Survival at the Expense of Everything

Gone with the Wind a work of fiction full of truth! My copy is annotated, underlined and marked up beyond belief. Quote after quote provoking “ah ah” moments and points to ponder. It endures because it tells the story of the human will to survive, the harm we are capable of in these efforts and the consequences of our choices. It is the American story – a classic version – in which the desire for success overrides personal relationships and care for others, resulting in material success at the expense of everything else.

Gone with the WindScarlett O’Hara is a character to be both hated and admired. She is strong, fierce, determined and heartless. She experiences hardship and vows to never feel hunger again – no matter the cost. Of course, this presents a zero sum game, in which satisfying her needs may (and often does) hurt others. While they may feel the hunger she works so hard to avoid, there is no empathy, it is simply the harsh reality of a recently destroyed society. This, of course, is a classic dilemma. What will people do, how will they act, if the conveniences of society are removed? How quickly will our kindness and concern for other diminish? To what lengths will we go to save ourselves?

 “In the dull twilight of the winter afternoon she came to the end of a long road which had begun the night Atlanta fell. She had set her feet upon that road a spoiled, selfish and untried girl, full of youth, warm of emotion, easily bewildered by life. Now, at the end of the road, there was nothing left of that girl. Hunger and hard labor, fear and constant strain, the terrors of war and the terrors of Reconstruction had taken away all warmth and youth and softness. About the core of her being, a shell of hardness had formed and, little by little, layer by layer, the shell had thickened during the endless months.”

Scarlett shows us an extreme response to all of these scenarios. Rhett Butler, the most likable character in the book, is a scoundrel who makes his wealth selling stolen provisions to the government at inflated prices – a war profiteer. When so many are suffering, he holds the resources that could help, yet is not in the least concerned or moved by their need.

 “All wars are sacred, to those who have to fight them. If the people who started wars didn’t make them sacred, who would be foolish enough to fight? But, no matter what rallying cries the orators give to the idiots who fight, no matter what noble purposes they assign to wars, there is never but one reason for a war. And that is money. All wars are in reality money squabbles. But so few people ever realize it. Their ears are too full of bugles and drums and the fine words from stay-at-home orators. Sometimes the rallying cry is ’save the Tomb of Christ from the Heathen!’ Sometimes it’s ’down with Popery!’ and sometimes ‘Liberty!’ and sometimes ‘Cotton, Slavery and States’ Rights!”

Bottom line, GWTW is an excellent portrayal of a time which has passed (thankfully). We witness the fall of the plantation culture, the extremes of the carpetbaggers, political and cultural retribution and a level of destruction and death few of us could every fathom happening outside our very doors. However, there are really no lovable characters. The worst of humanity is on full display – greed, selfishness, cold opportunism and treachery. There is some admiration to be found for the resourcefulness of many, especially Scarlett, however, the ruthless nature of their motives and actions diminish most feelings of awe or empathy.

This is a tremendous novel that provides a compelling portrait of Southern culture prior to the Civil War and a vivid account of the pain and torment of the Reconstruction period. Through fantastically crafted characters we experience the privileged and pain of the Southern past.

 “This isn’t the first time the world’s been upside down and it won’t be the last. It’s happened before and it’ll happen again. And when it does happen, everyone loses everything and everyone is equal. And then they all start again at raw, with nothing at all. That is, nothing except the cunning of their brains and strength of their hands.”

“Life’s under no obligation to give us what we expect. We take what we get and are thankful it’s no worse than it is.”

“In the end what will happen will be what has happened whenever a civilization breaks up. The people who have brains and courage come through and the ones who haven’t are winnowed out.”

There is tremendous wisdom to be found in these pages. Our willing ignorance of the pain and suffering we cause in the quest for comfort and security. The inability to acknowledge and appreciate what is until it has been lost. The inevitable demise of all that has been built. Our ego wants to deny these truths, to believe that “we” – this country, this generation – is different. There is no denying the truths found in history. GWTW takes us from the very heights of one cultures existence through its battle to survive and its eventual disintegration. There are lessons to be learned from Ms. Mitchell.

Be Strong. Stay Hungry. Walk Tall.