Sarah Lawson considers narrative structures in Margaret Mitchell’s epic novel

London Grip is delighted to be able to publish extracts from
The GWTW Fortnight
Sarah Lawson’s new collection of fourteen essays on “Gone With The Wind”

 

Preface to The GWTW Fortnight

I read Gone with the Wind when I was 16, or to be more precise, during the week before and the week after my 16th birthday.  It was the late 1950s and I was a junior in high school in Indiana.  My schoolwork kept me busy that November, but I read a library copy of Gone with the Wind in spare moments for relaxation and then found it useful later when a book report was required in English class.  At 1000-plus pages it was the longest book I had ever read. It was also the only book I have ever read which caused me a real pang of regret when I saw that I had passed the half-way point in it.

I read Gone with the Wind at school if there was some free time in study hall and at home afer I had finished my homework.  We were Northerners, but Margaret Mitchell’s vision of the South of almost 100 years before was spellbinding.  One’s own personal non-Southern background is irrelevant—as readers all over the world have found. The older half-brother of my paternal grandfather had fought in the Civil War with the Ohio Volunteers.  When we were children my brother and I used to play, rather dangerously, with his bayonet. I couldn’t really associate great-uncle Michael Lawson with the wicked Yankees in Gone with the Wind. In any case, he had not marched through Georgia, as far as I knew.

When I was at Indiana University in the 1960s I had a friend, Vivian, a French major who was two years older than I was. One day she asked me what novel I thought was the best. When I said Gone with the Wind (because it was still the only novel that had given me that pang when I passed the half-way mark), she was visibly shocked.  She had not expected such a middlebrow, Book-of-the-Month-Club answer.  I had clearly gone down several notches in her estimation.  What should I have answered?  The only correct answer to Vivian’s question would have been a fairly lengthy list, as no one title or author could ever qualify as “the greatest”.

If ever a book suffered from its success, it is Gone with the Wind. When it was published in 1936 there were rave reviews, but before the year was out the reaction had set in.  It was seen to be phenomenally successful.  No other book before or since has sold like GWTW.  One could just as well say that hot cakes sell like Gone with the Wind.  It had hardly been printed the first time when it had to be reprinted.  While a respectable total sales figure of a first novel might be a few thousand copies, GWTW was selling more than that every day.  Bookshops had to place orders in the thousands just to keep up with demand. The author complained that her phone was ringing off the hook and that streams of strangers came to her door to talk about her book or to ask her to sign copies for them. People bought the book and then mailed it to her to sign—and send back to them at her expense.

Plainly, a book as successful as this could not possibly be serious literature. The leader of the critical reaction was Malcolm Cowley.  His arguments against it boiled down to the facts that the author was a woman and the main characters were women. What we would now see as laughable sexism passed in 1936 as legitimate comment.  Cowley also thought, mistakenly, that GWTW was a rehash of Southern clichés and was sentimental slush.  Assuming that he read past the first few pages, he completely missed the irony and the ambiguity that suffuse the novel.  Other leftist critics, particularly in The New Republic, castigated the book for its apparent approval of slavery.  They missed the point that if you are going to write a narrative from the point of view of slave-owners in the 1860s, slavery will probably be portrayed as an acceptable institution.  Critics who should have known better judged the book by criteria quite outside the novel, and in spite of those first laudatory reviews, this latter opinion is the one that stuck.

To complicate matters, even before it was published the book was bought by David Selznick to make it into a film, which opened in late 1939.  Other films that have been made from classic novels have usually appeared long after the novel was published. Versions of Jane Austen or Tolstoy or Dickens were made many decades after the novel had a chance to establish a reputation.  As the film of GWTW followed so close on the heels of the book, views of the book to this day are coloured by—if not entirely based on—that film. The movie was and still is breathtaking, but it is necessarily a simplification of the novel.

In the 1970s and early 1980s there was a small flurry of critical interest in GWTW.  Because of the Women’s Movement or because of a wish to discover a neglected classic, several scholars, notably Darden Asbury Pyron, looked at it again and tried to reverse the critical anathema that had hung over it for the previous 30 or 40 years.  It was thought that now the book would take its rightful place among great American fiction; now it would feature on syllabuses of American literature and be taken seriously; now the kind of scholarship that was devoted to Ernest Hemingway or William Faulkner would encompass Margaret Mitchell. But it didn’t happen.

