Gayle Madwin (queerbychoice) wrote,
Gayle Madwin

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Gone with the Wind

Since The Book of Salt by Monique Truong brought me back into reading mode, I spent the entire past 48 hours reading Gone with the Wind, which was a gift from legolastn. And I do mean the entire past 48 hours, interrupted only by sleep and enough time to prepare about two bowls of pasta-roni (other than that, I avoided eating anything that would have required any food preparation, because I didn't want to put the book down for that long).

Lots of people had warned me that this book was racist, and a smaller number of people had warned me that it was sexist. So I was expecting it to make me very angry for both reasons, and it did. But I wasn't expecting it to be so interesting as well - so well-written and so emotionally involving, so that having to hate the book anyway actually hurts. And unlike everyone else in the United States, I've never seen the movie, so I had no idea how the book was going to end. I knew the famous line from it, of course, but I had no idea whatsoever of the context for it.

The book is blatantly racist from the very first page, although it does get worse as it goes along. I think that with some helpful un-racist footnotes added to correct unrealistic perceptions, though, it could actually be a very useful book for making people less racist. The racism in it is so unashamedly blatant that it's hard to imagine anyone being nearly as racist as this book nowadays, so making people read it would force them to recognize the existence - even just the past existence - of racism in a way that (white) people often don't. By which I mean: racism not just as an abstract thing done by abstract unfathomable people, but as a thing done by real three-dimensional people who actually think of themselves as nice people, who actually think of themselves as doing the right thing. There's really nothing quite like reading nearly a thousand pages about people's lives, getting to know them, sympathizing - even grudgingly, even just a little bit - with their problems, and then finding out that they're not only unrepentant ex-slaveowners (but they were nice slaveowners, they keep assuring you!) but Ku Klux Klan members who murder black people regularly and are proud of it.

The book did not seem sexist at all, though, for the first two thirds of it. On the contrary, it seemed quite impressively feminist. Scarlett had no education and expected to be able to get anything she wanted just by being pretty, but her beloved Ashley wasn't taken in by it and instead married a more educated woman who actually knew about most of the same things he did. Rhett Butler convincingly argued that the then-American traditions in which women were supposed to spend three years isolated and in mourning when they had been widowed, and nine months isolated when pregnant, were sexist and unfair and should be ended immediately. He also made a pretty good case for the broader revolutionary attitude that one's actions should not be dictated by other people's opinions but rather by one's own opinions (although considering what his and Scarlett's own opinions led them to do, I suppose having him as a spokesperson for this attitude may have been a disservice to it). Most impressively, Scarlett took a traditionally male job running a sawmill, and made more money at it than any of the men in town who had tried their hands at it had ever managed to do.

But then it all started falling apart. Scarlett couldn't run her (now plural) sawmills while she was pregnant. Since this had a great deal to do with society's shock about a woman being visibly pregnant in public, it didn't speak badly of her by itself. But she displayed an appalling lack of her former business skills when she hired her beloved but incompetent Ashley to run one of her mills, and a brutally violent overseer to run the other. It would have been perfectly in character for her to hire brutally violent overseers if this had been the most financially profitable thing for her to do; she never did have any moral scruples about anything. But when she realized the brutality was extreme enough that if she were caught employing such a person she could be prosecuted and financially penalized for it - well, that just makes her look too stupid to succeed in a man's career after all. There's no reason she should suddenly lose all her business sense like that. she had all the makings of a successful evil capitalist exploiter who cared about absolutely nothing but money, but then she had to go and ruin it and make the silly men she'd initially been beating at their own trade look like smarter evil capitalists than she was.

And then there's her goddessawful romance with Rhett Butler. I have no idea why he married her in the first place, when he'd previously consistently declared himself not to be a marrying man, and had shown every sign of always meaning everything he ever said, and already knew that Scarlett could easily be bought as a prostitute instead of a wife for the right price - since she'd offered herself to him once before on those grounds - and he was supposedly still furious with her for having broken her word to him by hiring Ashley to run her sawmill. The only sense I could make out of his sudden marriage proposal was to suppose he was lying, tricking her into thinking he was marrying her but not actually marrying her, just socially ruining her by having out-of-wedlock sex with her, as his way of taking revenge for her having broken her word to him, by him breaking his word to her in return, to show her what it felt like. This would have been far more in character for him than what he actually did, which was to suddenly and inexplicably actually marry her. I realize that the fact that he (almost but not quite as inexplicably) actually loved her is supposed to explain it. But I, as a citizen of the 21st century, am not really naive enough to believe that a committed "non-marrying man" would suddenly feel a need to get married just because he fell in love. It has been my observation that non-marrying men do not tend to magically transform into marrying men just because they fell in love. But then, it's also been my observation that men who are ultra-devoted fathers do not tend to fall in love with women who they can see for themselves are the most appallingly awful mothers on the face of the Earth. So I guess there just isn't very much about Rhett Butler's character that's believable at all.

