Katie Scarlett In Pyongyang

Jeanne Matthews was born and raised in Georgia, where owning a gun is required by law in certain places and “he needed killing” is a valid legal defense to homicide.  Jeanne’s debut novel, Bones of Contention, published in June, 2010 by Poisoned Pen Press, features a conniving Georgia clan plopped down in the wilds of Northern Australia where death adders, assassin spiders, man-eating crocs, Aboriginal myths, and murder abound.  Jeanne currently resides in Renton, Washington with her husband, Sidney DeLong, who is a law professor, and their West Highland terrier.  Her second novel, Bet Your Bones, and the third, Bonereapers, are available at bookstores everywhere.


Jeanne is here today with a look at the influence Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind wields around the world.

I grew up in Atlanta, where almost everyone has read Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind and absolutely everyone has seen the movie, most of us more than once.  I first read the book when I was fourteen and all these years later, I still think it tells a terrific story in spite of its simplistic and nonchalant view of slavery.  Some people enjoy the book for the history it gives of the Civil War in which their great, great grandfathers fought.  Some people get caught up in the tale of tortured love between Scarlett and Rhett.  A few are nostalgic for a romanticized antebellum past that probably never existed.  It’s easy to understand the appeal of the book to Americans of both North and South.  But I was knocked for a loop when I learned that Gone with The Wind is a runaway best seller in North Korea.

Since its publication in 1936, the book has sold millions of copies and been translated into more than forty languages.  They read it in the Kannada language in India, in Farsi in Iran, and in Burmese in Myanmar.  It has broken all records for readership in Vietnam.  Famously intolerant of Western ideas and literature, the North Korean government waited until the mid-1990s before it ordered GWTW translated into Korean.  Since then, it has swept the country like a literary juggernaut.  Apparently, in the capital city of Pyongyang, you can’t walk down the street without bumping into an ardent fan.

Even before the book was made available to the general public, the former Kim Jong Il had been captivated by the movie.  He loved it so much that he used the English language version as a training film for government officials.  Kim memorized parts of the dialogue and relished tossing out quotes.  Once when criticized by an American diplomat, he retorted, “Frankly, Scarlett, I don’t give a damn.”  Don’t you wonder what those officials who learned to speak English by watching and listening to Vivien Leigh sound like during negotiations?  Do they mimic her accent?  Repeat her words?  They’re obviously saying “Fiddle-de-dee” to U.S. demands that they curtail their nuclear program.

The fashion-starved women of North Korea must be thrilled by Mitchell’s descriptions of the hoop skirts, mountains of petticoats, and fancy bonnets that Scarlett wore.  And in a place where food is scarce, they can’t help but be fascinated by an etiquette which forbade a woman to show any appetite, or any physical strength or practical knowledge.  They admire Scarlett’s strength, her defiant attitude, and her gumption in starting and running a business in a male dominated society.  They disapprove of her marrying three times.

Looking for explanations for the GWTW phenomenon, journalists and scholars cite comparisons between North Korea and the American Confederacy.  Just as the Mason-Dixon line divided the American South from the North, the 38th Parallel established by the U.N. after WWII divided Korea into South and North.  From 1950 to 1953, North Korea went through its own bloody civil war with South Korea.  Mitchell’s descriptions of Yankee soldiers marauding and burning everything in their path as they marched through Georgia to the sea may resonate with North Koreans who experienced destruction of their cities, terror, humiliation, and hunger.  In the North Korean mind-set, only the strong survive and they take great pride in having fought South Korea and its powerful ally, America, to a standstill.

When Gone With The Wind was first released, the Nazis believed that it portrayed the American “Yanks” as thugs and barbarians and they encouraged its distribution.  But as Nazi tanks rolled across Europe, thousands of people in occupied France and Italy and Spain found hope in the story of “Rosella O’Hara,” whose homeland was invaded by a hated enemy and yet she survived and prospered in the aftermath of war.  Realizing that the book inspired more defiance than deference, the Nazis banned it and copies began to be passed from reader to reader through the French Underground.  Anyone caught with a copy risked being shot.

For people in countries that have suffered through wars and defeats and reconstructions, Scarlett’s struggle for survival seems to strike a universal chord.  They see their own history in the rise and fall of the Confederacy and in the resilience of the characters who survived.  Tatiana Kudriavtseva, who translated GWTW into Russian has said, “We were survivors of war, like Scarlett…we saw the ravages, the fires…the poverty and the hunger.  Gone With The Wind in Russia is considered [the] American War And Peace.”

Critics rightly condemn Gone With The Wind for its unenlightened depiction of black people and its sentimental portrayal of the Old South.  There’s no question the book reflects the racism of the Jim Crow era in which it was written.  But a book can be deeply flawed and still matter deeply.  At its heart, it’s a story of survival and it continues to have an emotional impact on millions of people across the world.  I’m one of them.

7 thoughts on “Katie Scarlett In Pyongyang

  1. Nice post, Jeanne. I read Gone With the Wind for the first time at about the same age you did and was caught up in the love story. I’ve since read it with a writer’s eye and am blown away by how Mitchell kept her story moving, scene by scene, and how she layered each scene so that we understand the conflicting needs of the different participants.


  2. When I first read GWTW I was in hs and Scarlett was my idol because she was beautiful, thin, and had gorgeous clothes. But she was also my hero when she took those reins and drove those poor horses back to Tara and started digging up potatoes. And her diy do-over of the green velvet curtains . . . She was one of the smart, strong ones and a woman to reckon with back in the Fifties and today. Bravo, Jeanne!


  3. Great read Jeanne! GWTW is a true classic, in which the complexities and paradoxes of human nature are fully explored – no wonder it has universal appeal… I’m sure Martians will eventually add it to their reading lists too…


  4. I read GWTW when I was 12 and I read it in Farsi. It ran in our only daily newspaper every day a few pages at a time and my sisters and I fought over the paper to be the first one to read it. To this day it remains one of my and my 5 younger sisters most influential and favorite novels. It was my first introduction to American writing and to the country that I have learned to love and to adopt as my own.


  5. Thanks to all of you who love the book as much as I do. I would be fascinated to know if you later read the book as an adult and in English, Shanaz. The Scarlett that captivated me when I was a kid impressed me even more in later years. Mitchell portrayed her as a woman with modern sensibilities,born into a time when a woman could not freely express her opinions or pursue her desires. Even in the Atlanta of my youth, opinionated women paid a social price. Scarlett was my ideal.


  6. Stayed up until two to finish it at about 13. However, I must admit that the first and absolutely positively enduring memory that comes to mind when GWTW is brought up is that of Carol Burnett sweeping down the stairs in her gorgeous green gown – with the drapery rod across her shoulders! Everyone was laughing so hard that it took years of listening to actually hear the line she tossed off to Rhett (Harvey Korman, of course) when he asked “Wheah did you fahnd that amazin’ dress?” which was, “Oh, I just saw it in the window.”


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