I have never re-read Gone with the Wind since I was 16. In the intervening 50 years I have read many more novels in English and a few other languages.  I have studied them seriously in the process of acquiring three degrees in English literature.  I have written dozens, if not hundreds, of book reviews for numerous magazines.  I have learned a thing or two about evaluating the written word. If I were to read Gone with the Wind again this year, in book-end weeks around my 66th birthday, how differently would I see it?  The world has changed and I have changed, so will my perception of Gone with the Wind change?  Was my judgement at 19 as jejune as Vivian thought?  Would I find that the book was deeply flawed, a “ripping yarn” perhaps, but nothing more?  Could Margaret Mitchell hold her own with acknowledged works of serious literature?  Would the writing now seem trite and amateurish in spite of the rich historical background to the tale? Had the millions of readers who loved the book read it as a racy adventure and nothing more?  Was there any aesthetic value to this work of fiction?

I am going to set out to answer some of these questions to satisfy my own curiosity. Choosing the time to match that fortnight 50 years ago in another country, I shall read GWTW again with a mature, critical eye.  I will read it in my study in London rather than a study hall in Danville High School. I will try to separate Scarlett from Vivien Leigh and Rhett from Clark Gable; I will read about them with the freshest eye I can manage, which nevertheless will be an eye far from fresh in certain other ways.  I will report back—not in a book report for Mrs. Conklin’s junior English class, but in some informal essays to establish, at least for my own satisfaction, whether GWTW is great literature or a pot-boiler or somewhere in between.  I will choose a few topics that appeal to me, a few points that jump out at me as I re-read the book.  Like any essays, they will be explorations. Like any essayist, I will not know what I have found until I write it down.

I am purposely calling my reflections The GWTW Fortnight, using the very British word for a period of two weeks, to accentuate the distance between then and now. Here goes.

Some Narrative Strategies in GWTW

Margaret Mitchell was writing at exactly the wrong time to be taken seriously by the opinion-forming critics of the day. “Middlebrow”, they said; “best-seller,” they sneered.  Her wish to tell a story with as little intrusion as possible from the style of narration would not have struck earlier authors as anything unusual.  With the possible exception of Laurence Sterne, they would have said, “Yes, obviously.”  But Mitchell was writing against the fashion, as much as representational art was out of favour in a world of abstract wall-sized canvases and Picasso’s cubist ladies and screaming horses and Dali’s fried-egg clocks.  Among serious fiction writers there were James Joyce (why not make a long novel about the events of a single day?), Virginia Woolf (how about a sex change of the main character in the middle of the novel? Why not tell the story from the point of view of a dog?), William Faulkner (why not tell two stories at once in alternate chapters?).  It would be a long time before a mere story, grippingly told and with vividly drawn characters, would be back in favour—if it is yet.

The narration in GWTW is typically from Scarlett’s point of view, but once that is established, it visits other characters and sometimes comes from an omniscient narrator, which very occasionally turns into something at a loftier remove, and at least once seems to be the author herself, speaking in her own voice long after the historical period of the novel.  Most of the main characters enjoy brief instances of interior monologues, and there are passages as though from a Greek chorus of Atlanta matrons (for example p. 908 et seq.) or County families when general public opinion is required.

In the beginning there is a good deal of exposition skilfully interspersed in the description of the action—the impending barbecue and Scarlett’s scheme to win Ashley.  It is inserted so well and so entertainingly that we hardly realize that we are learning about the history and social make-up of Clayton County and Scarlett O’Hara’s family history.  After a few chapters we are up to speed on the background of many of the main players and their milieu.  Margaret Mitchell’s letters make it plain that she particularly wanted her book to pass muster among other Southerners.  She was pleased (and a bit surprised) when Northerners also liked it, but it was the Southern reader for whom she held her breath and crossed her fingers.  It seems that this careful but unobtrusive scene-setting was designed to ensure that (1) other Southerners would recognize that she knew what she was talking about and (2) Northerners and foreigners (which to Margaret Mitchell and her forebears would have amounted to much the same thing) would understand things they might not already know.

