Saturday, 27 June 2015

Gone With the Wind - check in

This is my Gone With the Wind check-in for chapters 31-40 for Corinne's GWTW Readalong.

The start of Part Four sees Scarlett, Tara and the South trying to find their feet after the war. The hardships continue with heavy taxes, the fear of losing Tara and the death of Gerald. Scarlett moves to Atlanta, remarries, falls pregnant and starts up a new & very successful business.

This was obviously a difficult time in the Southern states full of great changes, hardship and insecurity. Resentments built up, divides were created and animosity flourished. So many men dead or maimed, so many single women with no chance of ever being married. Brought up in luxury and ease, so many couldn't cope with the new conditions - their "mainsprings are busted" as Will so elegantly stated at Gerald's funeral.

Mrs Fontaine elaborated on this idea when she said -
The rest have gone under because they didn't have any sap in them, because they didn't have the gumption to rise up again. There never was anything to those folks but money and darkies, and now that the money and darkies are gone, those folks will be Cracker in another generation.

Atlanta 1864

Naturally Scarlett was unimpressed when Grandma Fontaine included Ashley in this group, claiming that "if the Wilkes family pulls through these hard times, it'll be Melly who pulls them through."

It's not only Rhett and Will who see how things really lie with the Wilkes'!

And you just know that Scarlett's willful and deliberate refusal to see Ashley for who he is, will lead to big trouble down the track. She is so practical and realistic about everything except love! Once again Grandma Fontaine nails it when she says to Scarlett, "you're smart about dollars and cents. That's a man's way of being smart. But you aren't smart at all like a woman. You aren't a speck smart about folks."

This is also the first section of GWTW where I have really questioned Mitchell's motivations and intentions. Brimming with overt racism and justification, we see Mitchell's (rich, white) characters claim the roles of victimhood and martyrdom.

Was Mitchell playing devil's advocate, writing tongue-in-cheek or being ironic? Was she trying to simply show how the South reacted to the Reconstruction period including the birth of the Ku Klux Klan? Was she just being obtuse or romantic? Or did she truly believe what she wrote in this section?

Chapter 37

The South had been tilted as by a giant malicious hand, and those who had once ruled were now more helpless than their former slaves had ever been.
Georgia was heavily garrisoned with troops and Atlanta had more than its share. The commandants of the Yankee troops in the various cities had complete power, even the power of life and death, over the civilian population, and they used that power. They could and did imprison citizens for any cause, or no cause, seize their property, hang them. They could and did harass and hamstring them with conflicting regulations about the operation of business, the wages they must pay their servants, what they should say in public and private utterances and what they should write in newspapers. They regulated how, when and where they must dump their garbage and they decided what songs the daughters and wives of ex-Confederates could sing....They ruled that no one could get a letter from the post office without taking the Iron-Clad oath, and in some instances, they even prohibited the issuance of marriage licences unless the couple had taken the hated oath.

There was so much about this particular paragraph (& the entire chapter) that was offensive.

How on earth anyone could believe they were actually worse off than a slave when they still had the freedom to live in their own homes, with their own families. Where they could be educated, employed and, well, free!

After the war, Atlanta
The Yankees may have had the power of life and death during the reconstruction period, but many of the Southern slave owners also had had the power of life and earth over their slaves for generations...and they had used it. Their slaves could be imprisoned or punished, especially whipped, without any recourse to a fair or legal justice system.

The slaves had no property as they were THE property. Strict class systems were put in place to keep the slaves divided amongst themselves (house slaves versus farm hands). They were not payed wages and they had no free speech. They worked long, hard hours in all weather conditions.

They lived in cramped, poor conditions. Teaching slaves to read and write was illegal in most places. Singing certain songs could see them severely punished. They were only allowed in some areas to associate as a group for purposes of worship. They could be sold and separated from their families forever. They couldn't communicate with family or friends on other estates and their marriages were considered illegal.

The Southerners justified this system by claiming that the slaves were just like children. That the slaves weren't capable of managing their own lives by themselves.

Some quick research on google has indicated that smaller plantation owners could often be more charitable towards their slaves as closer relationships did occur. But bigger plantations, that had absentee landlords or were ruled by overseers, were usually much harsher environments. Rape and sexual abuse of female slaves was common.

It could be possible that Mitchell was trying to show how the Southern mind worked during this period - that she was helping us to 'walk in their shoes'.
Peachtree Street 1864
But as I kept reading, it felt like pure, ugly justification. At one point it even felt like Mitchell was trying to excuse the early Ku Klux Klanner's - that they were merely defending their women folk from "Carpetbaggers who steal money and negroes who are uppity" and that they were only reacting to the injustice of their situation.
 
