“What is a classic? What is an epic? These two questions loom over any reader of Gone with the Wind (and great literature, more generally).”
o work of art has recently come under such intense scrutiny as Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. The tyrannical thought police, right out of George Orwell’s 1984, have deemed the work a well of hate and denialism. That, no doubt, comes from people who have not read the book (and deliberately misunderstand the film and fill it, ironically, with their own psychological prejudices). Only the Bible is a better-selling book in America; it is not surprising why: Gone with the Wind is an enthralling tale that is at once classic, epic, and tragedy—not to mention, filled with a resplendent prose that puts modern novels to shame. Gone with the Wind will endure because it is a true work of art, one that penetrates the human condition and reassembles it for us in an unforgettable tale that transcends the pettiness of contemporary politics. It is precisely among these reasons that it stands as a classic.
Before we can begin with Mitchell’s epic novel, a more tragic American War and Peace if there ever was one, we must first begin with why the work endures after all these years and will endure—like Homer and Tolstoy—for many more years to come.
What is a classic? What is an epic? These two questions loom over any reader of Gone with the Wind (and great literature, more generally). Mitchell may not invoke the muses like the poetic epicists of antiquity or the Renaissance, but there is no denying that the work feels like an epic. And an epic rightly deserving its reputation as a classic.
So first, let us begin with a classic. Nominally, all people would recognize a classic as something with age—antiquity—behind it. The Iliad. The Odyssey. The Aeneid. The Divine Comedy. These are classics precisely because they have antiquity to them. Yet most people would accept that antiquity doth not a classic make. The Punica. Posthomerica. Even Africa by Petrarch. These works have age to them but are not a classic in the same way we would regard Homer, Virgil, or Dante.
It is not a tale of the politicized Zeitgeist, like so many atrocious novels of modernity that come in one door and go out the other.
A classic penetrates the human condition and brings it to realization for us. A classic, thus, is a work about humans. It is written by humans for humans with a tale to tell. But not just any kind of tale. It is not a tale of the politicized Zeitgeist, like so many atrocious novels of modernity that come in one door and go out the other.
The story of a classic finds itself dealing with the two great spirits that move the human soul: love and strife. I prefer the term “strife” to “war” since the latter is a specific type of strife common in classics and which conjures up imagery of great battles, explosions, and duels. Struggles with sin, with the demonic, or with psychological guilt are other forms that strife takes, and such struggles are manifested successfully in works like the Confessions, Divine Comedy, and Crime and Punishment do which add to their place among the canonical classics.
The consideration of strife must aim at something other than the thrill of strife itself, and this is why the Iliad and the Odyssey are as memorable as they are. The fact that we twist and turn through strife to a resolution in both epics allows for their endings to be even more powerful and memorable.
This brings us to the second great leg on which classics stand: love.
Strife in all its various forms—internal, external, psychological, actual war—invariably aims at achieving peace through love. For Achilles, his wrestling with the divine rage that governs him and makes him hard of heart breaks down by the Iliad’s conclusion, and we witness that most heroic act of love—forgiveness to an enemy—manifest itself and bring peace in its aftermath. We weep with Achilles and Priam as they weep in each other’s arms. Likewise, the naturalistic tumult and divine temptations that Odysseus must wrestle against lead to the loving reunion of a man with his wife and son in his ancestral homeland. Love, in this instance, is where the family is. Dante, too, must struggle through hell, fight sin in its many manifestations, and struggle with how it wrecks the human soul, in order to enter the inexhaustible abode of love that is heaven and the peace of the Beatific Vision.
This template that strikes at the very heart of the human condition is one reason that Tolstoy’s War and Peace is rightly considered a classic too, though it lacks the antiquity of Homer, Virgil, or Dante. We find all our central characters struggle psychologically, internally, and externally—through war, betrayal, and sexual temptation—to win the love of meaningful life eventually found in the life-giving marriage of Pierre and Natasha and the forgiving peace and reconciliation offered through Andrei.
Thus we can see that love and strife are intimately connected to each other in the classics. In order to win the love that we seek we must struggle.
