Gone with the Wind takes place in the southern United States in the state of Georgia during the American Civil War (1861–1865) and the Reconstruction Era (1865–1877) that followed the war. The novel unfolds against the backdrop of rebellion wherein seven southern states, Georgia among them, have declared their secession from the United States (the "Union") and formed the Confederate States of America (the "Confederacy"), after Abraham Lincoln was elected president with no ballots from ten Southern states where slavery was legal. A dispute over states' rights has arisen involving enslaved African people who were the source of manual labor on cotton plantations throughout the South.
It is April 1861 at the "Tara" plantation, owned by Gerald O'Hara, a lucky Irish immigrant, and his wife, Ellen Robillard O’Hara, who is from a coastal aristocratic family of French descent. Their 16-year-old daughter, Scarlett, is not beautiful, but men seldom realized it once they were caught up in her charm. It was the day before the men were called to war, Fort Sumter having been fired on two days earlier.
There are brief but vivid descriptions of the South as it began and grew, with backgrounds of the main characters: the stylish and highbrow French, the gentlemanly English, the forced-to-flee and looked-down-upon Irish. Scarlett learns that one of her many beaux, Ashley Wilkes, will soon be engaged to his cousin, Melanie Hamilton. She is heart-stricken. The next day at the Wilkeses' barbecue at Twelve Oaks, Scarlett tells Ashley she loves him, and he admits he cares for her. However, he knows he would not be happy married to her because of their personality differences. She loses her temper at him, and he silently takes it.
Rhett Butler, who has a reputation as a rogue, had been alone in the library when Ashley and Scarlett entered and felt it wiser to stay unseen during the argument. Rhett applauds Scarlett for the "unladylike" spirit she displayed with Ashley. Infuriated and humiliated, she tells Rhett, "You aren't fit to wipe his boots!"
After rejoining the other party guests, she learns that war has been declared and the men are going to enlist. Seeking revenge for being jilted by Ashley, Scarlett accepts a marriage proposal from Melanie's brother, Charles Hamilton. They marry two weeks later. Charles dies of pneumonia following the measles two months after the war begins. A young widow, she gives birth to her first child, Wade Hampton Hamilton, named after his father's general. She is bound by tradition to wear black and avoid conversation with young men. Scarlett is saddened by these restrictions, as her happy, carefree life is over.
Aunt Pittypat is living with Melanie in Atlanta and invites Scarlett to stay with them. In Atlanta, Scarlett's spirits revive, and she is busy with hospital work and sewing circles for the Confederate army. Scarlett encounters Rhett Butler again at a benefit dance for the Confederacy, and he is dressed like a dandy. Although Rhett believes the war is a lost cause, he is blockade running for the profit. The men must bid for a dance with a lady, and Rhett bids "one hundred fifty dollars-in gold" for a dance with Scarlett. They waltz to the tune of "When This Cruel War is Over", and Scarlett sings the words:
Dearest one! do you remember, When we first did meet? When you told me how you loved me, Kneeling at my feet? Oh! how proud you stood before me In your suit of grey, When you vow’d to me and country, Ne’er to go astray. Weeping, sad and lonely, Sighs and tears how vain, When this cruel war is over, Praying then to meet again!
Everyone at the dance is shocked that Rhett would bid for Scarlett, the widow still dressed in black. Melanie comes to Scarlett's defense because she is supporting the cause for which Melanie's husband, Ashley, is fighting.
At Christmas (1863), Ashley is granted a furlough from the army. Melanie becomes pregnant with their first child.
The war is going badly for the Confederacy. Atlanta is besieged from three sides (September 1864). The city becomes desperate and hundreds of wounded Confederate soldiers pour in. Melanie goes into labor with only the inexperienced Scarlett to assist, as all the doctors are attending the soldiers. Prissy, a young slave, cries out in despair and fear, "De Yankees is comin!" In the chaos, Scarlett, left to fend for herself, cries for the comfort and safety of her mother and Tara. The tattered Confederate States Army sets flame to Atlanta and abandons it to the Union Army.
Melanie gives birth to a boy, Beau, and now they must scurry for refuge. Scarlett tells Prissy to go find Rhett, but Prissy is afraid to "go runnin' roun' in de dahk". Scarlett says, "Haven't you any gumption?" Prissy then finds Rhett, and Scarlett begs him to take herself, Wade, Melanie, Beau, and Prissy to Tara. Rhett laughs at the idea but steals an emaciated horse and a small wagon, and they follow the retreating army out of Atlanta.