In a book of this length it is a good idea to vary the style of narration.  One established narrator droning on with no break could begin to pall and could deprive us of the interesting texture of other points of view.  This is part of the secret of the page-turning quality of Gone with the Wind. It’s not for nothing that Margaret Mitchell was a journalist and an accomplished story-teller!  When suspense is built up, like Scarlett’s dread of what she might find at Tara after Sherman’s sweep through the area, we are in suspense, too, because the narrative follows Scarlett. At other times the flow of the narrative can accommodate other perspectives and other voices. Part of the appeal and realism of GWTW is accomplished by the sheer variety of points of view and voices, including those of the non-standard speakers.

Another noticeable technique is that of varying the tempo of the narrative. We may have a slowed-down, real-time, blow-by-blow scene and then a summary of other action, perhaps in another physical area or sometimes in the recent past. I want to look at a couple of passages that illustrate some of these techniques. The first is the scene of Melanie’s ordeal in childbed as the Yankees are coming and Atlanta is being evacuated. The situation could hardly be more dramatic: Melanie is in agony and no one knows for how long; the summer day is boiling hot and the bedroom is hot and dark because the blinds are drawn; Dr. Meade is emphatically unavailable; Prissy has confessed to knowing nothing about midwifery after all and Scarlett knows very little herself; Scarlett’s toddler, Wade, is underfoot and wanting attention; the Confederate army is abandoning Atlanta and the Yankee army is on its way.  Now, because speed is of the essence, Mitchell slows down the action and we are given the long, hot, pain-filled summer afternoon at the Hamilton house on Peachtree Street. Melanie, Scarlett, and Prissy are hot and sweaty and flies bother Melanie as she writhes on the bed.  The afternoon wears on in the darkened room, and Melanie screams with pain and grips first Scarlett’s hand and then a knotted towel and “her voice went on like an animal dying in a trap” (p. 368). In the meantime the Yankee army may be near and shy little Wade is “hungwy”.  The heat lessens somewhat and Scarlett pulls the blind aside and sees “that it was late afternoon and the sun, a ball of crimson, was far down the sky” (p. 368). So time has passed, and then it is twilight and Prissy scurries in with a lamp. Prissy is now sent to Dr. Meade’s home to see if he is there or if any women of the household can come, but to no avail.  However, that takes up some more of the slowed-down narrative time.

But is the actual childbirth given in any detail? No, we are left to imagine it, but we are given material for our imagination.  After a double-space gap on the page, “Scarlett came down the dark stairs slowly, like an old woman, feeling her way, clinging to the banisters lest she fall.  Her legs were leaden, trembling with fatigue and strain and she shivered with cold from the clammy sweat that soaked her body” (p. 370).  The last time we saw her, Scarlett may have been hot and sweaty, but she seemed to have enough energy and vitality. And now:

Feebly she made her way on to the front porch and sank down on the top step. She sprawled back against the pillar of the porch and with a shaking hand unbuttoned her basque half-way down her bosom. The night was drenched in warm soft darkness and she lay staring into it, dull as an ox.

It was all over. Melanie was not dead and the small baby boy who made noises like a young kitten was receiving his first bath at Prissy’s hands. (p. 370)

So at least we are no longer in suspense about the outcome of the childbirth, but we still don’t know what happened during that gap in the story, except that it has rendered Scarlett completely exhausted.  She sits on top step of the dark porch with her skirts pulled up to her thighs because she was “warm and cold and sticky all at the same time” (p. 370).  She doesn’t know or care what time it is; she dozes and then “after an indeterminate dark interval, Prissy was beside her, chattering on in a pleased way” (p. 371).  Prissy is the means of filling us in on what happened, and at the same time we have a vivid image of Prissy herself and of Scarlett’s displeasure with her.

“We done right good, Miss Scarlett. Ah specs Maw couldn’ a did no better.”