Anyway, the sexism reaches its most disgusting in the descriptions of the rare moments when Scarlett is attracted to her husband. Invariably, these moments come only when he terrifies her into submission with hints of his potential for violence.
She sprang to her feet with a cry and he lunged from his seat, laughing that soft laugh that made her blood cold. he pressed her back in her chair with large brown hands and leaned over her.

"Observe my hands, my dear," he said, flexing them before her eyes. "I could tear you to pieces with them with no trouble whatsoever and I would do it if it would take Ashley out of your mind. But it wouldn't. So I think I'll remove him from your mind forever, this way. I'll put my hands, so, on each side of your head and I'll smash your skull between them like a walnut and that will blot him out."

His hands were on her head, under her flowing hair, caressing, hard, turning her face up to his. She was looking into the face of a stranger, a drunken drawling-voiced stranger. She had never lacked animal courage and in the face of danger it flooded back hotly into her veins, stiffening her spine, narrowing her eyes.

"You drunken fool," she said. "Take your hands off me."

To her surprise, he did so and seating himself on the edge of the table he poured himself another drink.

"I have always admired your spirit, my dear. Never more so than now when you are cornered."
And a few minutes later, after Rhett has reminded Scarlett that she has been refusing to sleep with him for months while she has been longing for Ashley instead of for him, and revealed that he had known even when she used to sleep with him that she was pretending he was Ashley, which felt to him "like having three in a bed where there ought to be just two":
She ran swiftly into the dark hall, fleeing as though demons were upon her. Oh, if only she could reach her room! She turned her ankle and the slipper fell half off. As she stopped to kick it loose frantically, Rhett, running lightly as an Indian, was beside her in the dark. His breath was hot on her face and his hands went around her roughly, under the wrapper, against her bare skin.

"You turned me out on the town while you chased him. By God, this is one night when there are only going to be two in my bed."

He swung her off her feet into his arms and started up the stairs. Her head was crushed against his chest and she heard the hard hammering of his heart beneath her ears. He hurt her and she cried out, muffled, frightened. Up the stairs, he went in the darkness, and she was wild with fear. He was a mad stranger and this was a black darkness she did not know, darker than death. He was like death, carrying her away in arms that hurt. She screamed, stifled against him and he stopped suddenly on the landing and, turning her swiftly in his arms, bent over and kissed her with a savagery and a completeness that wiped out everything from her mind but the dark into which she was sinking and the lips on hers. . . . She tried to speak and his mouth was over hers again. 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. For the first time in her life she had met someone, something stronger than she, someone she could neither bully nor break, someone who was bullying and breaking her.
Yes, there's nothing like threats of spousal murder and marital rape to turn women on. Being in terror of one's life or physical health really puts one in the mood to have sex with one's prospective executioner.

Also, funny how whenever he turns violent, he immediately starts doing everything "as an Indian," "with a savagery," in such a very "black darkness." The rest of the time, he's white and of tremendous assistance to the Ku Klux Klan.

But all the disgustingness in the book wouldn't upset me so much if I could just hate the entire book consistently and without exception. Then my resolution would be simple: Throw the creepy book in the trash and hope it eventually fades into such complete obscurity that nobody reads it ever again. But my resolution isn't that simple, because this book doesn't only contain more disgusting offensiveness than almost any other book I've ever read in my life. Inconveniently, it also happens to contain, within the same 1,024 pages of badly underproofread text printed in ink that rubbed off on my fingers with every page that I turned, some really unusually worthwhile writing, with significant insights into human nature and food for thought of a kind that one probably couldn't get from any book that wasn't horribly offensive. So I'm glad that I read it, and I'd even like to encourage more people to read it - provided that they're people who are sufficiently well-informed from other sources to avoid falling for any of the book's offensive propaganda. I think every well-read person should read this book, but I can't really blame any of my teachers or professors for not having dared to teach it - if I were a teacher, I'm not sure I'd dare teach this book either, even to college students, in our current society. I'm rather disturbed by the idea that schools in the South, according to legolastn (who would know, having attended them) very commonly do teach it, because I can envision way more possibilities for that to go horribly wrong than for it to ever go right. Yet, at the same time, ideally, if only it could be done right, I would want this book to be taught. And it has so much to do with the South that it would be so bizarre for schools there not to teach it. I just . . . have all sorts of misgivings about exactly how teachers might go about teaching it.
Tags: books
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