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ESSAY Clutching the Chains That Bind Margaret Mitchell and Gone with the Wind by Drew Gilpin Faust ince its publication in 1936, Gone with the Windhas sold an average of 500,000 copies each year. More Americans learn about the Civil War from Margaret Mitchell than from any other single author . Yet in striking ways, Mitchell's portrait is at odds widi bodi die prevailing national and die soudiern mydiologies ofdie war. Far from a glorious military adventure or a sacred episode ofpurposeful sacrifice, the war became in Mitchell's rendering an "inferno ofpain" (354-55). Her heroine , Scarlett, never understood its aims, "never gave a damn about the . . . Confederacy " (616); and for all their differences, her heroes, Rhett and Ashley, both "knew the war was all wrong" (23 3 ).' Growing up just after the turn of the century in a Soudi saturated widi Civil War memories, Margaret Mitchell passed her childhood listening to "ageing, graying relations" tell their stories of the conflict. Yet when Mitchell began to write her version ofhistory in 1926, she drew significantly on her own life experiences as she refashioned die war for fictional purposes. Gone with the Windpresents the Civil War not just from a female point of view but from the particular perspective of a woman of the early twentieth century—a woman who had lost her fiancé in World War I's carnage and found herselfexperiencing in war's aftermath an upheaval in female roles and gender expectations. Mitchell projected her personal sense ofwar's futility and her own crisis of female independence onto her nineteenth-century heroine. A divorcée and an aspiring journalist and career woman, Mitchell herself embodied die departure from traditional female behavior that shaped die lives of so many young women in the 1920s. But Mitchell became ensnared by her own ambivalence about social change and found herself ultimately unable to imagine female autonomy or freedom.2 The opening of Gonewith the tt^Wperfecdy inscribes Mitchell's departure from conventional treatments of the Civil War. Chapter I uses the conflict's imminent outbreak as mere background for what it presents as genuine disaster: Scarlett's opposite: YoungMargaretMitchellwith apet, 1921. Courtesy oftheAtknta History Center. 6 discovery that her beloved Ashley is to marry his plain and virtuous cousin Melanie Hamilton. Juxtaposing imagery of union and disunion, Mitchell foregrounds the personal over the political, impending marriage over threatened national divorce. "How," Scarlett wonders, "could Pa talk on and on about Fort Sumter and die Yankees when he knew her heart was breaking" (66). Scarlett's heartbreak, not Fort Sumter, is the important news of the book's opening, for as Mitchell makes clear, "War was men's business, not ladies" (8). Yet if war is not ladies' business, Mitchell offers a complex and contradictory portrait ofwhat is. The novel is a bildungsroman, set amidst die turmoil of war, a coming of age story in which the transformation of girl into woman involves confronting the transformation of womanhood itself.5 From the outset, Scarlett challenges the conventions ofher society. A tomboy who could ride horses and climb trees as well as any male, by 1861 she has evolved into a young lady only under the insistent instruction of her mother, Ellen, and her Mammy. But Scarlett's seeming femininity remains but a superficial shell, embodying "outward signs," but arising from no genuine "inner grace" (62). "Most of her natural impulses," Mitchell tells us, "were unladylike." "She looked sweet, charming and giddy, but she was in reality self-willed, vain and obstinate " (72). At sixteen, Scarlett has learned to use the attributes ofwomanhood to advance what Mitchell describes as her "predatory" designs: the manipulation and seduction of men (17). Mathematics, Mitchell tells us, was Scarlett's only good subject in school; Gone with the Wind's heroine is above all calculating. But her calculations provide the reader with a rich and critical portrait of the components of southern ladyhood. Because Scarlett must acquire the attributes offemininity in the way she might put on a costume or disguise, her character underscores their arbitrariness and artificiality. "No time, before or since," writes Mitchell of the early 1 860s South, "had so low a...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 5-20
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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