From the shadows, Scarlett glared at her, too tired to rail, too tired to upbraid, too tired to enumerate Prissy’s offenses—her boastful assumption of experience she didn’t possess, her fright, her blundering awkwardness, her utter inefficiency when the emergency was hot, the misplacing of the scissors, the spilling of the basin of water on the bed, the dropping of the new born baby.  And now she bragged about how good she had been. (p. 371)

This is a perfect example of the rhetorical device of occultatio. Scarlett is too tired to enumerate the offenses, but they are enumerated anyway in a wonderfully oblique synopsis.  Another, much briefer, example of this device occurs after the night of passion shared by Scarlett and Rhett.  We have had a paragraph of an impressionistic description of Rhett carrying Scarlett upstairs (and more of that later) and then the double-space gap representing passed time.  Scarlett wakes up in the morning in a state of confusion thinking about the night before: “she went crimson at the memory…” (p. 940)

The man who had carried her up the dark stairs was a stranger of whose existence she had not dreamed. And now, though she tried to make herself hate him, tried to be indignant, she could not. He had humbled her, hurt her, used her brutally through a wild mad night and she had gloried in it.

Oh, she should be ashamed, should shrink from the very memory of the hot swirling darkness!  A lady, a real lady, could never hold up her head after such a night. But, stronger than shame, was the memory of rapture, of the ecstasy of surrender. For the first time in her life she had felt alive, felt passion as sweeping and primitive as the fear she had known the night she fled Atlanta, as dizzy sweet as the cold hate when she had shot the Yankee. (pp. 940-41)

Scarlett doesn’t want to remember, but in trying to avoid the memory, she remembers for us what she is ashamed of remembering. We are left to imagine the details instead of having them presented in plodding itemisation.

One further scene is worth mentioning because it illustrates another technique of describing the high points of some dramatic past action.  Now it is the conversation between Melanie and Belle Watling in Belle’s carriage.  It is the evening of the day after Ashley has been brought home “drunk”.  There has been a court appearance with testimony before the provost marshal to prove that Ashley and several other men were at Belle’s sporting house the night before. We already knew that Belle was going to provide an alibi for them, but we don’t know how it played in front of the Yankees.  Melanie is very grateful to Belle Watling and has gotten over her earlier aversion to her.

“You were wonderful before the provost marshal today Mrs. Watling! You and the other—your—the young ladies certainly saved our men’s lives.”
“Mr. Wilkes was the wonderful one, I don’t know how he even stood up and told his story, much less look as cool as he done. He was sure bleedin’ like a pig when I seen him last night. Is he goin’ to be all right, Miz Wilkes?”
“Yes, thank you. The doctor says it’s just a flesh wound, though he did lose a tremendous lot of blood. This morning he was—well, he was pretty well laced with brandy or he’d never have had the strength to go through with it all so well. But it was you, Mrs. Watling, who saved them. When you got mad and talked about the broken mirrors you sounded so—so convincing.”
“Thank you, Ma’m. But I—I thought Captain Butler done mighty fine too,” said Belle, shy pride in her voice.
“Oh, he was wonderful!” cried Melanie warmly. “The Yankees couldn’t help but believe his testimony. He was so smart about the whole affair. I can never thank him enough—or you either! How good and kind you are!”
“Thank you kindly, Miz Wilkes. It was a pleasure to do it. I—I hope it ain’t goin’ to embarrass you none, me sayin’ Mr. Wilkes come regular to my place. He never, you know—”
“Yes, I know. No, it doesn’t embarrass me at all. I’m just so grateful to you.” (pp. 818-19)

This is part of the longer conversation in the carriage.  In this passage we learn of the success of the defence in front of the provost marshal with enough visual detail to give us a good idea of the proceedings—a continuation by other protagonists of the virtuoso acting that we saw the night before in Melanie’s parlour.  Moreover, we have in one scene the distinctive diction of both parties, Melanie’s gratitude to a woman who is firmly outside polite society, a reason for Melanie to be fond of Rhett, and an intriguing hint of Belle’s close relationship to Rhett (“shy pride in her voice”).  All of these details add to our understanding of the characters, quite apart from the development of the plot.  As so often with Margaret Mitchell, several valuable objects are achieved at the same time in one scene or conversation.

Now I want to turn to another kind of narration in GWTW. I have said that Mitchell wrote in a style unfashionable in the 1930s because she was intent principally on telling a good story and the narrator’s voice was to be as unobtrusive as possible.  There are a few instances where it seems to me that, although she did not intrude a distracting narrative persona, she does create a kind of impressionistic scene with quick brushstrokes or condense a monologue to a series of images.  This technique is more in keeping with modernist tendencies that with the straightforward narration that characterizes the rest of GWTW.

