At the time it was published, the success of Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind was unparalleled. In 1936, it was #1 on the New York Times bestseller list for 40 weeks, and remained on the list for 40 more. It held the #1 spot on the Publisher's Weekly list for 44 weeks, and held a lower spot for 24 more (Justice, 35). In the first six months of publication, the novel sold one million copies (Edwards, 247). By 1993, it had sold more than 28 million copies ? in hardcover, it has outsold every book but the Bible. Not surprisingly Gone With the Wind has been called the "most popular novel in American fiction" (Twentieth Century Literary Criticism, 315).
At the time of Gone With the Wind's publication, America was in the midst of recovering from the Great Depression. Thus, as critic Charles Rowan Beye writes, "It is not hard to see how it spoke to an American audience of that period." Clearly, Gone With the Wind, which deals with the economic and social struggles the South faced during the Civil War and Reconstruction, became enormously popular because it gave the audience something to identify with. Not only did it depict a heroine who survived against tremendous odds?and thus functions as an example of what determination and strength can accomplish?but its historical details, intricate plot, captivating characters and timeless love story grant the novel elements of escapism, as well. In balancing both literary and entertaining elements, Mitchell reached out not only to her contemporary readers, but to many readers of the future, as well.
Mitchell herself summed up the theme of the novel in one word, "survival" (Edwards, 132). It begins with the introduction of Scarlett O'Hara, a 16-year-old girl with very few cares, save her unrequited love for childhood friend Ashley Wilkes. Mitchell describes her thoughts on the night before a County barbecue: "She lay in the silvery shadows with courage rising and made the plans that a sixteen-year-old makes when life has been so pleasant that defeat is an impossibility and a pretty dress and a clear complexion are weapons to vanquish fate" (Mitchell, 76). But the war soon begins, and the South feels its effects dramatically. Though Scarlett goes to Atlanta for a short time, she is soon forced to flee when the Union army invades the city. With the help of a stolen carriage and a weak horse, Scarlett, her son, her sister-in-law Melanie and Melanie's newborn baby return to Tara, the O'Hara family's plantation. They find that it is one of the few plantations in the County still standing, that Mrs. O'Hara has died and Mr. O'Hara is crazed with grief, and that the Yankees have stolen all the food, crops, livestock and money. For the next six or seven years, Scarlett struggles to hold onto Tara, and to have enough money again to live the life she dreamed of as a 16-year-old child.
Scarlett's attachment to Tara establishes a major theme of ties to the land. Even from the beginning, Scarlett seems to have inherited her father's pride in the beautiful plantation, evidenced by his comment that land is "the only thing in this world that lasts?the only thing worth working for, fighting for, dying for", even if she does not fully understand why (Mitchell, 39). On her first visit to Atlanta, she feels extremely displaced: "Moreover, now that she was away from Tara, she missed it dreadfully, missed the read fields and the springing green cotton and the sweet twilight silences. For the first time, she realized dimly what Gerald meant when he had said that the love of the land was in her blood" (Mitchell, 154).
But it is not until the O'Haras face extreme poverty and starvation that Scarlett truly understands the meaning of land. It is a property, something tangible of which one can take ownership. After the death of her mother, she tells Tara, "I can't leave you?You're all I've got left" (Mitchell, 456). For Scarlett, Tara represents hope for the future. As long as it survives, her family will always have something: "When she looked at Tara she could understand, in part, why wars were fought?these were the only things worth fighting for, the red earth which was theirs and would be their sons', the red earth which would bear cotton for their sons and their sons' sons" (Mitchell, 428).
When the rest of the world is falling apart, Tara remains, as a reminder of what once was and what could be again. Even when times are better, Tara is a comfort because it serves as a reminder of what Scarlett has survived. Later in the book, Scarlett returns to Tara to recover from a miscarriage, and Rhett comments, "Yes, Tara will do her good?Sometimes I think she's like the giant Antaeus who became stronger each time he touched Mother Earth. It doesn't do for Scarlett to stay away too long from the patch of red mud she loves. The sight of cotton growing will do her more good than all of Dr. Meade's tonics" (Mitchell, 957).
But while Tara provides Scarlett with emotional stability and hope, it cannot magically solve all her problems. It is only through intelligence and bitter determination that Scarlett triumphs?and that determination often leads her to morally questionable behavior. Mitchell emphasizes quite clearly in the novel the distinction between honorable action and practical action. Ashley clings to his moral scruples, speaking often of "honor," but his own survival hinges on Scarlett's willingness to compromise her own morals ? whether by offering to become Rhett's mistress, eloping with her sister's beau or killing a Yankee soldier. In the height of her hunger she promises, "If I have to steal or kill?as God as my witness, I'm never going to be hungry again"(Mitchell, 421). At Gerald's funeral, Grandma Fontaine explains to Scarlett the "secret of survival," and how it often hinges on selfish behavior: "When trouble comes, we bow to the inevitable without any mouthing, and we work and we smile and we bide our time. And we play along with lesser folks and we take what we can get from them. And when we're strong enough, we kick the folks whose necks we've climbed over (Mitchell, 710).
