Is “Gone With The Wind” a romantic novel?

Another extract from Sarah Lawson’s soon-to-be-published volume
The GWTW Fortnight: Essays on Gone with the Wind.


Since it appeared in 1936 Gone with the Wind has been classified as romantic fiction: the heroine is a flirtatious adventuress who seduces men and has a complicated love life with three marriages, with, in the background of all of them, an unrequited love for still another man. It is all set in a historical period with picturesque clothing. She once even melts in a man’s arms, dizzy from his passionate kisses. What more is needed to qualify it as romantic fiction?

            I want to suggest that this easy classification—for a bookshop manager needs to know what shelf to put a book on—distorted the reception of the novel at its first appearance and has distorted the view of it as literature ever since, to the extent that it has become synonymous with an idealized picture of the Old South and the hoop-skirted Southern Belle. This interpretation of the book has been helped along by the even better known movie based on it with its luscious violins of the “Tara Theme” and the unnecessary prologue evoking knights and chivalry. For this reason it has been all too easy to dismiss the novel as just another tale of girl meets boy—or a great many boys, in the case of Scarlett O’Hara.

            But this definition does a disservice to GWTW and badly skews an analysis of it. Suppose we approach the novel as anti-romantic, or more accurately as an ironic use of the conventions to undercut our expectations of the genre. There is certainly a focus on romantic and/or sexual relationships. Marriage and all the social conventions surrounding it are important themes. Our heroine, a notorious flirt from the first page, fascinates men and has strings of beaux from her mid-teens. Plenty of romance there, you might think, but only if you confuse the plot with the vehicles of the plot.  Could it be that the real import of the narrative is not Scarlett’s love life at all, but a more ambitious portrayal of war and its aftermath as they affect a specific group of people?  Suppose Scarlett’s various entanglements are there for some other purpose besides—or in addition to—the ostensible yarn? The flirtations and marriages certainly help move the plot along, but the give-away is that they are not ends in themselves, but always a means to an end. If Gone with the Wind were really a novel of romance, Scarlett’s relationships would be the whole story.

            We meet Scarlett as a girl of sixteen who is used to being the centre of male attention. She is already an expert at it, she knows how to achieve it, and she knows the right formula to use when turning down a proposal of marriage, for she has often had recourse to it. So far, so romantic. She is of marriageable age, and we learn that her mother was married at fifteen. The engagement that is important in the first few chapters of Gone with the Wind is that between Ashley Wilkes and Melanie Hamilton. It has been on the cards for years, as has the understanding between their respective siblings, Honey Wilkes and Charles Hamilton. It is a fairly open secret that the Ashley/Melanie engagement is going to be announced at the Wilkes’s grand barbeque, and Scarlett intends to wreck it by declaring her love to Ashley. Ashley will then, according to her fantasy, drop everything and elope with her.

            Evidently marriages are well planned and well prepared for by means of a formal engagement in this society. There may be a courtship or there may just be a long-standing agreement between prominent families. This pattern is emphasized in those first few chapters, but Scarlett soon turns the pattern on its head. How does her marriage happen?

Charles Hamilton, who seems to be “engaged to be engaged” to Honey Wilkes, falls under Scarlett’s spell. She is preoccupied with Ashley and his irritating resistance to her charm, which has enthralled all the other eligible men at the barbeque. She is so irritated that out of pique she encourages the nearest man, who happens to be Charles Hamilton. We know of Scarlett’s schemes and her real fixation on Ashley, but Charles knows none of this and takes Scarlett’s encouragement at face value. Misunderstanding is the stuff of comedy, but Charles Hamilton has such an innocent earnestness that it is also hauntingly sad. “He looked down at her radiantly, his whole clean simple heart in his eyes. She had never had anyone look at her thus before and would never have it from any other man, but in her queer detachment she only thought that he looked like a calf.”

This is Scarlett’s first serious use of a man for her selfish ends. Up until now she has just been a huntress practicing her aim. Her immediate motive is still focused on Ashley: she wants to make him jealous and to show him that she has her choice of other men; she was merely flirting with him when she threw herself at him in the library. She has also quickly calculated that Charles has money but no local family to annoy her. She can live in style and impress everyone with pretty clothes and a fine carriage.

“And it would just kill Honey. She’d never, never catch another beau and everybody’d laugh fit to die at her. And it would hurt Melanie, because she loves Charles so much. And it would hurt Stu and Brent—”  She didn’t quite know why she wanted to hurt them, except that they had catty sisters.