The epic, then, is the long-form construction of the classic as I have defined it. We find in the epic an ultimate object to which human desire aims. The epic then proceeds to detail for us the twists and turns our characters take to win that ultimate object—the so called “quest” or “adventure” or Bildungsroman. The epic is well-suited to be the primary medium for the classic because it lets us to know our characters in a far more intimate way than the mere short story or novella. The epic invites us to partake in the same journey that our hero is on, twisting and turning us about with our protagonist. The epic also allows us to witness the growth and maturation of the hero in his struggle.
What, then, is a tragedy? Although Aristotle suggested that there are six elements that constitute a tragedy, the tragedy, as I see it, comes in two principal forms: the traditional tragedy and the redemptive tragedy. In the redemptive tragedy, our protagonist has already had his fall from grace, as it were, and this fall looms in the background. Westerns are the most common genre employing this story arc of the redemptive tragedy: Our hero is often some ruffian with a bleak past that he must overcome in his metamorphic journey to the good. In overcoming his prior fall from grace, the hero wins redemption through love or completion of the task set before him and breaks free from the ensnaring chains that have held him back. The hero is transformed despite the tragedy that has befallen him.
A traditional tragedy is something with which we are more intimately familiar. The traditional tragedy brushes aside the redemptive tragedy as meaningless and dwells, whole-heartedly, in the world of loss. The bleakness of tragedy as tragedy is what makes it so powerful even if there is no redemptive ending to the story.
Moreover, the tragedy follows the classic struggle of the epic that I have outlined: The hero aims to achieve something that he desires and fights and struggles tooth-and-nail to obtain it. However, at the moment of attainment, or near-attainment, it is snatched away from him and remains elusive. In tragedy, the classic battle for love through strife appears before us, but rather than attain the ultimate object of desire, that ultimate object of desire slips away. This dissolution of the ultimate object of desire is what I think Aristotle properly meant when he spoke of “spectacle” as one of the six elements of tragedy (with “plot” effectively serving as his understanding of “classic” as I’ve defined it—the “plot” being that quest, adventure, or Bildungsroman our characters undertake). Perhaps “realism” is another term to describe traditional tragedy.
With a definition of classic, epic, and tragedy now set for us we can turn to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. The hero of our tale is the dashing and enchanting Scarlett O’Hara. Scarlett is not the most beautiful of women but “men seldom realized it when caught by her charm.” There is something beyond mere physical beauty that entices men to Scarlett.
We quickly learn that Scarlett is something of a self-centered narcissist who refuses to grow up. “She could never long endure any conversation of which she was not the chief subject,” Mitchell writes.
Scarlett is troubled by the whirlwind of competing forces pulling her in multiple directions. Her father, Gerald, tries to convince her of the paramount importance of their plantation, Tara. Land itself, he says, “is the only thing in the world that amounts to anything…worth working for, worth fighting for—worth dying for.” But Scarlett’s love of land—and even money—is lacking. She has her eyes set on another prize: Ashley Wilkes, the young and handsome gentleman cavalier from Twelve Oaks who himself has conflicting feelings for her, as he struggles with his desire on the one hand and his duties as a gentlemen on the other.
Scarlett loves him. Wants him. So much so, in fact, that Scarlett “never had a girl friend and she never felt any lack on that account” because “all women, including her two sisters, were natural enemies in pursuit of the same prey—man.” At dinner, when Scarlett’s mind flashes with the brilliant plan to declare her love to Ashley so as to wrestle him away from Melanie, we are soon provided with the very formula of the classic epic: Scarlett wants Ashley, her ultimate object of desire; she will fight and struggle to make that a reality; and she is willing to lose all—friends, family, and social respectability—to attain it.
There is an added element of mystery to Scarlett’s pursuit of Ashley. She does not understand him. Ashley is wise, honorable, and dutiful, but he is also a cloudy enigma wrapped in a gentlemanly honor and fragrance. Scarlett feels as if she just knows his exterior armor and wants to penetrate the very depths of his soul: the soul of an aristocratic planter who ventures north for operas and spends time in his library reading books. The mystery adds to Scarlett’s desire for Ashley. But then the war comes. Georgia secedes. And Ashley reluctantly marches off to war.
