(Slight spoiler alert: if you've never seen the movie you might find this tells you a bit more than you want to know; if you have seen it, read the book anyway-- there is so much more to the book than the movie contained!)
The first chapter of Gone With The Wind is an amazing exercise in the art of writing. It begins with the challenging statement that "Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when captivated by her charms as were the Tarleton twins." Within a few pages, the reader, too, no longer realizes it, for Scarlett is so determined, so headstrong, so much a survivor, that the reader is immediately captivated too, and can't help but think she is beautiful.
After a description of willful green-eyed sixteen-year-old Scarlett, she of the 17 inch waist (laced in, of course. like any fashionable Civil War era southern belle), you hear the twins idly gossiping about how Ashley Wilkes is about to become engaged to his cousin Melanie Hamilton, and Scarlett decides that Ashley, the only man in the county who hasn't proposed to her, is really the only man for her. She plots a way to get him to propose at the barbecue that will take place at his family's plantation the next day. The twins leave, and Scarlett wanders down to meet her father who comes recklessly galloping in, and tells her-- after a discussion of the barbecue, the upcoming engagement, and the impending threat of war (it is the spring of 1860)-- that "land is the only thing that matters."
Scarlett and her father go back to the house, and at the end of the chapter, we see the twins riding off, surprised that Scarlett, in her preoccupation, has neglected to ask them to stay for dinner. One of them remarks that it seemed she'd gone quiet when they mentioned Ashley's engagement. The other wonders whether she could be enamored of Ashley, but the first responds that clearly she is in love with them.
The chapter has come full circle with all the themes that will be explored throughout the book-- Scarlett's effect on men, her family history, her father on horseback, the upcoming Civil War, her obsession with Ashley, her attachment to Tara (her family's plantation) and her calculating survival skills.
The next day at the barbecue, the rest of the plot is set in motion. Although Scarlett flirts with everyone including Ashley, he alone seems immune to her charms. She finally decides to tell him of her feelings, only to have him reply that she has always had his heart, that she cut her teeth on it, but that he intends to marry Melanie. He leaves, and she angrily throws a ceramic cherub across the room, over the couch where the mysterious Rhett Butler had been trying to nap. She angrily tells him that he should have revealed himself earlier, before being witness to her scene with Ashley, but he teases her mercilessly with references that go over her head (she is definitely not an intellectual). Their encounter is interrupted when war is declared. Scarlett accepts a proposal from Melanie's brother Charles, just to get even with the whole world (even those who know nothing about it) for her embarrassment. They marry hurriedly, as do Melanie and Ashley, before the men leave to serve in the war. Charles dies of disease in camp without ever seeing battle, leaving Scarlett a pregnant widow.
The stage has been set for the rest of the book. Rhett Butler will pursue Scarlett (in whom he senses a kindred spirit bent on survival), Melanie will adopt Scarlett as her best friend because she married Melanie's beloved brother; no matter how far beyond the pale Scarlett’s actions become, Melanie will countenance no criticism of Scarlett. Scarlett will moon over Ashley even though he is married to Melanie, and they will all try to survive as the Confederacy goes down in flames around them. Scarlett will do whatever she must to save herself, her family, Melanie, and Tara, even shooting a Yankee scavenger and stealing her own sister's beau.
Ultimately Scarlett, still pining for Ashley, will marry Rhett. They will have a daughter, Bonnie, who becomes a precocious and rather reckless rider, and is killed being thrown from a horse, just as Scarlett's father had been (all of which is foreshadowed by the reckless way he rode in, back in that first chapter).
But it is only when Melanie, on her deathbed, asks Scarlett to take care of Ashley and to "be kind to Captain Butler, for he loves you so," that Scarlett realizes that it is really Rhett that she loves, not Ashley. She runs home, only to find him packing to leave, having tired of waiting for her to realize that they are two of a kind and belong together. Although she tells him that she now realizes she loves him, he tells her he is too tired of her games and still intends to leave. When she asks him what she will do without him, he tells her he doesn't give a damn (scandalous words for when the book was published).
She determines to go back to Tara to get her head together. Tara has always been the source of her strength. Her father's words in the very first chapter, that land is the only thing that matters, echo in that decision.
The book has been criticized for its portrayal of loyal black slaves both before and after the war, and for writing favorably about the Ku Klux Klan. The truth is, Gone WIth The Wind is a fairly accurate portrayal of white southern beliefs and attitudes in the seventy years that followed the Civil War, and even beyond. It may well reflect the attitudes of some slaves who had-- like Scarlett's nanny, Mammy-- become so close to their owners as to regard them as family. Call it Stockholm syndrome if you will, such reactions have been documented under other circumstances.
Any lack of apologies within the text for the establishment of the KKK merely reflect those attitudes. This is fiction, not history, and in fiction, characters live out their lives according to how they are drawn. These are drawn like the women of the author's grandmother's generation, who were strong because they had to be, and they are people of their time and place.
Scarlett O'Hara is the quintessential American heroine, flawed by the very traits that allow her to survive. The Civil War is the ultimate American historical event, a time when the entire population of the eastern half of the continent set out to destroy itself (the western half was mostly unsettled). Gone With The Wind is one of the Great American Novels. To read it is to understand a lot about the attitudes, beliefs, and skill sets of those who fought in, or survived, the Civil War. Scarlett is a Great American Character, not easily forgotten-- indeed, a character who captivates the reader as well as the men who were dazzled by her charms.
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