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You can't get Gone With the Wind into a nutshell. It is enormously—perhaps even ridiculously—long. Seriously: The only nutshell on the planet that can contain this beast of a book is probably the Coco de Mer.
Margaret Mitchell's 1936 novel is a great, sweeping tale about the tragedy of the Civil War, the end of civilization as the South's known it, and love turned to dust. It is, in short, a book in which everything goes terribly wrong.
You'd think that as long and as tragic as Gone With the Wind is, no one would want to read it. War and Peace, for instance, isn't exactly standard beach reading. But instead Gone With the Wind was a massive bestseller when it was published in 1936, and topped the best-seller list in 1937, too.
But before you write this off as some old-timey fondness for long, sad stories, consider this: A 2014 poll found that Gone With the Wind was the second most popular book in the country still, second only to the Bible, and ahead of Harry Potter. Apparently, liking long books that have ample tragedy in the mix is about as American as apple pie no matter what year it is.
Unsurprisingly, then, Gone With the Wind doesn't end with the book. Nope, there's a 1939 move that's hugely successful in its own right, as well as various musical and theatrical productions. There are also additional books that pick up various threads of the story, though none written by Mitchell herself. The book is a bit of a national obsession, so if you find yourself falling in love like so many others have, well, consider yourself just getting started. This book may clock in at around one thousand pages, but there are plenty more to explore if you're interested.
You should care about Gone With the Wind because Gone With the Wind is evil.
Not evil-cool like a horror movie or a Slayer album or a big awesome action movie. But evil-evil, as in filled with hate and advocating for the enslavement and murder of people on the basis of their skin color. That's right: This is one racist book.
This is a book that presents the Ku Klux Klan as brave freedom fighters, slavery as righteous and kind, and freedom for black people as misguided and harmful. "Slaves were neither miserable nor unfortunate," the novel assures us. "The n****es were far better off under slavery than they were now under freedom" (42.124). If you have ever read any accounts of slavery written by black people who were enslaved themselves, you know that that is a vicious, harmful lie. Even if you haven't read any of these accounts, we're hoping you know this is a terrible untruth anyway.
The racism is obvious in quotes like the one above, but it permeates the book. There is a moment early on, for instance, when Gerald has purchased his slave Pork's wife, Dilcey, from the Wilkes's plantation, an act which is presented as great, even excessive, kindness. When Gerald gets back to his own plantation, he doesn't tell Pork right away—instead, he decides to play a hilarious practical joke:
Come daughter, let's go tell Pork that instead of buying Dilcey, I've sold him to John Wilkes. (2.139)
The joke here—the bit that's supposed to be funny—is the idea that Gerald has arbitrarily decided to upend Pork's life. Gerald has complete control over Pork; he can choose to unite him with his wife or not; he can determine where he will live and what he will do.
The practical joke, then, is actually Gerald taunting Pork with his utter powerlessness, and the fact that white people can determine where black people live, what their family arrangements are, what they do and don't do. And Pork is supposed to find it funny when Gerald mocks him with the fact that he is property. Would you be grateful to Gerald if you were Pork? Would you think he was kind and amusing? Or would you loathe him for his clueless, jovial cruelty?
Gerald, then, is, by most definitions, an evil man. He owns people, and he even laughs at their pain and enslavement like he's a super-villain. But—he's not a super-villain. Not as far as the book's concerned anyway. Instead Gerald is presented as a lovable rogue, who cares for his children and his wife and his community. In Gone With the Wind, he's one of the good guys.
Ashley and Frank, in the Ku Klux Klan, riding out to kill black people without trial—they are good guys, too, in this book, men who just want what's best for their families, and if they have to kill some black people, well, that's just the way it goes. Time and again this book asks readers to sympathize with the people who march out to fight for their right to enslave people on the basis of their skin color, to hope things turn out for these oppressors. And this means that this book asks its readers to hope that black people remain enslaved, that they will be lynched, and that they will never have the right to vote.
And that's why the book matters. It shows that evil isn't just something for super-villains. Evil doesn't identify itself with signs saying, "Hey! We're the bad guys!" Evil can have families; it can be lovable and sympathetic and convinced of its own good intentions. The society that Gone With the Wind mourns is built on violence and oppression and racism. It's rotten and horrible to its core, but it doesn't look rotten and horrible to the people doing the rotten, horrible things. It seems natural, and even noble.
Which makes you wonder whether there might not be some cases where you—like Scarlett and Rhett and Melanie and Ashley—are, without knowing it, on the side of evil as well.
Gone With the Wind (the Movie)
This is the official website for the 1939 film. It's got info about the film, stills, and a bunch of video and audio clips.
Margaret Mitchell House Website
Margaret Mitchell's house in Atlanta is an historical site. The website includes information about the house, Mitchell, and her famous novel, which she wrote while living here.
Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh
Need we say more? The 1939 film is so famous and iconic that there hasn't been a remake. Or maybe Hollywood figures flagrant racism like this wouldn't fly anymore. Either way, this four-hour film is the one and only.
Gone With the Wind is Incredibly Racist
An article about the ample criticism the film version of Gone With the Wind received from black newspapers and public officials—criticism that often goes unmentioned in histories of the film.
Feminism and Gone With the Wind
An essay arguing that Gone With the Wind portrays Scarlett as a strong woman survivor.
Is Gone With the Wind Literature?
A short PBS feature which asks whether Gone With the Wind is great literature or racist formulaic genre drivel. PBS doesn't really answer because it's PBS and they feel like they need to be all even-handed and journalistic, but it's still interesting.
Is Gone With the Wind a Great Film?
Everyone's a critic...areweright?
"You're the Scum of the Ocean and the Chicken of the Sea"
In Carol Burnett's parody of the film, Melanie sticks her head in a punch bowl. What more do you need to know?
Gone With the Wind is Great… Er, No It Isn't
Jodi Picault talks about how as a child she loved Gone With the Wind. Jesmyn Ward talks about how, as a child, she was alienated and angered at the portrayal of black characters.
The Movie Poster
A famously romantic movie poster for the 1939 film.
The Original Book Cover
The much less romantic original cover for the 1936 book.