Despite the hardships that befall her, and the dark paths they lead her down, Scarlett retains an almost pathetic optimism. At nearly every tragic moment in the novel, she pushes negative thoughts out of her mind, saying "I'll think of it tomorrow." These elements that compose Scarlett's strength ? determination, optimism and ties to the land ? are brought together at the conclusion of the novel. After Rhett ? the one person who has supported her actions throughout the novel ? leaves her, it appears that all hope is lost. But not for the reticent Scarlett, who exclaims, "I'll think of it all tomorrow, at Tara. I can stand it then. Tomorrow, I'll think of some way to get him back. After all, tomorrow is another day" (Mitchell, 1024).
In a biography of Mitchell, Earl Bargainnier describes the inspiring resilience of the novel's heroine and her beloved plantation: "Melanie may die, Ashley may be a lost soul, Rhett may leave, but Scarlett and Tara endure" (Dictionary of Literary Biography, 225). It is understandable then, that readers during the Great Depression likely identified with Scarlett O'Hara, and saw her as a role model. As Anne Edwards comments, "the devastating effects of the Depression were comparable to the Civil War ? a fact that made Gone With the Wind seem uncannily contemporary" (Edwards, 213). Beginning with the stock market crash on Black Tuesday, Oct. 29, 1929, the Great Depression left more than half of all Americans living in poverty. In the worst year of the Depression, 1932, the Gross National Product fell 13.4 percent, and unemployment was 23.6 percent.
Many of the farmers lost their land during that time, and Mitchell's tale seems to understand the magnitude of that kind of loss, and the kinds of actions it can drive one to take, and legitimizes those actions. In his essay entitled, "Novelists of the Thirties," Edward Wagenknect remarks on the connection between the Great Depression and the popularity of Mitchell's novel: "Many persons found themselves fighting as bitter a battle for survival as Scarlett O'Hara herself?It was exhilarating to watch Scarlett fight and win, even if she did not always employ the most genteel means, at least she did not lay down and die" (TCLC, 325). Witnessing Scarlett work through her suffering and pain, and still emerge a woman full of hope, it is easy to think that one's own hardships can be overcome with the same kind of perseverance.
Wagenknect explains another reason why Depression-era readers were drawn to Gone With the Wind--it provided an refuge from their unhappy lives: "The need to escape from an America which seemed, during the years of the Great Depression, inexplicably to have failed to fulfill all its golden promises must, in the nature of the case, have encouraged many readers to retreat to the past" (TCLC, 325). Thus, Mitchell's novel, with its surprisingly factually accurate ? though admittedly regionally biased ? account of the Civil War, provided a safe haven for readers to escape to and enjoy. The telling of the novel from the historical Southern point of view, as well as the detailed descriptions of Southern culture also seemed to captivate readers. Critics remarked that she well understood "her period and her people" (TCLC, 313), and called the novel an "encyclopedia of the plantation legend" (TCLC, 315). For some readers, delving into the past was a way of momentarily forgetting the present.
Mitchell's novel is not the only Depression-era work that provided a sympathetic account of survival. In 1931 and 1932, the worst years of the Depression, Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth topped the bestseller list with its tale of struggling Chinese farmers. But Gone With the Wind continued to sell millions of copies long after the Depression ended. Yet, Buck's novel has not retained its popularity the way Mitchell's has, nor was it as popular even in the height of its acclaim. Perhaps this is because?despite its artistic merit?The Good Earth fails as an escapist novel. Mitchell's novel, on the other hand, has not the literary polish of Buck's, but is praised for its "extraordinary blending of romantic and realistic treatment" (Book Review Digest, 683). Besides its inspiring tale of survival, it has a compelling love story, detailed historical scenes, creative plot twists and intriguing characters. These characteristics cannot be overlooked in an assessment of the factors in the novel's success.
Many critics have not hesitated to conclude that, simply put, Gone With the Wind is a good story, and sometimes that's all that readers want. Belle Rosenbaum says that Mitchell's novel is "a tale well told, for the sake of its telling, by a teller who loves the tale and the art of telling it" (TCLC, 317). In a heated defense of the novel, Holmes Alexander argues, "Mitchell is a gifted story teller. She can create characters to set tongues wagging, she can swing a plot and make it crackle?" (TCLC, 317). Amongst all the theories about Gone With the Wind as a novel about racism, the collapse of a society, or sexual power struggles, it is easy to overlook the fact that Mitchell's novel, above all else, is an unforgettable story about some of the most memorable characters in American fiction, and their ups and downs.
