Gone With the Wind

Plot discussion


'Way back in the dark days of the Early Sixties, regrettable tho it was—men fought, bled, and died for the freedom of the negro—her freedom!—and she stood by and did her duty to the last ditch—

It was and is her life to serve, and she has done it well.

While shot and shell thundered to release the shackles of slavery from her body and her soul—she loved, fought for, and protected—Us who held her in bondage, her "Marster" and her "Missus!"

Excerpt from My Old Black Mammy by James W. Elliott,1914.[37]

Slavery in Gone with the Wind is a backdrop to a story that is essentially about other things.[38] Southern plantation fiction (also known as Anti-Tom literature) from the early 19th century culminating in Gone With the Wind is written from the perspective and values of the slaveholder and tends to present slaves as docile and happy.[39]

Caste system

The characters in the novel are organized into two basic groups along class lines: the white planter class, such as Scarlett and Ashley, and the black house servant class. The slaves depicted in Gone with the Wind are primarily loyal house servants, such as Mammy, Pork, Prissy, and Uncle Peter.[40] House servants are the highest "caste" in Mitchell's caste system of the slaves.[41] They stay on with their masters after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 and subsequent Thirteenth Amendment of 1865 sets them free. Of the servants that stayed on at Tara, Scarlett thinks to herself, "There were qualities of loyalty and tirelessness and love in them that no strain could break, no money could buy."[42]

The field slaves make up the lower class in Mitchell's caste system.[41][43] The field slaves from the Tara plantation and the foreman, Big Sam, are taken away by Confederate soldiers to dig ditches[19] and apparently never return to the plantation. There were yet other field slaves, Mitchell wrote, who were "loyal" and "refused to avail themselves of the new freedom",[41] but there are no field slave characters in the novel that stay on the plantation after they have been emancipated.

James Stirling, a British writer who visited the Southern United States in 1857, described the distinction between slaves who were house servants and slaves who were field hands in his book, Letters from the Slave States:

In judging of the welfare of the slaves, it is necessary to distinguish the different conditions of slavery. The most important distinction, both as regards numbers and its influence on the wellbeing of the slave, is that between house-servants and farm or field-hands. The house-servant is comparatively well off.[44]

A slave narrative by William Wells Brown published in 1847 spoke of the disparity in conditions between the house servant and the field hand:

During the time that Mr. Cook was overseer, I was a house servant—a situation preferable to a field hand, as I was better fed, better clothed, and not obliged to rise at the ringing bell, but about an half hour after. I have often laid and heard the crack of the whip, and the screams of the slave.[45]

Faithful and devoted slave

Although the novel is over one thousand pages, Mammy never considers what her life might be like away from Tara.[46] She recognizes her freedom to come and go as she pleases saying, "Ah is free, Miss Scarlett. You kain sen' me nowhar Ah doan wanter go," but Mammy remains duty-bound to "Miss Ellen's chile".[24] (Mammy apparently had no real name; at least it is not mentioned in the novel.)

Eighteen years before the publication of Gone with the Wind, an article titled, "The Old Black Mammy," written in the Confederate Veteran in 1918, discussed the romanticized view of the mammy character that had been passed on in literature of the South:

...for her faithfulness and devotion, she has been immortalized in the literature of the South; so the memory of her will never pass, but live on in the tales that are told of those "dear dead days beyond recall".[47][48]

Micki McElya, in her book, Clinging to Mammy, suggests the myth of the faithful slave, in the figure of mammy, lingers because white Americans wish to live in a world where African Americans are not angry over the injustice of slavery.[49]

The best-selling anti-slavery novel from the 19th century is Uncle Tom's Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe, published in 1852. Uncle Tom's Cabin is mentioned briefly in Gone with the Wind as being accepted by the Yankees as, "revelation second only to the Bible".[42] The enduring interest of both Uncle Tom's Cabin and Gone with the Wind has resulted in lingering stereotypes of 19th-century African American slaves.[50] However, since its publication, Gone with the Wind has become a reference point for subsequent writers about the South, both black and white alike.[51]

Southern belle

Young misses whut frowns an' pushes out dey chins an' says 'Ah will' an' 'Ah woan' mos' gener'ly doan ketch husbands.[52]


The southern belle is an archetype for a young woman of the antebellum American South upper class. The southern belle's attractiveness is not physical beauty, but rather lies in her charm. She is subject to the correct code of female behavior.[53] The novel's heroine, Scarlett O'Hara, charming though not beautiful, is a southern belle.

