Theme of War in 'Gone With The Wind'

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“You all don’t know what war is. You think its riding a pretty horse and having the girls throw flowers at you and coming home a hero. … It’s going hungry, and getting the measles, and pneumonia form sleeping in the wet.”
--Margaret Mitchell
(Gone With The Wind)

War is that phenomenon which occurs in time under the guise of various terms. Some call it rebellion, crusades, mutiny and so on. War is also, among other things, that phenomenon that catches the attention of many writers, Margaret Mitchell being one among them.

Writers of fiction imbibe together their stories with important backdrops of the element of war to depict what a devastating and other roles they eventually play in people’s lives.

“(Land is) the only thing worth working for, worth fighting for--worth dying for,” this is Gerald O’Hara’s advice to his daughter Scarlett in Margaret Mitchell’s work, Gone With The Wind. The novel is set against the backdrop of the American Civil War fought between the Southerners and the Yankees. Even though the cause of the war is said to be the abolition of slavery (a cause supported by the Yankees and refuted by the Southerners), Gone With The Wind carries dramatic details of lands being taken over, destroyed and besieged. An example of this is the much repeated incident of Atlanta’s fall in the novel. The story’s protagonist, the vivacious Scarlett O’Hara, also fights a parallel war against then existing social norms, the Yankees, the carpetbaggers and so on, to keep her beloved piece of land, Tara, safe. This war to survive and to keep Tara influences shapes and affects Scarlett’s life much in the similar manner the Civil War manages to change the life of the Old South. Land, thus, end up becoming one of the very few things genuinely close to Scarlett’s heart as she is ready to declare a war against anyone who tries taking it away from her, so much so that she agrees to jettison her “honour” (by willing to prostitute herself to Rhett Butler) to save Tara.

Gone With The Wind is also, at an underlying level, about the personal war of Scarlet (and to some extent, that of the various other characters in the novel) with the existing social norms and expectations. Scarlett is trained to act like somebody she isn’t--a “Lady”--because the society demands it from a woman of her class position. She is expected to stifle her real emotions, just to fit in the society (which she ultimately does not).

Scarlett’s personal war against set norms of the society has its sparks in the initial part of the novel where she questions them: "I'm tired of everlastingly being unnatural and never doing anything I want to do. I'm tired of acting like I don't eat more than a bird, and walking when I want to run and saying I feel faint after a waltz, when I could dance for two days and never get tired. I'm tired of saying, 'How wonderful you are!' to fool men who haven't got one-half the sense I've got, and I'm tired of pretending I don't know anything, so men can tell me things and feel important while they're doing it..." This feeling of ridicule towards the existing customs and the need to battle it only heightens after the actual, physical War between the South and the Yankees. Scarlett undergoes a rather magnificent transformation of character while on “the long road to Tara” when she realizes it time to fight of the expectations and the set roles of a “Lady”, a fact she actually articulates verbally on reaching Tara-- “to-day I’m no lady, Pa, and there is work to do to-night.” After that point, she, although not verbally, but through actions, declares a war with the “aristocrats” of the Old South (which, ironically, does not even exist after the War) because she believes their ideologies an almost waste of effort and downright foolishness.

Another character, Melanie, who is depicted to be a rather passive character and ‘an angel in the house’ figure also silently fights symbolic wars in the novel. Her war is for survival during the childbirth on the night Atlanta falls, fighting to give Scarlett the least of troubles (a task, she does not quite manage). The most evident war Melanie fights is during the times she decides to stand as a pillar of strength for Scarlett. Her silent war with India Wilkes shows her determination of fighting for her ideology (no matter how unreasonable) reminds the readers of Scarlett herself.

Rhett’s war against his people, again for survival and the way he wants to, is another important aspect in the text. He fights for his personal freedom but also ends up fighting in the Civil War in the end. His joining of the Civil War even when the South has lost the war shows that Rhett has not completely been successful in battling of social norms much in the same manner Scarlett is unable to when in the end, she tries to seek sympathy from the aristocratic circle of the Old South.

Other, comparatively minor characters have also been shown to fight their personal wars throughout the text: Ellen O’Hara’s war against her father in marrying Gerald and her life long battle of cherishing the memory of Philippe but never showing any sign of it, Gerald O’Hara’s war in his initial days in Georgia to prove his worth as a planter and of course, the actual Civil War fought by the South.

While the actual War is criticized in the text by describing its violence, destruction and chaos, the personal wars of the characters are not particularly shown to be a negative trait.

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