When Scarlett and Melanie are at Tara toward the end of the war, the Yankees pay a second visit and set fire not only to the cotton stored in a slave cabin but to the kitchen. Melanie has ridden away to spread the alarm and hide the livestock, and so Scarlett tackles the flames by herself.

She soused the end of the rug into the bucket and drawing a deep breath plunged again into the smoke-filled room, slamming the door behind her. For an eternity she reeled and coughed, beating the rug against the lines of fire that shot swiftly beyond her. Twice her long skirt took fire and she slapped it out with her hands. She could smell the sickening smell of her hair scorching, as it came loose from its pins and swept about her shoulders. The flames raced ever beyond her, toward the walls of the covered runway, fiery snakes that writhed and leaped and, exhaustion sweeping her, she knew that it was hopeless.

Then the door swung open and the sucking draught flung the flames higher. It closed with a bang and, in the swirling smoke, Scarlett, half blind, saw Melanie, stamping her feet on the flames, beating at them with something dark and heavy. She saw her staggering, heard her coughing, caught a lightning-flash glimpse of her set white face and eyes narrowed to slits against the smoke, saw her small body curving back and forth as she swung her rug up and down. For another eternity they fought and swayed, side by side, and Scarlett could see that the lines of fire were shortening. Then suddenly Melanie turned toward her and, with a cry, hit her across the shoulders with all her might. Scarlett went down in a whirlwind of smoke and darkness.
(pp. 468-69)

Melanie has hit her because her back was on fire, she explains later.  We don’t know how long this scene lasts, but we get a vivid impression of the furious activity and the acrid smell of the smoke.  There are vivid visual details, too—not only the lines of fire, but Scarlett’s hair comes down and is singed. Part of the “visualness” is ironically that it is hard to see because of all the smoke, so there are “glimpses” and indistinct shapes (Melanie has “something dark and heavy” in her hands, later identified as a rug), and we hear coughing and a door slamming.  There are more sensory impressions in this scene than in most. Besides the smoke there is the “sickening smell of her hair scorching”. The whole passage gives a vivid impression of frenetic activity in dark, dangerous, choking, confusing surroundings.

Another rather charmingly impressionistic passage is quite different in function.  The scene is the lumber yard that Ashley is trying to manage. Scarlett has gone to discuss business with him and has been instructed by Melanie to keep him there for as long as possible so that he won’t come home too early and spoil the surprise birthday party that they have planned for him.  Ashley wants to reminisce about the old times, but Scarlett is wary of indulging in nostalgia.  One of the great themes in GWTW is this ambivalence—the attractive but forever out-of-reach bucolic past versus the new unromantic, urban present—and it is neatly illustrated here. Scarlett’s “mind pulled two ways” (p. 924). She thinks of the old days “and a sad hunger for them welled up within her” (p. 924) but she also realizes that “no one could go forward with a load of aching memories” (p. 924).

This is also the moment when Scarlett feels that she finally understands Ashley: “at last their minds had met” (p. 724), but this is also the beginning of her disillusion with him. Ashley begins reminiscing, but at once his actual words fade away and we have only their effect on Scarlett.

“Do you remember,” he said—and a warning bell in her mind rang: Don’t look back! Don’t look back!
But she swiftly disregarded it, swept forward on a tide of happiness. At last she was understanding him, at last their minds had met. This moment was too precious to be lost, no matter what pain came after.
“Do you remember,” he said, and under the spell of his voice the bare walls of the little office faded and the years rolled aside and they were riding country bridle paths together in a long-gone spring. As he spoke, his light grip tightened on her hand and in his voice was the sad magic of old half-forgotten songs. She could hear the gay jingle of bridle bits and they rode under the dogwood trees to the Tarletons’ picnic, hear her own careless laughter, see the sun glinting on his silver-gilt hair and note the proud easy grace with which he sat his horse. There was music in his voice, the music of fiddles and banjoes to which they had danced in the white house that was no more. There was the far-off yelping of possum dogs in the dark swamp under cool autumn moons and the smell of eggnog bowls, wreathed with holly at Christmas time, and smiles on black and white faces. And old friends came trooping back, laughing as though they had not been dead these many years: Stuart and Brent with their long legs and their red hair and their practical jokes, Tom and Boyd as wild as young horses, Joe Fontaine with his hot black eyes, and Cade and Raiford Calvert who moved with such languid grace. There was John Wilkes, too; and Gerald, red with brandy; and a whisper and a fragrance that was Ellen. Over it all rested a sense of security, a knowledge that tomorrow could only bring the same happiness today had brought.
His voice stopped and they looked for a long quiet moment into each other’s eyes and between them lay the sunny lost youth that they had so unthinkingly shared. (pp. 924-25)