For young Scarlett, the ideal southern belle is represented by her mother, Ellen O'Hara. In "A Study in Scarlett", published in The New Yorker, Claudia Roth Pierpont wrote:

The Southern belle was bred to conform to a subspecies of the nineteenth-century "lady"... For Scarlett, the ideal is embodied in her adored mother, the saintly Ellen, whose back is never seen to rest against the back of any chair on which she sits, whose broken spirit everywhere is mistaken for righteous calm...[54]

However, Scarlett is not always willing to conform. Kathryn Lee Seidel, in her book, The Southern Belle in the American Novel, wrote:

...part of her does try to rebel against the restraints of a code of behavior that relentlessly attempts to mold her into a form to which she is not naturally suited.[55]

The figure of a pampered southern belle, Scarlett lives through an extreme reversal of fortune and wealth, and survives to rebuild Tara and her self-esteem.[56] Her bad belle traits, Scarlett's deceitfulness, shrewdness, manipulativeness, and superficiality, in contrast to Melanie's good belle traits, trust, self-sacrifice, and loyalty, enable her to survive in the post-war South, and pursue her main interest, making money.[57] Although she was born around 1845, modern-day readers can still relate to Scarlett's passionate and independent spirit, her determination and her obstinate refusal to feel defeated.[58]

Some historical background

Marriage was the goal of all southern belles, and all social and educational pursuits were directed towards it. Regardless of war and the loss of eligible men, young ladies were still subjected to the pressure to marry.[59] By law and Southern social convention, household heads were adult, white propertied males, and all white women and all African Americans were thought to require protection and guidance because they lacked the capacity for reason and self-control.[60]

The Atlanta Historical Society has held a number of Gone with the Wind exhibits, among them a 1994 exhibit titled, "Disputed Territories: Gone with the Wind and Southern Myths". One question addressed by the exhibit, "Was Scarlett a Lady?", found that historically women of the period were not involved in feminist activities as Scarlett was during Reconstruction when she ran a sawmill. White women performed traditional jobs such as teaching and sewing and generally disliked work outside the home.[61]

During the Civil War, Southern women played a major role as volunteer nurses working in makeshift hospitals. Many were middle- and upper class women who had never worked for wages or seen the inside of a hospital. One such nurse was Ada W. Bacot, a young widow who had lost two children. Bacot came from a wealthy South Carolina plantation family that owned 87 slaves.[62]

In the fall of 1862, Confederate laws were changed to permit the employment of women in hospitals as members of the Confederate Medical Department.[63] Twenty-seven-year-old nurse Kate Cumming from Mobile, Alabama, described the primitive hospital conditions in her journal:

They are in the hall, on the gallery, and crowded into very small rooms. The foul air from this mass of human beings at first made me giddy and sick, but I soon got over it. We have to walk, and when we give the men any thing kneel, in blood and water; but we think nothing of it at all.[64]


The Civil War came to an end on April 26, 1865 when Confederate General Johnston surrendered his armies in the Carolinas Campaign to Union General Sherman. Several battles are mentioned or depicted in Gone with the Wind.

Early and mid war years

  • Seven Days Battles, June 25 – July 1, 1862, Richmond, Virginia, Confederate victory.[16]
  • Battle of Fredericksburg, December 11 – 15, 1862, Fredericksburg, Virginia, Confederate victory.[65]
  • Streight's Raid, April 19 – May 3, 1863, in northern Alabama. Union Colonel Streight and his men were captured by Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest.[65]
  • Battle of Chancellorsville, April 30 – May 6, 1863, in Spotsylvania County, Virginia, near the village of Chancellorsville, Confederate victory.[65]
Ashley Wilkes is stationed on the Rapidan River, Virginia, in the winter of 1863,[66] later captured and sent to a Union prison camp, Rock Island.[67]
  • Siege of Vicksburg, May 18 – July 4, 1863, Vicksburg, Mississippi, Union victory.[65]
  • Battle of Gettysburg, July 1–3, 1863, fought in and around the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Union victory. "They expected death. They did not expect defeat."[65]
  • Battle of Chickamauga, September 19–20, 1863, northwestern Georgia. The first fighting in Georgia and the most significant Union defeat.[67]
  • Chattanooga Campaign, November–December 1863, Tennessee, Union victory. The city became the supply and logistics base for Sherman's 1864 Atlanta Campaign.[67]

Atlanta Campaign

The Atlanta Campaign (May–September 1864) took place in northwest Georgia and the area around Atlanta.

Confederate General Johnston fights and retreats from Dalton (May 7–13)[19] to Resaca (May 13–15) to Kennesaw Mountain (June 27). Union General Sherman suffers heavy losses to the entrenched Confederate army. Unable to pass through Kennesaw, Sherman swings his men around to the Chattahoochee River where the Confederate army is waiting on the opposite side of the river. Once again, General Sherman flanks the Confederate army, forcing Johnston to retreat to Peachtree Creek (July 20), five miles northeast of Atlanta.

  • Battle of Atlanta, July 22, 1864, just southeast of Atlanta. The city would not fall until September 2, 1864. Heavy losses for Confederate General Hood.
  • Battle of Ezra Church, July 28, 1864, Sherman's failed attack west of Atlanta where the railroad entered the city.
  • Battle of Utoy Creek, August 5–7, 1864, Sherman's failed attempt to break the railroad line into Atlanta from the east, heavy Union losses.
  • Battle of Jonesborough, August 31 – September 1, 1864, Sherman successfully cut the railroad lines from the south into Atlanta. The city of Atlanta was abandoned by General Hood and then occupied by Union troops for the rest of the war.

