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What is Gone with the Wind?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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Gone with the Wind is a 1936 novel penned by American writer Margaret Mitchell, which introduced the character of Scarlett O’Hara, a rather selfish, stubborn and not entirely likeable character to the world. The novel quickly became a best seller, and is now by many accounts one of the most popular and bestselling books in the world. Though set during the Civil War and Reconstruction of the Deep South, Gone with the Wind is not simply a historical canvassing of what occurred, but also a romance, a character study, and a clearly Southern viewpoint take on the Confederacy, slavery, and Reconstruction.

Popularity of the book was so high, demand equally existed for a movie version of Gone with the Wind. Most readers and film critics were immensely satisfied with the 1939 Oscar winning adaptation of the film. It too remains a classic among films, and is very popular.

In broad strokes, the book follows the character Scarlett O’Hara, the daughter of a wealthy Southern landowner, Gerald O’Hara, as she endures the Civil War and the Reconstruction of the South that followed. Scarlett nurses a passion for her neighbor Ashley Wilkes, who marries his cousin Melanie. In retaliation, Scarlett marries Melanie’s brother Charles, who dies before he even sees combat in the war. Scarlett is thus widowed with a baby on the way, and moves in with Melanie, doing her best to conceal her hatred and jealousy of Melanie’s sweet and pure character.

While Ashley is on leave, he clearly shows he’s not without feeling for Scarlett, which in effect keeps Scarlett longing for Ashley throughout most of the novel. Despite cherishing these feelings, she remarries after the war, stealing her sister Suellen’s long time beau, Frank Kennedy, and when he is killed, she marries Rhett Butler, a dashing and not too respectable former blockade-runner who has flirted with Scarlett and propositioned her numerous times throughout the novel. Their relationship is stormy and in many ways they are extremely well suited for each other. Scarlett fails to realize her love for Rhett until after Melanie’s death, and Rhett leaves her at the end of the book, with Scarlett finally more self aware and less selfish than she has ever been.

Gone with the Wind is not, as mentioned, just a romance. The life and loves of Scarlett O’Hara are contrasted against the backdrop of the Civil War as it rages in the South. Mitchell describes the privation, the starvation, and the subsequent violation of most rights of southerners through Reconstructive efforts. Scarlett is no fan of the war. She finds it inconvenient, and she hates her duties of nursing men. She does, however, shoulder her burdens well, and when returning to her home, Tara, she manages to provide food for her sisters, Melanie, the remaining former slaves, and her ailing father. As irritating as Scarlet can be, her willingness to shoulder her burdens and scramble to keep her family alive has to be somewhat admirable, even if her methods are sometimes despicable.

There are some problems with Gone with the Wind, which the reader will no doubt find immediately. Mitchell fuels her narration of the events with a distinctly prejudicial perspective. She defends slavery as an admirable system, argues for the importance of the Ku Klux Klan, and used the "N" word on several occasions. The book definitely shows some respect for black people, but only in so much as they are the caretakers of whites. More apt is Mitchell’s description of Reconstruction, which most historians would argue is a fairly balanced viewpoint of the atrocities and inherent unfairness of the treatment of Southerners after the war. There’s some accuracy hidden underneath a veil of consistent prejudice, which may not make Gone with the Wind any less palatable to modern readers.

Despite significant racism and defense of slavery, Gone with the Wind has long been a bestseller, and it may be difficult to account for this. Perhaps a reasonable explanation is that the novel works best as a character drama, and that the character of Scarlett is fairly unique in being complex, and a blend of likeability and detestability. She certainly has her predecessors in fictional characters like Moll Flanders and Becky Sharp, and Mitchell’s consistency in exposing Scarlett’s flaws works to create a character of considerable depth: an anti-heroine in many respects.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon191488 — On Jun 28, 2011

After reading this piece, I was left wondering if the writer had actually read "Gone With The Wind."

When Margaret Mitchell began writing her epic story, she interviewed persons who had lived through the events she described. She describes them from the point of view of the people who made the history. Where in the novel does Miss Mitchell endorse slavery? She documents the aftermath of emancipation, to be sure. Nor does she advocate for the Ku Klux Klan. She simply gives an account of the events and circumstances which played roles in the formation of such an organization.

GWTW endures because it is first-rate storytelling. The characters are three-dimensional and cause one to care about what happens to them. They endure because they have life. If you want a true-to-history account of radical Reconstruction, read "Gone With The Wind". After finishing the novel, I pondered for a very long time what relations between blacks and whites might have been had Reconstruction been less radical. Perhaps a reading of GWTW may help one understand why the south bears the scars of those tragic days still.

By anon191384 — On Jun 28, 2011

It's easy to call "Gone With the Wind" racist, but applying the moral views of 21st century America to the society of the 1860s is not the best way to analyze this book.

Reading between the lines of the book, an astute reader will pick up on the fact that often, the slaves are the smartest people in the book. Certainly, Mammy has more common sense than most people. She knows Scarlett through and through, and refuses to pander to her. Prissy isn't a bit more ditzy than the "empty-headed Cathleen Calvert." One is just of a higher social standing than the other.

In the 1860s, people on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line used the "N" word regularly, and it wasn't considered a bit more polite then than it is now. It was used between friends, among men and boys, and not in front of women or children. Saying it might get one's mouth washed out with soap. It wasn't the pejorative it is today, but it was certainly considered crude and impolite.

Mitchell does not argue for the importance of the KKK, but rather for the regrettable necessity. The South was under martial law and people who were supposed to be U.S. citizens were not given their rights under the Constitution. Violence against Southern women was rampant and the federal law enforcement might or might not do anything about it. It certainly does not excuse the formation of the KKK, but does go a long way towards explaining it, as does the imposition of Radical Reconstruction on the South. Disenfranchisement does ugly things to people, and ugly organizations like the KKK often come out of it. So do ugly laws like Jim Crow. In fact, the horrors that prompted the Civil Rights Movement can be traced right back to Radical Reconstruction and its effect on the South. Because Mitchell so unflinchingly faced these issues, U.S. history is more accurate for it.

I think the novel has retained its popularity largely because it is good storytelling. Mitchell draws her characters in vivid colors and forces the reader to become involved with them. Sometimes Scarlett's behavior is infuriating, but the reader has to agree with those others in the novel, especially Melanie, who admire her for her zest for life and her absolute refusal to stay down for long. She is a survivor and people admire survivors.

People also admire lovable rogues, and no rogue is more lovable than Rhett Butler. He is the ultimate man's man, the openly sensual, sinfully sexy, polished, unrepentant bad boy. He's an alpha male with style and grace and almost every woman, whether she wants to admit it or not, would love to have a fling with Rhett Butler. He's "mad, bad and dangerous to know," and it's that thrill of danger that makes him so attractive.

Who doesn't want a friend as loyal as Melanie, who saw a great deal she probably never wanted to see, but chose to love Scarlett anyway?

The enduring appeal of "Gone With the Wind" is that, for all its 1,037 pages, it doesn't read like such a tome. It moves quickly and keeps the reader turning pages until the very end. A classic novel is a classic because it has those qualities.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor,...
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