Part way to Tara, Rhett has a change of heart and abandons Scarlett to enlist in the army (he later recounts that when they learned he had attended West Point, they put him in the artillery, which may have saved his life). Scarlett mhe makes her way to Tara, where she is welcomed on the steps by her father, Gerald. Things have drastically changed: Scarlett's mother is dead, her father has lost his mind with grief, her sisters are sick with typhoid fever, the field slaves left after Emancipation, the Yankees have burned all the cotton, and there is no food in the house. Scarlett avows that she and her family will survive and never be hungry again.
The long tiring struggle for post-war survival begins that has Scarlett working in the fields. There are hungry people to feed and little food. There is the ever-present threat of the Yankees who steal and burn, and at one point, Scarlett pulls Charles's pistol out from her thigh and kills a Yankee marauder with a single shot leaving "a bloody pit where the nose had been."
A long succession of Confederate soldiers returning home stop at Tara to find food and rest. Two men stay on, invalid Cracker Will Benteen, and Ashley Wilkes, whose spirit is broken.
Life at Tara slowly begins to recover when new taxes are levied on Tara. Scarlett knows only one man with enough money to help her: Rhett Butler. She looks for him in Atlanta only to learn he is in jail. Leaving the jailhouse, she runs into Frank Kennedy, who runs a store in Atlanta and is betrothed to Scarlett's sister, Suellen, and. Realizing Frank also has money, Scarlett hatches a plot and tells Frank that Suellen will not marry him. Frank succumbs to Scarlett's charms and he marries her two weeks later knowing he has done "something romantic and exciting for the first time in his life." Always wanting her to be happy and radiant, Frank gives Scarlett the money to pay the taxes.
While Frank has a cold and is pampered by Aunt Pittypat, Scarlett goes over the accounts at Frank's store and finds that many owe him money. Scarlett is now terrified about the taxes and decides money, a lot of it, is needed. She takes control of the store, and her business practices leave many Atlantans resentful of her. With a loan from Rhett she buys a sawmill and runs it herself, all scandalous conduct. To Frank's relief, Scarlett learns she is pregnant, which curtails her "unladylike" activities for a while. She convinces Ashley to come to Atlanta and manages the mill, all the while still in love with him. At Melanie's urging, Ashley takes the job. Melanie becomes the center of Atlanta society, and Scarlett gives birth to Ella Lorena. "Ella for her grandmother Ellen, and Lorena because it was the most fashionable name of the day for girls."
Georgia is under martial law, and life has taken on a new and more frightening tone. For protection, Scarlett keeps Frank's pistol tucked in the upholstery of the buggy. Her trips alone to and from the mill take her past a shantytown where criminal elements live. While on her way home one evening, she is accosted by two men who try to rob her, but she escapes with the help of Big Sam, the former Negro foreman from Tara. Attempting to avenge his wife, Frank and the Ku Klux Klan raid the shantytown whereupon Frank is shot dead. Scarlett is a widow again.
To keep the raiders from being arrested, Rhett puts on a charade. He walks into the Wilkeses' home with Hugh Elsing and Ashley, singing and pretending to be drunk. Yankee officers outside question Rhett, and he says he and the other men had been at Belle Watling's brothel that evening, a story Belle later confirms to the officers. The men are indebted to Rhett, and his Scallawag reputation among them improves a notch, but the men's wives, except Melanie, are livid at owing their husbands' lives to Belle Watling.
Frank Kennedy lies in a casket in the quiet stillness of the parlor in Aunt Pittypat's home. Scarlett is remorseful. She is swigging brandy from Aunt Pitty's swoon bottle when Rhett comes to call. She tells him tearfully, "I'm afraid I'll die and go to hell." He says, "Maybe there isn't a hell." Before she can cry any further, he asks her to marry him, saying, "I always intended having you, one way or another." She says she doesn't love him and doesn't want to be married again. However, he kisses her passionately, and in the heat of the moment she agrees to marry him. One year later, Scarlett and Rhett announce their engagement, which becomes the talk of the town.
Mr. and Mrs. Butler honeymoon in New Orleans, spending lavishly. Upon returning to Atlanta, they stay in the bridal suite at the National Hotel while their new home on Peachtree Street is being built. Scarlett chooses a modern Swiss chalet style home like the one she saw in Harper's Weekly, with red wallpaper, thick red carpet, and black walnut furniture. Rhett describes it as an "architectural horror". Shortly after they move into their new home, the sardonic jabs between them turn into full-blown quarrels. Scarlett wonders why Rhett married her. Then "with real hate in her eyes", she tells Rhett she will have a baby, which she does not want.
Wade is seven years old in 1869 when his half-sister, Eugenie Victoria, named after two queens, is born. She has blue eyes like Gerald O'Hara, and Melanie nicknames her, "Bonnie Blue," in reference to the Bonnie Blue Flag of the Confederacy.