This impressionistic passage is not a recap of Ashley’s words, but only what they evoke in Scarlett. His words would have been a very poor substitute for her imagination with all its images of sound and sight, smells and tastes, seasons and celebrations, sunlight and the dark swamp.  Characters we have not seen for hundreds of pages are evoked with their signature features.  Here the impressionistic passage serves the purpose of reminding us of their “sunny lost youth” and the fatal pull of nostalgia.  This is why it is so hard for these Southerners, and even the ruthlessly modern Scarlett, to let go of the past and live entirely in the present. A moment later Scarlett regrets this brief wallow in the golden past.  She thinks, “This is what happens when you look back to happiness, this pain, this heartbreak, this discontent” (p. 925).  This seems to be where Ashley lives, and Scarlett not only suddenly understands him, but the scales just as suddenly fall from her eyes and she sees Ashley for the mere mortal he is.  His hair is greying and “somehow the bright beauty had gone from the April afternoon and from her heart as well and the sad sweetness of remembering was as bitter as gall” (p. 925).  A sorrow’s crown of sorrow, Scarlett would agree, is remembering happier things.

This passage and the surrounding material are important for several reasons, not only stylistically but for the psychological insight into Scarlet and Ashley and into the whole dilemma of the post-Civil War South.  Can one try to live in the impossibly idyllic past? Can one resist its powerful magnetism and concentrate on real life in the present?  Can one live in the present with these idealized memories tugging at one’s coattails, nagging in the recesses of the mind? If it is a constant temptation to hark back to the irretrievable past, how can one adapt to the radically changed circumstances of the present?  Even Scarlett and the arch-Scallawag Rhett are susceptible to the pull of the past, and if they can’t resist it, who can?  GWTW is sometimes thought to be only a paean to the antebellum South, but it is much more complex and far more interesting than that. It is not sentimental and nostalgic, as some critics have claimed, but rather it is about sentimentality and nostalgia, and that is entirely different.

To return to Scarlett and Rhett’s night of passion I mentioned earlier: this is the description of a drunken Rhett carrying Scarlett, protesting at first, up their grand staircase to bed. It is the closest thing to an erotic scene in GWTW, and it is rendered in an impressionistic, soft-focus way.  Margaret Mitchell complained of the crudity, profanity, and explicitness of the current fiction of her day and set out to avoid it herself.

Scarlett is repelled by Rhett, who has been drinking and has spoken bitterly about her infatuation with Ashley and the cheapness of women’s bodies. She runs toward her room but Rhett catches her in the dark hall.

“You turned me out on the town while you chased him. By God, this is one night when there are only going to be two in my bed.”
He swung her off her feet into his arms and started up the stairs. Her head was crushed against his chest and she heard the hard hammering of his heart beneath her ears. He hurt her and she cried out, muffled, frightened. Up the stairs he went in the utter darkness, up, up, and she was wild with fear. He was a mad stranger and this was a black darkness she did not know, darker than death. He was like death, carrying her away in arms that hurt. She screamed, stifled against him, and he stopped suddenly on the landing and, turning her swiftly in his arms, bent over her and kissed her with a savagery and a completeness that wiped out everything from her mind but the dark into which she was sinking and the lips on hers. He was shaking, as though he stood in a strong wind, and his lips, traveling from her mouth downward to where the wrapper had fallen from her body, fell on her soft flesh. He was muttering things she did not hear, his lips were evoking feelings never felt before. She was darkness and he was darkness and there had never been anything before this time, only darkness and his lips upon her. She tried to speak and his mouth was over hers again. Suddenly she had a wild thrill such as she had never known: joy, fear, madness, excitement, surrender to arms that were too strong, lips too bruising, fate that moved too fast. For the first time in her life she had met someone, something stronger than she, someone she could neither bully nor break, someone who was bullying and breaking her. Somehow, her arms were around his neck and her lips trembling beneath his and they were going up, up into the darkness again, a darkness that was soft and swirling and all-enveloping. (pp. 939-40)

