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.