Most movies can be discussed without comparing them to reality, but not so Gone With the Wind, owing to its paternalistic depiction of slavery in the Old South as something benign, in which the slaves are so well-treated that you would almost think their Southern masters were doing them a favor. The closest thing to slave beating in this movie is when Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) slaps Prissy (Butterfly McQueen) in exasperation. And an unnamed Ku Klux Klan is subtly presented (without sheets) as a force for good. Indeed, this movie is to slavery what The Godfather (1972) is to organized crime: a glorification of something despicable, a beautification of something ugly.
And yet the movie is tame compared to the book, written by Margaret Mitchell, which required a great deal of sanitizing to make it suitable for a Hollywood production. As an example of the sort of thing that had to be excised in the process of turning this book into a movie, there is the passage where Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) admits to Scarlett that he shot a black man for insulting a white woman: “He was uppity to a lady, and what else could a Southern gentleman do?”
In comparing the movie first to reality and then to the book, we get something of a paradox. By avoiding much of the really offensive material in the book, the movie becomes less realistic than its source, because the racist sentiments expressed in the book accurately reflect the racist sentiments of the white South at the time. However much we might deplore Rhett’s murder of an African American, such things undoubtedly happened in those days.
What is less clear is whether Gone With the Wind is feminist or traditionalist in its attitude toward women. On the one hand, Scarlett is portrayed as strong, resourceful, and shrewd, a woman who chafes at the ridiculous restraints placed on women during those times, and who breaks those restraints one by one as the story progresses. On the other hand, she is portrayed as a wrong-headed woman. The essence of this idea is that a woman may not know her own mind, and when that happens, a man is justified in using coercive means to bring her around, thereby making her happy in spite of her objections.
Toward that end, Margaret Mitchell sets up a simple opposition in terms of which there is a right and wrong choice in whom one marries, resulting in two possibilities: the man and woman are alike, which is conducive to happiness; and the man and woman are different, which guarantees misery. Early on in the novel, we find that Scarlett is in love with Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard in the movie), and she is devastated to learn that he is going to marry Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland in the movie). Her father (Thomas Mitchell in the movie) tries to console her, telling her that she could never be happy with Ashley, because they are so different from each other. “Only when like marries like,” he says, “can there be any happiness.” As a way of underscoring just how much Ashley and Melanie are alike, it turns out that they are cousins. Apparently, the idea is that people you are related to will tend to be like you, and so marrying a cousin is conducive to happiness, even if just a tad incestuous. In fact, we are told that the Wilkes always marry their cousins, the Hamiltons, which is why Ashley’s sister is going to marry Melanie’s brother. Scarlett starts to say, “But you’ve been happy, and you and Mother aren’t alike,” but she thinks better of it. Her mother, you see, had been in love with her cousin (Oh my!), but her family objected, not because they were cousins, of course, but because he was a little too wild. Unable to have the man she really wanted, she resigned herself to marrying a man she did not love.
Regarding the ways in which Ashley is different from Scarlett, his love of reading poetry and listening to music, for example, she asserts that she would change all that after they were married, but her father chides her for such foolishness, saying no woman ever changed any man. And as far as he is concerned, the fact that Scarlett thinks she loves Ashley is no argument. “All this American business of running around marrying for love, like servants, like Yankees! The best marriages are when the parents choose for the girl.” Besides, he assures her, for a woman, love comes after marriage. Scarlett’s father is the first man in her life who knows better than she does what will make her happy.
The next day, at the barbecue, Scarlett confesses her love to Ashley, and he admits that he cares for her too, but that he cannot marry her. “Love isn’t enough to make a successful marriage when two people are as different as we are,” he tells her. When she asks him if he loves Melanie, he dodges the question and starts talking about how alike they are: “She is like me, part of my blood, and we understand each other. Scarlett! Scarlett! Can’t I make you see that a marriage can’t go on in any sort of peace unless the two people are alike?” And thus Ashley is the second man in Scarlett’s life who knows better than she does what will make her happy.