March to the Sea

The Savannah Campaign was conducted in Georgia during November and December 1864.

Mr. Lincoln's demise

Although Abraham Lincoln is mentioned in the novel fourteen times, no reference is made to his assassination on April 14, 1865.

Beau ideal

Somebody's darling! so young and so brave! Wearing still on his pale, sweet face— Soon to be hid by the dust of the grave— The lingering light of his boyhood's grace!

Somebody's Darling by Marie La Coste, of Georgia.[19][68]

Ashley Wilkes is the beau ideal of Southern manhood. A planter by inheritance, Ashley knew the Confederate cause had died at the conclusion of the American Civil War.[69] Ashley's name signifies paleness. His "pallid skin literalizes the idea of Confederate death".[70]

He contemplates leaving Georgia for New York City, and had he gone north, he would have been a typical Confederate carpetbagger.[69] Ashley, embittered by war, tells Scarlett he has been "in a state of suspended animation"[71] since the surrender. He feels he is not "shouldering a man's burden" at Tara and views himself as "much less than a man—much less, indeed, than a woman".[71]

A "young girl's dream of the Perfect Knight",[72] Ashley is like a young girl himself.[73] With his "poet's eye",[74] Ashley has a "feminine sensitivity".[75] Scarlett is angered by the "slur of effeminacy flung at Ashley" when her father tells her the Wilkes family was "born queer".[76] (Mitchell's use of the word queer is for its sexual connotation because queer, in the 1930s, was associated with homosexuality.)[77] Ashley's effeminacy is associated with his appearance, his lack of forcefulness and sexual impotency.[78] He rides, plays poker and drinks like "proper men", but his heart is not in it, Gerald claims.[76][79] The embodiment of castration, Ashley wears the head of Medusa on his cravat pin.[76][77]

Not only is Scarlett's love interest, Ashley Wilkes, lacking manliness, her husbands -- the "calf-like"[13] Charles Hamilton, and the "old-maid in britches",[13] Frank Kennedy -- are unmanly as well. Mitchell is critiquing masculinity in southern society since Reconstruction.[80] Even Rhett Butler, the well groomed dandy,[81] is effeminate or "gay-coded".[82] Charles, Frank and Ashley represent the impotence of the post-war white South.[70] Its power and influence has been diminished.


The word scallawag is defined as a loafer, a vagabond, or a rogue.[83] Scallawag had a special meaning after the Civil War as an epithet for a white Southerner who willingly accepted the reforms by the Republicans.[84] Mitchell defines Scallawags as "Southerners who had turned Republican very profitably."[85] Rhett Butler is accused of being a "damned Scallawag."[86] In addition to scallawags, there are also other types of scoundrels in the novel: Yankees, carpetbaggers, Republicans, prostitutes, and overseers. In the early years of the Civil War, Rhett is called a "scoundrel" for his "selfish gains" profiteering as a blockade-runner.[87]

As a Scallawag, Rhett is despised. He is the "dark, mysterious, and slightly malevolent hero loose in the world".[88] Literary scholars have identified characteristics of Margaret Mitchell's first husband, Berrien "Red" Upshaw, in the character of Rhett.[88] Another sees the image of Italian actor Rudolph Valentino, whom Margaret Mitchell interviewed as a young reporter for The Atlanta Journal.[89][90] Fictional hero Rhett Butler has a "swarthy face, flashing teeth and dark alert eyes".[91] He is a "scamp, blackguard, without scruple or honor."[91]

Dark sexuality

The most passionate and virile character in the novel is Rhett with whom Margaret Mitchell associates "dark sexuality" and the "black devil".[93] Further, Mitchell's romantic hero is colored—black and brown. Rhett's symbolic dark-colored image is placed within the context of two other images: the mythic black rapist and the dark-skinned Arab Sheik played by screen idol Rudolph Valentino in the film, The Sheik. By strategically placing Rhett's image in this manner, Mitchell simultaneously plays upon racial anxieties and sexual fantasies.[94] Rhett's demons are prostitutes and liquor as demonstrated by his intimacy with Belle Watling in whose brothel he often makes his own home,[88] and his bouts of drunkenness. The "black beast rapist" is associated with liquor.[95] Rhett is a "terrifying faceless black bulk" when he appears before Scarlett in a drunken jealous rage on the night of Ashley's party. He shows Scarlett his "large brown hands" and says, "I could tear you to pieces with them".[27][95]

With Rhett's "swarthy face"[91] juxtaposed against Scarlett's "magnolia-white skin",[14] the two white protagonists are a metaphor for an interracial couple, and their romance represents racial conflict.[96]

Rhett and Scarlett's bedroom scene (Chapter 54) is often read as a rape that was meant to suggest Reconstruction fear of black-on-white rape in the South.[93] Others have suggested the book was built around rape fantasies.[97][98] In one interpretation of the scene, the "dandified dangerous lover" carries Scarlett up the stairs into her first encounter with the erotic.[99] In another interpretation, a marital rape occurs.[100]

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