- No Happy Loves:Desire, Nostalgia, and Failure in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind
In Love in the Western World, Denis de Rougemont claims that “happy love has no history” (15). This essay seeks to explore the converse: why do fictional portrayals of history seem to include no happy loves? Writing about the past and seeking to retrieve it through the mode of historical fiction is essentially always an act of desire, reflective of the longing to take the emptiness created by the loss of a time and place and fill it with an imaginative reconstruction. In that reconstruction, the desire for the past often becomes emblematized as desire for another individual. Affection for a lost world becomes the true object of textual desire, a lover figure for whom the actual lovers stand as shadowy substitutes. As such, intersubjective desire becomes marked by ambivalence and, ultimately, futility, with the impossibility of reclaiming the past forestalling the hope of any satisfying resolution.
Fiction is always invoking desire. Peter Brooks notes that “narratives both tell of desire—typically present some story of desire—and arouse and make use of desire as a dynamic of signification” (37). The desires inscribed in texts can extend to any number of objects: they “need not be [about] sexual desire; [End Page 54] Odysseus wanted to get home; Captain Ahab wanted the whale” (Belsey 208). In historical fiction, the chief object of desire is the lost past. Always irretrievable, it remains generative of longing: both in the direct form of nostalgia and in representations of the desires experienced by characters. In fact, the status of the past as “that which is not” or “that which has ceased to be” only strengthens its facility for producing desire. Catherine Belsey suggests that “desire is predicated on lack, and even its apparent fulfilment is also a moment of loss” (38–39) while Deborah Lutz notes that “yearning lives in the emptiness at the back of being: it points to the essential openness at the heart of existence” (ix). Susan Stewart argues that absence is, in fact, the generative mechanism of desire, such that “the place of origin must remain unavailable in order for desire to be generated” (151). Roland Barthes links absence and desire specific to its use in fiction, noting when “absence becomes an active practice … there is a creation of a fiction which has many roles (doubts, reproaches, desires, melancholies)” (16). Historical fiction, born out a desire to recreate a lost past, tends toward multiple, and multiplying, representations of desire in an effort to accommodate these roles.
This shadowy presence of desire that hovers around all historical fiction operates with a particular poignancy in cases where the yearning is more than for a specific fragment of time, but, rather, an entire world and system of meaning that now seems irrevocably lost. The clan-ruled Highlands of Sir Walter Scott’s Waverly novels, the antebellum American South of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, and the Old New York that haunts the novels of Edith Wharton—all embody entire orders of existence that transcend the specific geographic and temporal boundaries that defined them, so that, in these fictions, “the home we miss is no longer a geographically defined place, but rather a state of mind” (Chase and Shaw 1). At least sixty years removed from Scott’s foundational text,1 these novels recall, desire, and mourn times, places, and, more importantly, practices of living. Mitchell succinctly elegizes a lost world-view of planter aristocracy when she writes that, in the South, prior to the Civil War, “raising good cotton, riding well, shooting straight, dancing lightly, squiring the ladies with elegance and carrying one’s liquor like a gentleman were the things that mattered” (26). The impulse to document this problematic and intricately ordered system of existence has been seen as giving rise to “some of the best historical fiction that the South has produced … rich in the evocation of the quality of a way of life” (Holman 45). [End Page 55]
In its status as an irrevocably absent object, the past generates longing, and the depth of this nostalgia in which nothing is forgotten...