Similarly, in her biography on Mitchell, Edwards wonders if Gone With the Windhas retained its popularity because it "has something for everyone" (Edwards, 246). There is war, politics, history, fashion, and culture. But perhaps most importantly, there is romance. On the date of publication, J.D. Adams of The New York Times called Gone With the Wind "an uncommonly absorbing love story." Indeed, the love triangle of Scarlett, Ashley and Rhett involves nearly every kind of love imaginable?unrequited, forbidden, platonic, passionate, physical and true. Scarlett and Ashley have a love that is doomed from the start. Before Scarlett can confess her love to her dear friend, he is betrothed to Melanie Hamilton. After his marriage, he reveals the extent of his feelings for Scarlett, but his honor prevents him from ever acting on it, and he and Scarlett suffer at length from their unconsummated love and the guilt it causes them.
When Rhett Butler?now the prototype for the roguish, romantic hero?enters Scarlett's life, the situation becomes even more complex. He becomes her friend and confidante, and, though he makes it clear that he is physically attracted to her, we are not aware of how much he loves her until the end. What is clear, however, is that he and Scarlett are uniquely suited to one another. While Scarlett and Ashley "were always like two people talking to each other in different languages," Scarlett and Rhett think and act in the manner that best suits them (Mitchell, 520). Rhett tells her at one point, "I love you, Scarlett, because we are so much alike, renegades, both of us, dear, and selfish rascals" (Mitchell, 383). Scarlett, without realizing she is in love with him, never fails to notice how comfortable she feels with Rhett, a feeling she has never experienced before: "Sometimes she thought that all the people she had ever known were strangers except Rhett" (Mitchell, 817).
Mitchell keeps these two people apart in various ways, while simultaneously hinting more and more at how perfect they are for one another, until it is obvious that they are soulmates. Rhett comes to this realization before Scarlett, and by the time she does, it is too late. Rhett, devastated by her love for Ashley, says, "we?could have been perfectly happy if you had ever given us half a chance, for we are so much alike. We could have been happy, for I loved you and I know you, Scarlett, down to your bones in a way that Ashley could never know you. And he would despise you if he did know?"(Mitchell, 928). Though so much of her novel is unique in plot and character, when it comes to romance, Mitchell plays on tried and true conventions which consistently hook readers. They keep reading through hundreds of pages of sexual tension, to find out whether Rhett and Scarlett will ever end up together and happy?only to find that Mitchell leaves it up to the readers to decide.
In a rather disparaging critique of the novel, Bernard DeVoto dismisses it as "wish-fulfillment literature" (TCLC, 327). He is most likely quite accurate in his assessment of the novel's popularity; it was published in a time when most Americans' wishes and dreams went largely unfulfilled. To them, the novel was not only inspiring, but a means of escaping from the hardships of their lives, and delving into a narrative driven by history and romance. It is to Mitchell's credit, however, that she managed to write a novel that has proven to be timeless. Her story of war, survival and love may have spoken particularly to 1930s America, but her narrative skill ensured that it would reach out to future generations as well.
(*denotes works reproduced in Twentieth Century Literary Criticism and cited as such)
Adams, J.D. "A Fine Novel of the Civil War." New York Times. July 5, 1936.
*Alexander, Holmes. "Holmes Alexander to the Defense: Gone With the Wind." Saturday Review of Literature. January, 1938.
Bargainnier, Earl F. "Margaret Mitchell." Dictionary of Literary Biography. Volume 9.
*Benet, Stephen Vincent. "Georgia Marches Tough." Saturday Review of Literature. July 4, 1936.
Beye, Charles Rowan. "Gone With the Wind and Good Riddance." Southwest Review. 1993.
*Corbett, Edward. "Gone With the Wind Revisited." America. 1987.
*Cowley, Malcolm. "Going With the Wind." New Republic. September, 1936.
*DeVoto, Bernard. "Fiction Fights the Civil War." Saturday Review of Literature. January, 1938.
Edwards, Anne. Road to Tara: The Life of Margaret Mitchell. New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1983.
Justice. Bestseller Index: All Books, Publishers Weekly and the New York Times Through 1990.
Mitchell, Margaret. Gone With the Wind. New York: Warner Books, Inc., 1993.
*Rosenbaum, Belle. "Why do they read it?" Scribner's Magazine. August, 1937.
*Wagenknect, Edward. "Novelists of the Thirties." Cavalcade of the American Novel. 1952.