Like so many of the great epics before her, Mitchell uses the backdrop of a real war—as Tolstoy used the Napoleonic Wars—to heighten the sense of striving to win love.
Unable to win Ashley’s affection when she confesses her love to him, Scarlett marries Charles Hamilton in spite—wanting to “hurt” Ashley, Melanie, and the world which is so cruel to her. “And if I married [Charles] right away, it would show Ashley that I didn’t care a rap—that I was only flirting with him. And it would just kill Honey. She’d never, never catch another beau and everybody’d laugh fit to die at her. And it would hurt Melanie, because she loves Charles so much.” This telling moment also reveals the capricious character of Scarlett though we, as readers, still feel drawn to the dramatic twists and turns occurring deep inside the love-sick soul of Scarlett. She is just a naïve little girl thus far in the novel.
Like so many of the great epics before her, Mitchell uses the backdrop of a real war—as Tolstoy used the Napoleonic Wars—to heighten the sense of striving to win love. The war upends everyone’s life. Ashley is away. Charles dies ignominiously from measles. Scarlett gives birth to the affectionately adorable but awkward Wade. And Rhett Butler becomes a heroic blockader and begins his pursuit of Scarlett, bringing a complex love triangle into the story. Though Rhett wants and even loves Scarlett, she just treats him as an empty dummy whom she tolerates simply because he brings her gifts and asks her to dance.
Scarlett’s intensity for Ashley grows as the war lingers on. When Ashley returns to Twelve Oaks on furlough, Scarlett wants to upstage Melanie, who has sewn him a grey officer’s coat. Scarlett sews him a golden sash to complete the uniform. She concocts plans to wrest Ashley away from Melanie, and even begins wishing Melanie would just die, as divorce was unthinkable at the time. As the psychological tumult continues, it is clear that Scarlett will “sacrifice anything for Ashley.” This is, as mentioned above, one of the hallmarks of a classic.
As Scarlett enters deeper into her world of psychological strife, the strife of the war is also brought to her front door by Mitchell’s masterful narrative. Atlanta is under siege! Sherman’s army is on the warpath. Moreover, Melanie is about to have her baby. Scarlett is burdened by the promise she made to Ashley to care for Melanie in her frailty as the world comes burning and crashing down. What will Scarlett do?
The relationship between Melanie and Scarlett is sealed during the Siege of Atlanta. Melanie will never forget the sacrifices that Scarlett made staying by her side as the city flees in panic of the Yankee army. Melanie will forever love Scarlett for this. Yet Scarlett does not reciprocate the same loving affection. Scarlett loathes Melanie and only stays by her side because of her promise to Ashley. What Scarlett does—however heroic and sacrificial in the mind of Melanie—is done for Ashley.
But after Scarlett stays to help birth Melanie’s baby boy, Beau, she, Wade, Prissy, Melanie, and Beau must escape the Fall of Atlanta. Knowing of only one man who could help, she turns to the scoundrel and ungentlemanly Rhett, who obliges, stealing a horse and carriage and coming to the rescue.
Here we witness the misty and mysterious magnanimity of Rhett. He loves Scarlett, as he confesses to her: “I love you, Scarlett, because we are so much alike, renegades, both of us, dear, and selfish rascals. Neither of us cares a rap if the whole world goes to pot, so long as we are safe and comfortable.” Then, Rhett romantically kisses Scarlett like she has never been kissed before! Rapture. Fright. Terror. Delight. All descend over Scarlett as she screams indignantly, “You aren’t a gentleman!’”
The power of Scarlett and Rhett’s romantic kiss during the nadir of the Confederacy also reveals to us the power of love—a power, well known to the Western psychological, philosophical, and literary tradition—where love is so strong that not even the end of the world can destroy it. Love allows us to escape the horror of this dying world, but, paradoxically, it takes us not to a dream-world but to a perhaps more terrifying reality.
Scarlett’s battered return to Tara reveals her own broken self. She will need to “lie, steal, cheat, or kill” to survive. And lie, cheat, steal, and kill she does. For what? For land. For money. Not for love—though love always remains hissing in the background—especially when Ashley returns from Rock Island Prison in his rags.