When Scarlett is feeling well again, she makes a trip to the mill and talks to Ashley, who is alone in the office. In their conversation, she comes away believing Ashley still loves her and is jealous of her intimate relations with Rhett, which excites her. She returns home and tells Rhett she does not want more children. From then on, they sleep separately, and when Bonnie is two years old, she sleeps in a little bed beside Rhett (with the light on all night because she is afraid of the dark). Rhett turns his attention toward Bonnie, dotes on her, spoils her, and worries about her reputation when she is older.
Melanie is giving a surprise birthday party for Ashley. Scarlett goes to the mill to keep Ashley there until party time, a rare opportunity for her to see him alone. When she sees him, she feels "sixteen again, a little breathless and excited." Ashley tells her how pretty she looks, and they reminisce about the days when they were young and talk about their lives now. Suddenly Scarlett's eyes fill with tears, and Ashley holds her head against his chest. Ashley sees his sister, India Wilkes, standing in the doorway. Before the party has even begun, a rumor of an affair between Ashley and Scarlett spreads, and Rhett and Melanie hear it. Melanie refuses to accept any criticism of her sister-in-law, and India Wilkes is banished from the Wilkeses' home for it, causing a rift in the family.
Rhett, more drunk than Scarlett has ever seen him, returns home from the party long after Scarlett. His eyes are bloodshot, and his mood is dark and violent. He enjoins Scarlett to drink with him. Not wanting him to know she is fearful of him, she throws back a drink and gets up from her chair to go back to her bedroom. He stops her and pins her shoulders to the wall. She tells him he is jealous of Ashley, and Rhett accuses her of "crying for the moon" over Ashley. He tells her they could have been happy together saying, "for I loved you and I know you." He then takes her in his arms and carries her up the stairs to her bedroom, where passion envelops them.
Next morning Rhett leaves for Charleston and New Orleans with Bonnie. Scarlett finds herself missing him, but she is still unsure if Rhett loves her, having said it while drunk. She learns she is pregnant with her fourth child.
When Rhett returns, Scarlett waits for him at the top of the stairs. She wonders if Rhett will kiss her, but to her irritation, he does not. He says she looks pale. She says it's because she is pregnant. He sarcastically asks if the father is Ashley. She calls Rhett a cad and tells him no woman would want his baby. He says, "Cheer up, maybe you'll have a miscarriage." She lunges at him, but he dodges, and she tumbles backwards down the stairs. She is seriously ill for the first time in her life, having lost her child and broken her ribs. Rhett is remorseful, believing he has killed her. Sobbing and drunk, he buries his head in Melanie's lap and confesses he had been a jealous cad.
Scarlett, who is thin and pale, goes to Tara, taking Wade and Ella with her, to regain her strength and vitality from "the green cotton fields of home." When she returns healthy to Atlanta, she sells the mills to Ashley. She finds Rhett's attitude has noticeably changed. He is sober, kinder, polite -- and seemingly disinterested. Though she misses the old Rhett at times, Scarlett is content to leave well enough alone.
Bonnie is four years old in 1873. Spirited and willful, she has her father wrapped around her finger and giving into her every demand. Even Scarlett is jealous of the attention Bonnie gets. Rhett rides his horse around town with Bonnie in front of him, but Mammy insists it is not fitting for a girl to ride a horse with her dress flying up. Rhett heeds her words and buys Bonnie a Shetland pony, whom she names "Mr. Butler," and teaches her to ride sidesaddle. Then Rhett pays a boy named Wash twenty-five cents to teach Mr. Butler to jump over wood bars. When Mr. Butler is able to get his fat legs over a one-foot bar, Rhett puts Bonnie on the pony, and soon Mr. Butler is leaping bars and Aunt Melly's rose bushes.
Wearing her blue velvet riding habit with a red feather in her black hat, Bonnie pleads with her father to raise the bar to one and a half feet. He gives in, warning her not to come crying if she falls. Bonnie yells to her mother, "Watch me take this one!" The pony gallops towards the wood bar, but trips over it. Bonnie breaks her neck in the fall, killing her.
In the dark days and months following Bonnie's death, Rhett is often drunk and disheveled, while Scarlett, though deeply grieved also, seems to hold up under the strain. With the untimely death of Melanie Wilkes a short time later, Rhett decides he only wants the calm dignity of the genial South he once knew in his youth and leaves Atlanta to find it. Meanwhile, Scarlett dreams of love that has eluded her for so long. However, she still has Tara and knows she can win Rhett back, because "tomorrow is another day."