My wife was the impetus behind my finally reading this one. So many women I know refer to this as one of their favorites, and so many women have talked delightedly about Georgia (though they've never been to the state) because of this book. I'm left wondering with regard to the latter, why? I don't think Georgia comes off looking all that grand, nor the South as a whole.
Mitchell's text, though, is a rich one, allegorically and historically, and it features a set of very well-drawn characters and some beautiful writing. I felt like I got a good sense of the nature of southern living before, during, and after the Civil War. Mind you, it's a white southern point of view. Yankees in general are portrayed as opportunists, and blacks, though frequently present, fall into rather simplistic stereotypes: the loyal servant who won't leave even if no longer a slave, the lazy human being who won't work or learn anything except when forced to as a slave, the corrupt pervert. Mitchell presents most of the book from her main character Scarlett O'Hara's point of view, and that's a good thing, because the few times she does venture into trying to speak for the former slave, it comes across to me as patronizing.
The point of view of the Yankees, by contrast, is complicated by the point of view of the various southern characters and how their own assumptions about Yankees are to some extent called into the question. Leading into the war, the assumption is that the Yankees are cowards who won't fight and who will easily back down if forced to fight. The short war that's expected proves to be much less than short, and the trials that hit the region hit hard. And while Yankees are hated, some of the soldiers, the southern women find out, prove to be rather gentlemanly (and some not).
But then, that's part of what Mitchell does throughout this book, chiefly through a character who herself is not knowingly drawn completely into the southern mystique. Southern culture is built on a set of artifices that the war itself tears down but that the community continues to try to live by. These artifices have to do with proper gender roles, which Mitchell (via the war) calls into question, and class roles. The war pushes all these things to the side. High-class women take to the fields or take on jobs to survive (though what jobs exactly are allowable still remains something of an issue). Men raised to be effete plantation owners find they have no role in the South once the plantations are done away. And yet, the community is one of constant hypocrisy. A woman might be criticized for performing certain kinds of work to save her family, but the family will take the money made from the work to continue to live by its noble pretensions.
The headstrong Scarlett is a woman who doesn't exactly follow those pretensions. She's mostly interested in getting men to fall for her. But one man, Ashley Wilkes, won't--or does but won't allow himself to object to his family's desire that he marry someone else. This sets up the plot of the entire book, for Scarlett longs for him throughout, and she lets that longing guide and eventually destroy her life (as well as the lives of others), as she marries someone else out of revenge and ignores men who truly love her, never recognizing that she and Ashley have little in common.
And in this is what I see as the book's ultimate allegory. Ashley represents a kind of noble, southern gentleman who goes along wholly with society expectations and who, because of it, is himself destroyed. Yet Scarlett sees only an ideal throughout, just as people continue to see an ideal South that exists only in the past. There's no going back, but she learns too late that that ideal no longer exists, if it ever existed at all. One might hope that she has learned her lesson by the end (tomorrow is, after all, another day, as the famous line from the book states a few times), but I get the feeling that she has merely transferred ideals onto another man. She constantly seeks after a past that she can't have. So it goes with the South and the postwar southerners, who long for a time that is no longer.