentle face, approbation and a fierce joy in her smile that equaled the fiery tumult in Scarlett’s own bosom.” (434)Scarlett’s enduring faith in the future and in herself is indelibly stamped at the climax. Rhett declares his unwillingness to live in the broken present and wishes to find the past: “‘Scarlett, I was never one to patiently pick up broken fragments and glue them together and tell myself that the mended whole was as good as new. What is broken is broken – and I’d rather remember it as it was at its best than mend it and see the broken pieces as long as I lived.'” (1022) Scarlett is initially crushed; “She wondered forlornly if she had ever really understood anyone in the world.” (1023) But the thought of Tara, “a quiet place to lick her wounds, a haven in which to plan her campaign,” (1023) comforts her. Her final statement reiterates her sentiments for a new “tomorrow” after Atlanta’s burning (414), and her faith in her own abilities again avers Mitchell’s feminist leanings: “With the spirit of her people who would not know defeat…she raised her chin. She could get Rhett back…’Tomorrow, I’ll think of some way to get him back. After all, tomorrow is another day.'” (1024) With its broad appeal to uprising women, the hopeless, and anyone yearning for a long diversion into a more regal time, as well as its firm beliefs in the American Dream in a time when the premise was widely doubted, GWTW’s rank as the most popular American book is undeniable; a more debatable question would be whether Mitchell’s intentions were first of providing desolate America with romance, or rather of pushing veiled political propaganda.
Gone with the Wind opens with a grandiose description of the South: according to the opening text, this is the region where “gallantry took its last bow” and “knights and their ladies” took a stand against the onslaught of Northern aggression. This terminology tries to tie the genteel South depicted in the film to the ideals and perception of the chivalric medieval times. This tie is appropriate, as both times have been misrepresented historically; that is, many romanticize the medieval era of European history and the antebellum era of American history. For them, it is easier (or less painful) to see the beautiful damsels and the gallant knights in shining armor—the equivalent of the belles and the plantation owners—than to see the serfs and lower classes struggling to build a castle or tend a field, just as slaves kept plantations and tended crops. The mechanism by which these time periods were established and maintained—i.e. slave labor—is overshadowed to the point of nonexistence by the spectacle of the settings and characters associated with those periods. Gone with the Wind gives viewers a distracting visual stimulus—what Tom Brown, quoting Laura Mulvey, calls ”to-be-looked-at-ness”—in its over-the-top sets and costumes, but it also presents the character of Scarlett O’Hara as an object to be observed. The irony here is that, through various actions, Scarlett becomes a representation of that portion of the South’s population (both past and current) who cannot see past the perceived grandiosity of the past, yet she is also a representation of that same grandiosity. She, as well as those who cannot see the horrible truth behind the constructed legend of a South that never was, cannot look beyond her own interests to see the truth.
There are numerous examples within the movie which show Scarlett’s lack of vision. She marries Charles Hamilton out of frustration and spite, in hopes of angering Ashley Wilkes; and she marries Frank Kennedy only to use his money to pay the taxes on Tara, thus protecting a home and way of life that can never return. She is an opportunist and a user. She seems to have no notion that her ideal childhood at Tara never really existed—it appeared care-free to her, but it was bought with the blood and sweat of an enslaved people. Scarlett never acknowledges this fact. She, as the lead character of the film, represents the great southern separation of perception from reality—a delusion still present at the 1939 premiere of the film. As Edward Campbell states in “The South as National Epic, 1939-1941: Gone with the Wind”: “One critic reported that thirty-eight survivors of the Civil War emerged from the theatre convinced that the movie was ‘true. . .to the South of their own childhoods.’” I postulate that the “survivors of the Civil War,” both those present at the premiere and those not, entered into a state of mass psychosis. The only way to deal with the atrocities of slavery and the pain and humiliation of the South’s defeat was to suppress them and turn them into something more palatable. In essence, certain Southerners made a ball gown out of their dingy curtains, and many have been dancing in the delusion ever since. I would like to say that this delusion is dead, but one need only look to Civil War reenactments and plantation-themed weddings to see that it is not.
The most prominent example of Scarlett’s refusal to accept reality is found at the end of the film. Bonnie is dead, Rhett has left, and Scarlett has collapsed at the bottom of the staircase. Rather than accepting what is at hand, she stares into the camera and thinks of Tara again. Her longing for what was is still her driving force. She wants to go back and rebuild Tara (and possibly her relationship with Rhett), but it is impossible to do so. Scarlett will not accept this fact, and the movie ends on this perceived high note. This is appealing to those in the audience who refuse to accept reality. Movie goers buy in to Scarlett’s denial of her circumstances because they too deny their own. She cannot accept her lot in life, and neither can they.
On pages 163 and 164 of “Spectacle/Gender/History: The Case of Gone with the Wind,” Tom Brown describes the “historical gaze” found in epic films such as Gone with the Wind as a kind of foresight found in the prominent figures in those movies. He states that they “seem endowed with a clairvoyance through which they appear to recognize events to come.” If this is the case, then Scarlett’s “gaze” only works in the short term and in reverse. She can only see the outcomes of her actions as they relate to her status, and she cannot see far into the future because she continually looks backward to the Tara of her youth.
If anyone in the film has a real “historical gaze,” it would be the young man playing the horn in the middle of town as the lists of fallen soldiers are distributed. He is weeping as he plays an up-tempo song while the news of death is passed around. The ridiculousness of the whole situation is revealed as the camera singles in on his tear-filled eyes. The song the band plays sounds lively—almost celebratory—but it cannot mask the horror of the situation, just as Scarlett’s doggedness cannot restore Tara and her youth, and the delusions of grandeur associated with the antebellum South cannot erase the truth of its daily workings.