Today my thoughts are turning to Gone with the Wind.
I know that the book and the movie are considered problematic here in the 21st century, and while those issues are valid ones, they are not what this is about. I'm looking to other themes that the story presents, and how those are applicable to me personally and also in a larger context.
First of all, we must understand that GwtW is not what it appears at first glance. The so-called "epic love story" is anything but; and part of the brilliance of the tale may lie in the fact that so few people seem able to recognize that fact. No, GwtW is epic tragedy, an examination of how varied personalities survive or not against the backdrop of cataclysmic societal upheaval. And it is this that makes the story entirely relevant today, both personally for me and societally here in the US as we find ourselves in the midst of cataclysms of our own.
Margaret Mitchell was a young southern woman born as the 19th century gave way to the 20th. Her young life was marked by the upheavals of World War I; and she began writing a story to entertain herself when she became injured and unable to continue working in the mid-1920s, not so very long before the crash of 1929. Her book was published in 1936, with the movie following in 1939, and it's not at all difficult to understand why the story achieved its monstrous, unprecedented popularity. That theme of which I spoke in the last paragraph was only too relevant to Americans in the grip of the Great Depression, Americans on the brink of entry into the second World War. The story became huge in Japan as well, and for similar reasons. When the world is in flames, be they metaphorical or literal, stories are sometimes the only things we can find to cling to for reassurance, for comfort, for a candle to light the darkness of miserable uncertainty and fear. GwtW provided that light for untold millions during that turbulent period of history, and its popularity has remained precisely because of the universality of those themes it presents. For that reason if for no other I will defend it and its author to the end.
Survival amid chaos is a keynote in the story, and we are presented with four very different main personalities and the ways in which they persist and thrive (or not). Our frontwoman, Scarlett O'Hara, is doggedly determined to survive at any cost. Her eventual counterpart, Rhett Butler, thrives by finding ways to capitalize on the destruction of his society for his own enrichment. Melanie Hamilton is gracious and accepting of the vagaries of fate, relying on a core of inner strength as well as the bonds of friends and family. Her counterpart, Ashley Wilkes, bows and breaks under the strain of trying to adapt to a world for which he was never designed either by birth or circumstance. We the audience watch the ways in which these four interact with their surroundings, with other people, and recognize that their struggles are universal and timeless, that the backdrop may be that of the American Civil War and the Reconstruction period immediately thereafter but the trials endured by the protagonists transcend time and culture.
And that's why Gone with the Wind is not only relevant, but possibly necessary, in this day and age. I almost would not be surprised to see a resurgence in its popularity. Last year was the 75th anniversary of the book's publication, and the movie will celebrate its anniversary in 2014. How can such antiquated tales be of any use in this complex modern world? Didn't I just explain that?
Right now I feel a bit like Scarlett, forced to flee Atlanta when it came under siege by Sherman's invading Union forces. She ran, despite the risks, to the only place that represented any sort of safety or stability to her: her childhood home, which conveniently happened to be located right where recent skirmishes were happening. Despite that danger, she sought refuge there, only to find the house looted, most of the servants gone, her mother dead, her sisters dangerously ill, and her father driven mad from grief and shock. Even the illusion of security was denied her, but she was home, on her familiar ancestral ground, and that was enough to give her strength and focus and the ability to take up her "weary load" and move forward. And that is what I sort of foresee for myself. It's like I can hear the siege cannons firing in the not-so-far-off distance, and fear that fleeing is all but inevitable. My ancestral place is none so grandiose as a plantation, but it's familiar, and it feels like a source of strength and safety at a time when all else looks to be collapsing and closing in. I feel fragile right now, dangerously so, and wonder at my ability to hold it together during this time. I can only hope to find a bit of Scarlett's determination, Rhett's wry cunning, Melanie's grace, and Ashley's--well, at the moment I'm finding it difficult to think of anything of use that poor doomed Ashley brought to the table. Maybe he can serve as the example of how I don't want to end up: bitter, broken, defeated.
I think I know what book I'll read next, for distraction and inspiration. Thanks, Margaret Mitchell.