Gone with the Wind explores the transformation that occurred in the Southern United States during and after the Civil War. Scarlet O'Hara is the spoiled daughter of a wealthy plantation owner. Her life changes drastically as the war breaks out, reducing her to poverty. With a strong will and commitment to Tara, her family's property, Scarlet is able to pull herself out of adversity. Though she ends up losing her marriage and her pregnancy by the end of the book, she still has her land.
'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.
Slavery in Gone with the Wind is a backdrop to a story that is essentially about other things. Southern plantation fiction (also known as Anti-Tom literature, in reference to reactions to Harriet Beecher Stowe's powerful anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin of 1852) from the mid-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.
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. House servants are the highest "caste" of slaves in Mitchell's caste system. They choose to stay with their masters after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 and subsequent Thirteenth Amendment of 1865 sets them free. Of the servants who stayed at Tara, Scarlett thinks, "There were qualities of loyalty and tirelessness and love in them that no strain could break, no money could buy."
The field slaves make up the lower class in Mitchell's caste system. The field slaves from the Tara plantation and the foreman, Big Sam, are taken away by Confederate soldiers to dig ditches and never return to the plantation. Mitchell wrote that other field slaves were "loyal" and "refused to avail themselves of the new freedom", but the novel has no field slaves who stay on the plantation to work after they have been emancipated.
American William Wells Brown escaped from slavery and published his memoir, or slave narrative, in 1847. He wrote 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.
Although the novel is more than 1,000 pages long, the character of Mammy never considers what her life might be like away from Tara. 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." (No other name for Mammy is noted 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 persisted in Southern literature:
...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".
Micki McElya, in her book Clinging to Mammy , suggests the myth of the faithful slave, in the figure of Mammy, lingered because white Americans wished to live in a world in which African Americans were not angry over the injustice of slavery.
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". 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. Gone with the Wind has become a reference point for subsequent writers about the South, both black and white alike.
The southern belle is an archetype for a young woman of the antebellum American South upper class. The southern belle was believed to be physically attractive but, more importantly, personally charming with sophisticated social skills. She is subject to the correct code of female behavior. The novel's heroine, Scarlett O'Hara, charming though not beautiful, is a classic 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...
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.
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. Her bad belle traits, Scarlett's deceitfulness, shrewdness, manipulation, 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, to make enough money to survive and prosper. Although Scarlett was "born" around 1845, she is portrayed to appeal to modern-day readers for her passionate and independent spirit, determination and obstinate refusal to feel defeated.
Marriage was supposed to be the goal of all southern belles, as women's status was largely determined by that of their husbands. All social and educational pursuits were directed towards it. Despite the Civil War and loss of a generation of eligible men, young ladies were still expected to marry. 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.
The Atlanta Historical Society has produced a number of Gone with the Wind exhibits, among them a 1994 exhibit titled, "Disputed Territories: Gone with the Wind and Southern Myths". The exhibit asked, "Was Scarlett a Lady?", finding that historically most women of the period were not involved in business 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.
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.
In the fall of 1862, Confederate laws were changed to permit women to be employed in hospitals as members of the Confederate Medical Department. 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.
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 .
Ashley Wilkes is stationed on the Rapidan River, Virginia, in the winter of 1863, later captured and sent to a Union prison camp, Rock Island.
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) 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.
The Savannah Campaign was conducted in Georgia during November and December 1864.
Although Abraham Lincoln is mentioned in the novel fourteen times, no reference is made to his assassination on April 14, 1865.
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.
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. Ashley's name signifies paleness. His "pallid skin literalizes the idea of Confederate death."
He contemplates leaving Georgia for New York City. Had he gone North, he would have joined numerous other Confederate carpetbaggers there. Ashley, embittered by war, tells Scarlett he has been "in a state of suspended animation" since the surrender. He feels he is not "shouldering a man's burden" at Tara and believes he is "much less than a man—much less, indeed, than a woman".
A "young girl's dream of the Perfect Knight", Ashley is like a young girl himself. With his "poet's eye", Ashley has a "feminine sensitivity". Scarlett is angered by the "slur of effeminacy flung at Ashley" when her father tells her the Wilkes family was "born queer". (Mitchell's use of the word "queer" is for its sexual connotation because queer, in the 1930s, was associated with homosexuality.) Ashley's effeminacy is associated with his appearance, his lack of forcefulness, and sexual impotency. He rides, plays poker, and drinks like "proper men", but his heart is not in it, Gerald claims. The embodiment of castration, Ashley wears the head of Medusa on his cravat pin.
Scarlett's love interest, Ashley Wilkes, lacks manliness, and her husbands—the "calf-like" Charles Hamilton, and the "old-maid in britches", Frank Kennedy—are unmanly as well. Mitchell is critiquing masculinity in southern society since Reconstruction. Even Rhett Butler, the well-groomed dandy, is effeminate or "gay-coded." Charles, Frank and Ashley represent theimpotence of the post-war white South. Its power and influence has been diminished.
The word "scallawag" is defined as a loafer, a vagabond, or a rogue. Scallawag had a special meaning after the Civil War as an epithet for a white Southerner who accepted and supported Republican reforms. Mitchell defines Scallawags as "Southerners who had turned Republican very profitably." Rhett Butler is accused of being a "damned Scallawag." In addition to scallawags, Mitchell portrays 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.
As a scallawag, Rhett is despised. He is the "dark, mysterious, and slightly malevolent hero loose in the world". Literary scholars have identified elements of Mitchell's first husband, Berrien "Red" Upshaw, in the character of Rhett. Another sees the image of Italian actor Rudolph Valentino, whom Margaret Mitchell interviewed as a young reporter for The Atlanta Journal . Fictional hero Rhett Butler has a "swarthy face, flashing teeth and dark alert eyes". He is a "scamp, blackguard, without scruple or honor."
The most passionate and virile character in the novel is Rhett, with whom Margaret Mitchell associates "dark sexuality" and the "black devil." Mitchell's romantic hero is colored—portrayed in blacks and browns. Rhett's symbolic dark 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 (1921). By portraying Rhett in this manner, Mitchell plays upon racial anxieties and sexual fantasies of the South. Rhett's demons are prostitutes and liquor, as demonstrated by his intimacy with Belle Watling, in whose brothel he often resides, and his bouts of drunkenness. The "black beast rapist" is associated with liquor. 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."
With Rhett's "swarthy face" juxtaposed against Scarlett's "magnolia-white skin," the two white protagonists are a metaphor for an interracial couple. Their romance crosses racial boundaries in a paradox to the usual white man and black or multi-racial woman, upending racial stereotypes.
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. Since the late 20th century, critics have suggested the book was built around rape fantasies. In one interpretation of the scene, the "dandified dangerous lover" carries Scarlett up the stairs into her first encounter with the erotic. In another interpretation, a marital rape occurs.