It is the hot-headed petulance of a teenage girl, but to the smitten Charles it is a genuine maidenly (and therefore unspoken) declaration of love for him. Charles never knows that he is a casual afterthought, merely the means of revenge on his prospective brother-in-law. Compared to the other well-planned engagements of the local high society, this is an absurdly offhand, casual marriage arrangement. Scarlett gets away with it, however, because war has just broken out and there are many curtailed engagements and quick weddings. Her wedding takes place a scant two weeks later, and after a short period as husband and wife, he leaves for his troop in South Carolina and soon dies of measles leaves his young wife a pregnant widow.

It is also worth looking at their sexual relations, such as they are, for the misunderstandings continue. Scarlett, says the narrator, like most girls, thinks no further than the altar. She has not thought about the implications of married life. She has not considered that she will now have to join the stodgy older women on social occasions; she has not considered that her husband will expect an unpleasant intimacy. We know from Scarlett’s reaction to the Jonas Wilkerson affair and from her eager questioning of Cathleen Calvert about the disreputable Rhett Butler that she understands the facts of reproduction, but on her wedding night she rejects Charles and he spends the night in a chair rather than the marital bed. He takes this as another example of her maidenly reserve. We know that Scarlett doesn’t really want to be married in spite of the symbolic triumph she might briefly enjoy; marriage is not just another flirtatious ploy but the end to all further ploys. She loathes the idea of sexual relations and the prospect of pregnancy. Charles never has any inkling of her attitude, which he consistently misreads, and Scarlett is too self-centred to understand the pathos of his position. When his death from disease is reported, she is annoyed that Charles has let her down by dying in a way that cannot be bragged about.

Scarlett’s callous treatment of Charles Hamilton undercuts the conventions of the romance and indicates the fundamental self-interest that motivates Scarlett. Later, when the Civil War has ended, we are not too surprised when she goes to visit Rhett in prison with the intention of selling herself if that is what it takes to keep Tara from being sold for taxes. When he rejects her, we are then not surprised that she decides that her best hope for quick money is to marry Frank Kennedy, and again we watch an innocent man take everything at face value while Scarlett sets about breaking his long-standing engagement with her sister and bagging him for her second husband. Once again she has used a man for her own ends; Frank is a stepping stone rather than any kind of romantic partner. Once more there is the unpleasant business of the marriage bed and another “brat”.

The “romance”, if anything in Gone with the Wind can be called that, has so far been confined to Scarlett’s fantasies about Ashley. If marriage is normally the culmination of the love affair in a conventional romance, Scarlett’s two marriages have nothing to do with love but rather revenge on the one hand and wealth (or, in the short term, simple survival) on the other. If love and marriage conventionally lead to adorable children and a blissful home life, Scarlett’s experience is of two children whom she barely tolerates.

Rhett Butler has been watching Scarlett and seeing her clearly since the day they met at Twelve Oaks. His characteristic stance is one of detached cynical amusement, and on Frank’s death he suggests they marry, as she is between husbands and he needs to act fast if he is to get her. As Rhett is now extremely wealthy, Scarlett agrees and delights in spending his money for vulgar ostentation.

Does this turn of events make Gone with the Wind a romance? The couple who began their acquaintance so inauspiciously in the library at Twelve Oaks are now finally united in marriage. Boy meets girl, girl marries two other boys, boy eventually gets girl? No, because this is the wrong boy. Scarlett is still chasing Ashley Wilkes.

Rhett Butler laughs a bit too much. What is he hiding? Why are his feelings always masked by this careless swagger? There are indications that Rhett is trying to will Scarlett to love him; he looks at her “alertly” or “eagerly” as though waiting for something. On their honeymoon she notices it and says he is like a cat at a mousehole. He tells her he wants to take care of her, and he lavishes jewels and clothing on her and builds the ostentatious house that she wants on Peachtree Street. We get glimpses of his frustrated love for Scarlett and more than glimpses of his fury at her continued torch-carrying for Ashley. Finally after their daughter Bonnie dies we find out a little about the real Rhett under the protective carapace. Bonnie was a substitute for Scarlett: if he couldn’t lavish his love and protectiveness on his wife, he could make up for that with his daughter. When Bonnie is killed in an accident, Rhett finally becomes a more likable and understandable human being instead of the posturing man of mystery.

After Melanie’s death the way is finally open for Scarlett to work her magic on Ashley, so perhaps this is finally the romantic ending we have been waiting for? But no, the time for that has passed. Scarlett realizes what we have known for at least 900 pages: that Ashley is unsuitable for her for numerous very good reasons. Ashley, too, has known it for all that time. In fact, Scarlett and Rhett are cut from the same cloth, but neither can confess their love for the other at the right time. They have intermittently loved each other from afar even while they have been married to each other. Rhett’s last-ditch attempt to win Scarlett’s love is a night of protracted and violent love-making which has the desired effect on Scarlett, but she can’t bring herself to admit it to Rhett. Rhett assumes that nothing has changed and goes to Belle Watling for comfort. Any potential romanticism even here is scuppered when we learn that Scarlett intends to use this “weakness in his armor” against him. They are ships that somehow both pass in the night and collide at the same time.

