Sunday, 12 April 2015

Why Margaret Mitchell was possibly a very Unpleasant Person*

It may be plebeian to quote from the Da Vinci Code, but I remember one of the characters in the book telling the heroine, Sophie Nevue, that history is always written by winners. This is not strictly true. Neither is it the case that an individual narrative of events (past or present) is necessarily one-sided. But look for example, at early efforts at documentation of Indian history, and this will ring, at least partly true. Max Mueller, VA Smith are seen as guilty of advancing accounts of ancient India that served colonial interests-the dominant interests in the 19th Century. Yet, there survived an alternative (possibly then-marginalised) description of events as seen through the ‘nationalist’ or ‘revivalist’ lens. This served as an important counter-point, but was surely not completely accurate itself. To add to the complexity-and as befuddled school students over the years in India may have noticed-a change in winner can change the dominant discourse of the time. This is not necessarily calamitous, especially not in the information age (excuse the cliché), as long as an outsider account of how things happened, exists.  And this is what makes ‘Gone with the Wind’ (henceforth GWTW), a fictional account of Civil War ridden America told from the Southern perspective, such an important book.

Yet, even as I realise the importance of GWTW from an educational perspective, I hesitate to stress on the politics of it in a blog-post, for the same reason as above. Since, it is meant to be the Southern point of view can I fault it for being well…one sided? And racist? An argument in favour of Mitchell (and any fiction writer) could be that she was writing a story of a particular person (Scarlett O Hara), and surely kindly slave owners and ‘freely’ loyal slaves could be true for the plantation her parents maintained? As a parallel, Haider was critiqued for being one-sided and silent on the plight of the Kashmiri Pandits, and a valid defence was that the movie was NOT a story about Kashmiri Pandits, but about a man who was incarcerated under AFSPA and who disappeared in the process. Hence the film was not obliged to show anything on Kashmiri Pandits. A third related defence could be that Mitchell was only being historically accurate in her illustration of race relations, so Mitchell or GWTW are not racist, but the people in the story are.

There is also the problem of calling someone racist if they ‘didn’t know better’. As an example, if my grandfather didn’t allow his wife to work outside the home, I would be more comfortable calling him ‘conformist’ than sexist. My father if he did the same to his wife, would probably be ‘conservative’. But if my husband were to prevent me from working, in spite of growing up in the same environment as me, he would be sexist. My dad, if he didn’t let me or his daughter-in-law to have an occupation while forcing my brother to have one, would be sexist. Can GWTW be absolved on this count?

My one issue with all of the above defences is that GWTW was narrated in the third person. Had all the racist or patronising commentaries about the “darkies” been coming from the viewpoint of specific characters, it wouldn’t have been a problem, to me. The third person narrative leads me to believe that it is Mitchell, writing 60 years after the Civil War (and who certainly should have known better), who is voicing the patronising commentary about the African-American slaves. And even that wouldn’t be grievous, except that the narrative is entirely devoid of any critique or self-awareness. More so because it is not just a story of the kindly O’ Haras, it is also the story of the Merriweathers and the Whitings and the Deans and the Wilkes and the Tarlestons. Hence, it becomes difficult to forgive the one-sidedness. Forget justifying slavery by accusing the blacks of lacking “gumption” and the ability to look out for themselves. Mitchell denies even stray occurrences of Southern cruelty towards slaves. Instead, it is the ‘Yankees’ who were intent on making blacks sit with themselves (“like they were as good as the Caucasians”), but would never hire them as domestic help. The Yankees were the racists.

The racism apart, the narrator of GWTW is also unfair to its spectacular heroine. Even when she helps her rival Melissa bear a child, supports her and her entire family through the War, she is called out for being self-centred, without any recognition that all normal people are a combination of vice and virtue. At one point she gets sexually assaulted on the road by a black and a white man, and her relatives and neighbours (part of the Ku Klux Klan, no less) take law into their own hands. Scarlett’s husband dies in the process. What follows is an unabashed account of victim blaming. At another point, there is, what suspiciously sounds like marital rape.

And yet, in spite of the deep problems that affect GWTW, all 800+ pages of it (the e-book), are a powerfully engrossing read. The author has to be credited for the fact that even in the absence of any attempt on her part, it is easy to empathise with Scarlett. The book is also dotted with vignettes of human behaviour that are universally recognisable, regardless of place and time. For instance Mammy and Ellen’s training of Scarlett for her role as a married woman-which often involves manipulation of the male sex-could be likened to the nature of advice young brides in India get from well-meaning female relations.  The incident that resonated with me the most was however, when Scarlett contracts prison labourers to work her plant. They are managed by a cruel man, who siphons off the food supply that Scarlett sends for the workers. At times he beats them to near death. Scarlett finds out and tries to get the manager in line; the men must be fed if they are to be productive. The manager retorts that he had been asked to be given a free hand till the time he was bringing in profits. Scarlett agrees that he was bringing in profits and leaves him alone. Clearly, the more times change, the more things stay the same (excuse the cliché’ again).

*I might have thought differently had I read GWTW when I was more impressionable

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