Ashley’s return is like a divine opportunity. God has already sent Scarlett Will Benteen to help manage and run Tara back to some health. Now, however, God has granted Ashley’s safe return and the chance to win the love that has alluded her and tormented her for 500 pages.
It is the return of Ashley to Tara that brings the romantic epic of Gone with the Wind to closure. Worried about the taxes imposed by the new Yankee government intended to drive her off the land, Scarlett ventures to ask Ashley for help. He is alone, splitting rails. But she does not just intend to ask for help in procuring the $300 she needs to save Tara. She is also hatching a devious plan to wrest Ashley away from Melanie and escape from the burnt landscape of the Deep South with the only person she wants. The old Scarlett has returned.
Here, Scarlett finally obtains what she has long desired. A kiss. A physical and intimate proclamation of love greater than mere flirtations and smiles. Ashley kisses her, and she falls further into her world of imaginative romantic rapture: “When he suddenly released her she felt that she could not stand alone and gripped the fence for support. She raised eyes blazing with love and triumph to him.” She then exclaims, giddy like a young schoolgirl kissed by her crush, “You do love me! You do love me! Say it—say it!’”
But the love of Scarlett and Ashley cannot be. Ashley remains married; he has a child, he reminds her—he cannot just pack up and leave. He is too honorable for that, though not honorable enough to withstand the seductive preying of Scarlett. The taxes must be paid. Tara must be saved. Work must go on. Repairs need to be furnished. New crops must be planted.
The struggle to win the love of Ashley is—in some awkward sense—complete. So now the tragedy that is Gone with the Wind sets in with the narrative of the romantic classic completed. No, Gone with the Wind is not a tragedy because the South—which Margaret Mitchell does not remotely romanticize—is vanquished; the story is a tragedy because we see Scarlett lie, cheat, steal, and kill her way to the top of the new social structure emerging in Reconstructed Georgia, with a very tragic end to it all indeed.
Scarlett’s marriage with Rhett fills her, temporarily, with the flame of life she once knew before the war: balls, dances, parties, grand feasts. There is great excitement and passion in living with Rhett:
“First, she learned that marriage with Rhett was a far different matter from marriage with either Charles or Frank. They had respected her and been afraid of her temper. They had begged for favors and if it pleased her, she had bestowed them. Rhett did not fear her and, she often thought, did not respect her very much either. What he wanted to do, he did, and if she did not like it, he laughed at her. She did not love him but he was undoubtedly an exciting person to live with. The most exciting thing about him was that even in his outbursts of passion which were flavored sometimes with cruelty, sometimes with irritating amusement, he seemed always to be holding himself under restraint, always riding his emotions with a curb bit.”
But the excitement dies down. Rhett starts to become an acceptable man in the New Atlanta. Fatherhood changes much in Rhett; or, at least, fatherhood allows Rhett to love—to love his daughter, Bonnie, like the queen after whom she is properly named, as his love is constantly rebuffed by Scarlett.
But Melanie’s death breaks Scarlett’s heart of stone, which had ruled her from the very beginning of the story.
When Scarlett is caught red-handed trying to win the affection of Ashley before his surprise birthday, Melanie once again shows a self-giving love that borders on naiveté. Melanie refuses to believe India, Ashley’s sister, when she tells Melanie about Scarlett’s advances on Ashley, and she casts her, India, out of her presence. Melanie’s friendship with Scarlett divides Atlanta. It divides our own hearts. Melanie is so kind, so sweet, so loving—and so taken advantage of by Scarlett. We grieve for Melanie because she is so naïve and so abused—behind her back—by Scarlett. Olivia de Havilland played a stupendous Melanie Wilkes in the film version. But the Melanie Wilkes of the novel is even more heart-wrenching than the Melly on the screen. Scarlett never cared for Melanie until—until Melanie is on her deathbed.
It is here, at the end of Gone with the Wind, that this classic epic becomes a classic tragedy. Bonnie’s death breaks Rhett. But Melanie’s death breaks Scarlett’s heart of stone, which had ruled her from the very beginning of the story. With Melanie’s dying breath, Scarlett comes to realize that she has loved Melanie and that she has wronged Melanie so often. Melanie’s love of Scarlett finally breaks the iron woman that is Scarlett O’Hara.
