Wow. What amazing conversation! Keep it up…all comments this week will be entered to win a fabulous first-edition-style hardcover of the book of the hour, Gone With the Wind. Speaking of GWTW, have you checked out How We Do Run On: A Gone With the Wind Scrapbook yet? It’s the blog I can’t live without, chock full of ruminations, doppelganger fashions, and in-depth inquiries into the world of the Wind. Please welcome Claudia, one of the dynamic duo behind the blog, for a very quotable guest post!
“As God Is My Witness…” – A Quote for Hard Times
I have an annoying habit. I quote things. I am the sort of person that breaks into Singin’ in the Rain when it rains (sad, true, now available on the internet). I love the smell of a lot of things in the morning. I tell people I like from the first glance that this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship. And among these quotations that I use more or less compulsively, I have one that’s reserved for when things are bad. Really, really bad. Or as bad as First World Problems go, anyway. Deadlines, excruciating social situations, deadlines, disgusting but inevitable house chores, deadlines, hangovers, hours stranded in the airport, deadlines (did I mention I am bad with deadlines?).
Any one of these things has, at one point in my life, featured above the blanks in a Scarlett O’Hara-style statement. “As God is my witness,” I said, time and again, “____ isn’t going to lick me. I’m going to live through this, and when it’s over I’m never going to write another paper/attend another class reunion/drink Cuba Libre/fall victim to an Icelandic volcano again.” Of course, not one of these things would actually stay a one-off occurrence (not even the Icelandic volcano part, and what were the chances of that happening again?). But in the end it didn’t matter that much, because parodying this line actually helped me get through things when they happened.
So I started thinking. What was to this line that made it so comforting? I am going to go on a limb here and say that large part of it was simply comedic value. It is just one of those lines that everyone uses and abuses, so parodied that there is almost no substance left to it.
But if besides the indisputable value of humor in bad situations (and, let’s face it, there is some comfort in knowing that no matter how bad things are, you can still crack a worse joke), this line offers a different type of comfort too, I think this can only come from the novel’s “appeal to fundamental emotions,” as one begrudging critic once put it. What this line sells is the promise – or, if you want, the illusion – of self reliance and self sufficiency in the face of adversities of all sorts. It basically sells you the hope that you can eventually have control over things that now seem overwhelming.
Of course, it is a cliché, but all clichés are lessons our culture already learned. And I think that perhaps, at the time Gone with the Wind was published, the world desperately needed exactly this sort of lesson. There had rarely been more disempowering times for the individual faced with the forces of history as the beginning of the 20th century. People had seen their lives torn apart in a war like no other they had encountered or heard of before, a war that seemed to have nothing to do with individual soldiers and their courage and skill, and everything to do with bombs and gas, killing impersonally and from afar. Pitched against something like this, men and women were powerless, as they would later be against another unseen enemy, the economy, when the Great Depression hit.
And whereas most of the time’s literature reflected this landscape of confusion and despair, this world where “things fall apart” and nothing much makes sense, Gone with the Wind, a popular novel in all connotations of the word, brought an escape and the promise of optimism. It brought back the old message that had motivated the Western World (and America in particular) ever since Robinson Crusoe set foot on his famous fictional island: the enterprising individual can make it by force of his own willpower against anything Providence throws at him. Gone with the Wind infused new life into the old story of self-reliance.
To the Ashley Wilkes-like characters of modernism, that admit defeat in front of a world that stopped making sense and seek the lost order and symmetry in books and countless references (because that’s all they have left), Mitchell opposed the strength of Scarlett, who refuses to fall victim to the world, but models and bends it to her will. And I imagine people naturally liked this, because it offered them the illusion that it was possible to stand up to history, to stand up to the economy, to stand up to all the things they couldn’t control in their lives. It was possible to at least live through it all, and once it was over, make sure it never happened again.
And it’s this aspect of the book, besides the romance, that gave it its timeless appeal to audiences worldwide. People, especially people who experienced hardships first-hand, could connect to Scarlett’s story and aspire to her strength. And, to me at least, this is the major element that makes Gone with the Wind an important milestone in our culture even now, at its 75th anniversary. And, coming back to me, I suppose it’s the echoes of this message that comfort me when First World Problems strike and that put things into their proper context again.
Or, well, maybe it is just the comfort of a bad joke.