He is rough at first, but we are given to understand that he must be a superlative lover—as you would expect of Rhett with all his savoir-faire. (If we are in any doubt about it, Scarlett’s reaction the next morning should reassure us that she spent a highly enjoyable night.) T his impressionistic scene, with its darkness and the vision of the powerfully-built Rhett carrying his wife up long flights of stairs with her wrapper in disarray, pausing to kiss her fiercely and erotically on the landing, emphasises Scarlett’s changing feelings. She goes from feeling fear and apprehension to “a wild thrill such as she had never known”.  What more do we need to know about the ensuing few hours?

Looking at this one long paragraph in a little more detail, however, we see that the imagery of the beginning and the ending are subtly different. There are “fear” and “darkness” in both halves, but the pause on the landing marks a sharp difference between the two. S he is “hurt” and going into a threatening “black darkness she did not know, darker than death”.  “He was like death carrying her away in arms that hurt”. B ut then they reach the landing and he kisses her and everything is wiped out of her mind. Now the emphasis is on a new kind of feeling—not the hurt or the sensation of her head being “crushed against his chest”, but a feeling of sexual arousal. Now “she was darkness and he was darkness and there had never been anything before this time, only darkness and his lips upon her”.  Now she isn’t just being carried into the darkness, but she is also darkness herself. Whatever hurt or fear she felt before is now erased. She returns his embrace and responds to his kisses (“her lips trembling beneath his”). Finally, the refrain of going “up, up” is repeated, but the quality of the darkness has changed; it is still dark, but it is now “soft and swirling and all-enveloping”. It is no longer “utter” or “black” or “darker than death”. If anything, it is rather welcoming.

Is this scene a variation on the cliché of the masterful lover and the resisting maiden? Yes. Are there elements of erotic truth in it?  Yes. Should it be taken as a model of amorous behaviour?  No.

This stairway, incidentally, plays a further contrasting role when Scarlett later topples down it and has a miscarriage. Rhett picks her up in the “dark hall” at the bottom of the stairs, “and then there was a faint memory of being carried upstairs, before darkness came over her mind” (p. 962). his stairway seems to have a somewhat Freudian function in these scenes as Scarlett is carried up it for the night of passion during which a baby is conceived and later carried up it again after the ensuing miscarriage. Scarlett then has a period of delirium rendered by a jumble of images and memories, chiming with the jumble of images associated with the other stairway scene.

The last instance of this impressionistic style that I want to look at follows on from this miscarriage, but it is Rhett’s response to Scarlett’s mishap. He sits in his room drinking and not eating and scattering cigar butts around. “He looked so like a damned soul waiting judgment—so like a child in a suddenly hostile world. But everyone was like a child to Melanie” (p. 963). This goes on for an indeterminate time. When Melanie at last goes to tell him that Scarlett is better, she finds him drunk and overcome with emotion (pp. 963-64). He has been afraid that Scarlett is dying. Now he bursts into tears and Melanie is horrified. “She had never seen a man cry but she had comforted the tears of many children” (p. 964). When she tries to comfort him she ends up sitting with “his head in her lap and his arms and hands clutching her in a frantic clasp that hurt her” (p. 964).

She stroked the black head gently and said: “There! There!” soothingly. “There! She’s going to get well.”
At her words, his grip tightened and he began speaking rapidly, hoarsely, babbling as though to a grave which would never give up its secrets, babbling the truth for the first time in his life, baring himself mercilessly to Melanie who was, at first utterly uncomprehending, utterly maternal. He talked brokenly, burrowing his head in her lap, tugging at the folds of her skirt. Sometimes his words were blurred, muffled, sometimes they came far too clearly to her ears, harsh, bitter words of confession and abasement, speaking of things she had never heard even a woman mention, secret things that brought the hot blood of modesty to her cheeks and made her grateful for his bowed head. (p. 964)

The antithesis of Ashley’s reverie to Scarlett, Rhett’s words do not evoke shared happy memories but are a confession of dark deeds; he is “babbling the truth for the first time in his life”. His usual pose is a tactic to hide whatever all this is about. We may have had a general idea of Ashley’s memories, but these agonized words of Rhett’s are full of blanks for us to fill in. They shock Melanie and make her blush; he mentions “things she had never heard even a woman mention, secret things…” So we may assume they are of a sexual nature.  In a moment “he accused himself of deeds she did not understand; he mumbled the name of Belle Watling…” (p. 964).