One of the many ironic touches in Gone with the Wind is that when Scarlett is alone with Ashley in the sawmill office for the first time since their guilty interview in the orchard at Tara, they are finally platonic friends who have been through turbulent times together, and they reminisce about the old days. Ashley embraces her in friendship rather than passion, and it is then that the three visitors burst in and see what looks like an adulterous embrace before their eyes.

Melanie dies in childbirth in a scene worthy of a Victorian deathbed drama, and oblivious to, or disbelieving of, the gossip about Scarlett and her husband, asks Scarlett to look after Ashley for her. Now that the way is theoretically open, Scarlett has belatedly seen that Ashley is a useless holdover from the previous age and that Rhett is the man she really loves, but it is too late. She runs back home from the Wilkes’ house to the elaborate mansion she shares with Rhett, finally ready to show her real feelings for once. In a somewhat hokey and artificial scene she runs back through the evening mist that she recognizes from her recurring nightmare. The mist contrasts ironically with her suddenly clear vision of her situation. This is a moment of great epiphany (perhaps echoing the other great epiphany years before as she leaves the slave garden at Twelve Oaks), and she assumes in her self-centred way that now that she is going to tell Rhett that she loves him after all, he will be happy about it and their lives can begin over together. Of course Rhett is not happy. The time for such a declaration has passed. He is packing his bags to leave. His much-quoted parting line in Gone with the Wind is “My dear, I don’t give a damn,” and it is sign of the confusion of the book and the film that the famous line is always quoted in its movie version: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”.

There is an interesting parallel here between an earlier strategy to tell a man that she loves him, whereupon he will automatically love her and they will live happily ever after. Gone with the Wind opens with Scarlett’s naive plan to win Ashley, and now twelve years later she has decided on a slightly more mature plan to win her husband back by, for once, telling him honestly that she does love him, after all.

She had never understood either of the men she had loved and so she had lost them both. Now, she had a fumbling knowledge that, had she ever understood Ashley, she would never have loved him; had she ever understood Rhett, she would never have lost him.

At every juncture where there is what might be a “romantic” development, Margaret Mitchell undercuts it ironically. Scarlett’s marriages are all undertaken for ulterior motives, the belated love of her life leaves her, and the man she thought she loved turns out to be a failure in the new post-war world. Gone with the Wind is by any yardstick an “anti-romantic” tale, and that is because these would-be romantic events are all ironic departures from conventional expectations. For all of her infatuation with Ashley, Scarlett has overriding concerns that have nothing to do with romance. After the war and the fall of Atlanta and the precarious state of Tara, Scarlett’s main interest is survival and insuring herself against hunger and poverty. Ashley and Tara are said to be her great loves, but in the end it is Tara rather than Ashley that claims her. As her Irish father has assured her on the fateful eve of the Wilkes’s barbeque, “Land is the only thing in the world that amounts to anything, for ‘tis the only thing in the world that lasts, and don’t you be forgetting it!” (But to save Tara Scarlett has been obliged to leave it, so that love affair has not worked out according to plan, either.)

For all this, Gone with the Wind is generally considered a great romantic novel, and countless readers have identified with Scarlett as a romantic heroine. The enduring image of Scarlett and Rhett is a much-parodied poster of Clark Gable, his shirt open to the waist, carrying a less recognisable Vivien Leigh, whose dress is suggestively open at the top, revealing her shoulders. Gable frowns and looks at her intently; her head is thrown back, inviting a kiss. This popular image of passionate romance has overtaken the subtlety of Gone with the Wind, just as the simplification of the film has overwhelmed the complexity of the novel. There are plenty of apparent opportunities for romance in the novel, but in every case they are undercut by ulterior motives, misunderstandings, or cross-purposes. The only successful romance in the book is that of Melanie and Ashley, but it is part of the conventional life that stands in contrast to Scarlett’s career. The concentration on women’s lives is only very superficially in the traditional romantic mode. Far from being a conventional story of romantic love, Gone with the Wind is a story of flirtations and marriages undertaken either for sport or for survival in the larger narrative of civilian life during the Civil War and Reconstruction. Read without preconceived assumptions, Gone with the Wind is clearly about autonomy, survival, and self-reliance—not about catching a man and living happily ever after.

–Sarah Lawson