With Melanie’s death Scarlett finally realizes she does not love Ashley. She has loved an imaginary Ashley she had constructed for herself. Looking back, wishing to have lived her life over, she realizes that she always loved Rhett. Rhett who always spoiled her. Rhett who made his infamous blockade career to bring Scarlett the treasures of Old Europe. Rhett who dutifully protected her during the Fall of Atlanta. Rhett who even risked arrest and hanging to see Scarlett again after the war. Rhett. Rhett! She must tell Rhett that she does love him but has just been too blind and stupid to see. Here those prophetic words haunt us as they bore down on Scarlett, “But, somehow, these people had slipped away. She realized that it was her own fault.”
The tragedy that is Gone with the Wind lies not in the fact that the Old South died. Rather, the tragedy of the story consists in Scarlett’s losing that which is most dear to the human soul: the love of other human beings. Her indifference—indeed, hatred—for Melanie and Rhett makes her lose the two people who actually love her. Scarlett throws it all away in pursuit of a dream, a fantasy, a false figment of her own lustful delusions.
When Scarlett rushes back to her Atlanta home where Rhett waits, she believes she can win him back with a confession of love. She is mistaken. Losing Bonnie was the final straw. Bonnie’s death broke Rhett’s heart. No amount of crying and confessing can undo what Scarlett is guilty of by her own doing. So Rhett leaves with those infamous words, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”
The truest, most intimate, reality is now crashing down before Scarlett’s eyes. She has lost everyone who has ever loved her. All her scheming, struggling, and fighting to win Ashley has been for naught. All her abuse and coldness to Melanie and Rhett have come full circle. Melanie still loves Scarlett, even on her deathbed. More than any of her blood sisters. More than even her husband we might say! Now she is gone. Only when Melanie is gone does Scarlett have the spectacle of revelation. Now, too, with Rhett leaving—gone—does Scarlett have the spectacle of revelation that she loved him and that he had always loved her. But “tomorrow is another day.”
Gone with the Wind truly is a classic, an epic, and a tragedy all in one. That is why the book is so enduring. Some who despise it believe, as did Walter Benjamin, that all art ought to be politicized. The book’s supposed sin is that it does not portray and condemn the reality of slavery but instead focuses on the traumatic experience of Scarlett O’Hara.
But Gone with the Wind is not concerned with slavery because it is not a political work of propaganda. It is the great American epic because it is set in a uniquely American historical moment. It is also a world classic because it deals with the universal reality of the human condition—the same human condition probed by the other great literary classics. Margaret Mitchell’s great work of art is concerned with the struggle we fight to win love, set in the backdrop of the American Civil War and its aftermath. Mitchell’s magnificent book is simultaneously the great American novel and a universal classic in the same way that Homer is simultaneously the great Greek epic and universal classic, Dante is simultaneously the great late medieval Italian epic and universal classic, and Tolstoy is the great Russian epic and universal classic.
At the end of the story, we witness the brilliant intersection of classic, epic, and tragedy as they converge in what Aristotle called “spectacle.” We have travelled over 1,000 pages and 12 years of Scarlett’s quest to win the object of her desire only for it to elude her grasp. In that startling spectacle of a moment, we also see her fall from grace. Those who had, in fact, loved her (which is what she always desired) are snatched away. In Scarlett’s loss of Melanie and Rhett, we realize the meaning of the epic journey in which we all have partaken—the struggle to win love in the companionship of others. She loses everything that really matters in life anyway: the love of other souls which makes life worthwhile. Yet in Scarlett’s sojourn we have also met a cosmos of souls who remain with us as we, too, fly with the wind of love to hell or heaven.
Paul Krause is a humanities teacher, classicist, and literary essayist. He contributed to the book The College Lecture Today (Lexington Press, 2019), is an Associate Editor at VoegelinView, and is host of the podcast Literary Tales.
This essay was originally published as part of the author’s regular monthly column at The Imaginative Conservative, on September 18th.