How much more effective this passage is than it would be if Rhett enumerated all the bad things he is thinking of!  If they were stated baldly, would they seem as bad as they do when he mutters them wildly into Melanie’s lap, out of earshot for us?  If we had his actual words, meant to be shocking in 1930, would they still be shocking now?  Earlier when Scarlett tells Rhett that she is pregnant with Bonnie, she suggests ending the pregnancy, but Rhett immediately tells her what a bad idea it is (pp.882-83) and says that he has seen a woman die as a result of an abortion (although that word is never used).  This could well be in connection with his murky dealing with the running of brothels. That sort of thing could be—from our previous knowledge of his past—the subject of his ravings. But we don’t really have a very clear idea, except that it is something shocking to Melanie, when she understands what he is saying, and even Rhett has never talked about it to anyone before—evidently including Belle Watling.

The omniscient narrator is away somewhere taking a coffee break. We have only Melanie’s consciousness at our disposal to grasp at what Rhett is saying. We are never at any time inside Rhett’s head listening to an internal monologue; we are never going to hear much of this in his own words, except slightly later in this same scene when we do hear some disjointed phrases of his, but to Melanie they seem like more nonsensical ravings.  Rhett cries that he has killed Scarlett because she didn’t want the baby and didn’t want him and he taunted her about having a miscarriage just before she fell down the stairs.  Melanie fears that he has taken the gossip about Scarlett and Ashley seriously, but then immediately rejects that idea: “It was only that he was drunk and sick from strain and his mind was running wild, like a man delirious, babbling wild fantasies” ( p. 965).  Melanie of course puts the best possible gloss on what she hears, and in this passage she becomes an obtuse observer, because we know a bit more than she does about Rhett’s behaviour (and we also know that he is always on his best behaviour with her), and so we see how she has come to the wrong conclusions.

Margaret Mitchell’s skill in storytelling is evident everywhere in GWTW, but I have tried to show some of the particular techniques she uses in presenting the story.  Except for Rhett, Ashley, and the slaves, most of the characters in GWTW have a shot at carrying the narrative, but it is largely through Scarlett’s eyes and consciousness that we are aware of the actions around her. Mitchell varies the tone and pace of the story by a skilful use of dialogue with changes in speakers and dialect, and by other variations in the narrative. She may lead up to an event and then skip over it and present the aftermath of it, like Scarlett’s exhaustion after Melanie’s childbirth. Other scenes may be presented in an indistinct, out-of-focus way, which I have called “impressionistic”. In both of these techniques the reader is called upon to use some imagination to reconstruct the missing material.  Unlike some modernist writers, Mitchell does not demand that the reader do most of the work, or an inordinate amount of work.  That kind of demand merely draws attention to the writer, his ingenuity, and the difficulty (and therefore supposed value) of the work of fiction. The demands Margaret Mitchell makes are of a different order. In fact, they are not demands; they are invitations.  She invites the reader to fill in the easy gaps with imagination. It is not difficult and its effect is not to make us wonder at the pyrotechnics of the clever author but to become more immersed in her enthralling narrative. We are there with Scarlett on the front porch after the delivery of little Beau, and we are there in the burning kitchen, and in Rhett’s bedroom when he sobs in Melanie’s lap.  When Mitchell consciously rejected the fashionably cerebral school of composition, she knew what she was doing.

Sarah Lawson was born in Indianapolis and now lives in London.  She is a translator from French, Spanish and Dutch as well as being a writer of non-fiction, poetry and drama.  She is also a reviewer for American Speech, New Humanist, New Statesman, The Tablet, New Library Review, and The Art Book, among others.  Much more information can be found at http://www.sarah-lawson.net/