They could see nothing wrong with taking the law into their own hands. They were unable to see that any of the issues with the freed slaves actually stemmed from the years of inhuman treatment that the slaves had suffered under the slavery system. They actually believed that the slaves lives were better under slavery - that they had done their slaves a favour by removing them from Africa and converting them to Christianity.

They couldn't see how this wonderful, benevolent system that worked so well for them, might not have been viewed as so wonderful from the other side. Even when all their slaves ran off as soon as they could during the war (except for a few house slaves who were more deeply integrated into the families lives) they still didn't see it as an indictment on the slave system.

Curiously Mitchell has never told us where Mammy, Dilcey, Pork, Prissy or Uncle Peter slept or in what conditions. We are told how grateful Scarlett is that they stayed loyal to the family, but there is no interest in their personal lives except for how it serves the family.

Peachtree Street 1866
I've also found the whole Will Benteen side story fascinating.

In the movie, he is left out completely. Therefore, there is no adequate explanation for how Scarlett manages to keep Tara going whilst she lives in Atlanta with her new husband, managing her new business.

In the book, Will's presence makes this transition much easier for Scarlett and a more logical plot choice by Mitchell. Will provides Mitchell with a way to show us how much things have changed since the war. That a poor, white Cracker could now be on equal terms with an old plantation family highlights how far the societal mores of the South have shifted.

Will's proposed marriage to Suellen also allows us once again to see how different (some might even say, progressive) Scarlett's thinking is compared to most of her neighbours, even whip-smart, practical Grandma Fontaine.

There is so much more to say about Scarlett, but I'm saving my Scarlett post for the very end when all the evidence is in! I'm beginning to believe, however, that I will need a Masters in Psychology to fully appreciate Scarlett's complexities!

What are your views on the obvious racism on display throughout GWTW? And in particular, in this section?
Can we view it as a product of its time? Not okay, but comprehensible within the historical context?
Or does Mitchell's cruel self-justification, ignorance and martyrdom make this book irrelevant to modern audiences?

In Corinne's absence, this week's check-in is being hosted by TJ @My Book Strings.

6 comments:

  1. Great post, Brona! That chapter 37 pushed my buttons as well: "Here was the spectacle of half a nation attempting, at the point of bayonet, to force upon the other half the role of negroes, many of them scarcely one generation out of the African jungles. The vote must be given to them but it must be denied to most of their former owners. The South must be kept down and disfranchisement of the whites was one way to keep the South down." I can overlook certain stereotypes to a certain degree when I keep in mind that this book was written in the 1930s, well before the Civil Rights Movement, but to portray every single white plantation owner as benevolent, every free house slave who stayed with their former owners as beyond reproach, and every freed slave who left their owners as good-for-nothing freeloaders became almost too much. And, of course, it turns out that the Yankee wives are even more racist than the Old Guard had ever been. I think the book does help the reader look at the situation after the war from a Southern viewpoint, but I also think it shows rather plainly where Mitchell's sympathies were. In my opinion, it went a little further than simply helping us walk in their shoes. And this ultimately made me wonder whether GWTW can survive as a "Great American Novel." It deserves to be considered as such -- Scarlett must be one of the most complex female characters in literature -- but as people's sensitivity towards racism will only grow, I wonder if it will diminish this book in future readers' eyes. With that being said, I am looking forward to your post on Scarlett. My mind is full of her these days!

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    1. It was certainly a challenge section to read TJ. Some of the racial comments about apes and jungles were truly offensive.
      The only insight thus gave me was how it was possible for the KKK to not only start, but flourish and continue for so long. These types of negative stereotypes were deeply ingrained and passed onto younger generations.

      Scarlett is certainly a complex character. Not very likeable most of the time but you do have to admire her tenacity & determination. There's a sense of self-belief and entitlement that I find interesting given some of the current conversations about the generation of kids we're raising right now.

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  2. Oh, I forgot to mention that I'll host again in 2 weeks, since everyone seems to be a little behind and it sounds like you'll be busy house hunting and packing, etc. And since my Linky thing doesn't work quite as I want it to work, I'll probably link separately to this post soon.

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    1. Thank you TJ. Hopefully I'll be on top of the packing by the following check-in :-)

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  3. Such amazing historical photos. Illustrates so much of the toll of the war. Where did you find those? nice

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    1. I just googled them and they popped up everywhere several times. I tried to find the original source for each, but they had been used and copied so many times I didn't know who to acknowledge for them in the end.

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