Right after that scene, she meets Rhett Butler, the third man in her life who knows what is best for her. He falls in love with her at first sight, and somewhat later in the book he explains the reason he loves her: “I love you, Scarlett, because we are so much alike, renegades, both of us, dear, and selfish rascals.” However, it is still Ashley that Scarlett loves, and her persistence in this regard is not presented as merely being an unfortunate circumstance, but is treated as morally unacceptable. There is the sense that Scarlett is wrong not to accept Rhett’s love, that she is willfully refusing to give up her infatuation for Ashley when she could have Rhett, the idea being that when a man truly loves a woman, she is wrong to refuse him. And it is this moral dimension that justifies the use of force. Of course, it is part of this whole notion of the wrong-headed woman that when such force is employed, it turns out to be what she really wants. The first couple of times Rhett uses force, it only involves aggressive kissing, and in each case, she forgets about Ashley and swoons with passion, leading her to accept Rhett’s proposal of marriage.
After they get married, she still loves Ashley, of course, on account of her being so obstinate. The tension builds, with Rhett becoming increasingly physical and threatening, until one night he carries her up the stairs and rapes her. And of course it is just what she needs: “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.” But the effect proves to be temporary, and their marriage returns to its previous state of low-grade misery.
What is ironic is that this book was written by a woman. In The Forsyte Saga, on the other hand, another man rapes his wife for similar reasons, being frustrated by his wife’s love for another man. But in that case, the rape is so traumatic that it not only ruins their marriage, but also ruins things for the next generation. And this novel was written by a man, John Galsworthy, also in the early part of the twentieth century. In short, the novel written by a man was more feminist than the one written by a woman.
Back before the movie version had been made, when people read the novel without knowing how it would end, they probably thought Scarlett would eventually realize how much she really loved Rhett, and they would live happily ever after; or, failing that, she would be punished for her stubbornness. And indeed she is. She realizes just how much she loves Rhett only at the point where it is too late. To this extent, the movie is faithful to the book. But what those who read the novel did not expect was the destruction of Rhett. And this difference in what was expected and the actual outcome is the biggest difference between the movie and the book.
At the end of the movie, when Rhett leaves Scarlett, we feel relieved. He is through with her, and it is as if he has finally been cured of a sickness. There is the hint of a sneer when he tells her that he does not give a damn what happens to her, and there is a spring in his step as he heads out the door. But the depiction of Rhett in the novel is very different: “He looked at her steadily with dark eyes that were heavy with fatigue and there was no leaping light in them…. He was sunken in his chair, his suit wrinkling untidily against his thickening waist, every line of him proclaiming the ruin of a fine body and the coarsening of a strong face. Drink and dissipation had done their work….”
Although Rhett is only forty-five by that time, he seems much older, drained and exhausted, almost as if he is dying. And much in the way people often express a desire to go back home as they near the end of life, Rhett talks about going back to Charleston, where his family is, in hopes of finding peace and reconciliation.
When Scarlett finally accepts that Rhett is leaving her, she says, “Oh, my darling, if you go, what shall I do?” Unlike the movie, where the tone of Rhett’s voice and the look on his face as he makes his parting remark is almost triumphant, making us want to say, “Good for him,” in the book, he is defeated, and his words are full of resignation and regret: “For a moment he hesitated as if debating whether a kind lie were kinder in the long run than the truth. Then he shrugged. ‘… I wish I could care what you do or where you go, but I can’t.’ He drew a short breath and said lightly but softly: ‘My dear, I don’t give a damn.’”
Whereas the movie stays with the notion that Scarlett is wrong-headed and gets what she deserves, the ending of the novel makes us realize that it was actually Rhett who was wrong-headed, and that he is the one who really pays the price for it. If Scarlett was foolish in thinking she could change Ashley regarding his tendency to spend a lot of time reading books and listening to music, how much more foolish was it for Rhett to think he could marry a woman who loved another man and somehow change that?