In what way does Scarlett represent the Old South and in what way does she represent the New South? How does her transformation reflect the changes the South undergoes during and after the Civil War?
From the beginning of the novel, Scarlett is a mixture of old and new. Her mother, Ellen, comes from an established aristocratic family and her father, Gerald, is a self-made immigrant. Scarlett admires her mother’s refined manners and quiet strength, and she longs to please her, but this desire frequently conflicts with the strong, independent spirit Scarlett has inherited from Gerald. As Scarlett grows and society around her changes, she becomes less refined and more strong-willed.
Before the war, Scarlett obeys nearly all the rules of high-class Southern society, even the ones she finds unnatural. When the war begins, though, Scarlett finds that the social code relaxes, and she begins to indulge her natural instinct to break rules. Additionally, rule-breakers like Rhett become crucial to the South’s survival. Scarlett becomes increasingly heedless of social mores after she returns to manage Tara and the South loses ground in the war. She becomes self-reliant and business-savvy, traits that would be shocking in an Old South woman but that ensure Scarlett’s survival in the New South. During Reconstruction, Scarlett buys a sawmill and socializes with the Northerners in power, thumbing her nose at the rules of the Old South. Scarlett’s journey from prewar belle to scrappy survivor to hardened opportunist parallels the journey of Southern culture before, during, and after the Civil War. After the corrupt period of Reconstruction, Scarlett goes back to Tara to regain her heritage, reclaiming her Old Southern roots but tempering them with new experience. So too does her Southern culture regain control of its political structures and rebuild a society that mixes the old world with the new one.
Compare and contrast Ashley and Rhett. What cultural attitudes or ways of life do they embody?
In some ways, Ashley and Rhett are opposites. Ashley is a blond, gentle dreamer; Rhett is a dark, mocking opportunist. Ashley becomes a Confederate hero in the Civil War; Rhett scorns the war until it is almost over and profits from scarcity in the South. The Southern aristocracy thinks highly of Ashley; everyone—including his own aristocratic family—looks down upon Rhett. Despite their differences, both Ashley and Rhett understand the change occurring in the South and the death of the Old South as they know it. Although Ashley willingly fights in the war and Rhett does not, they both think of the war in precisely the same way. Ashley writes to Melanie that he feels doubts about the Southern cause and the possibility of victory, and Rhett expresses similar views to horrified Southern men before the war begins. Ashley avoids reality, fighting for a cause he knows is lost and then letting Melanie and Scarlett take care of him, while Rhett follows the dictates of his common sense and relies only on himself. Ashley symbolizes the Old South that becomes obsolete after the war, and Rhett symbolizes the New South that rises up from Old Southern roots and adapts to postwar society.
Ashley and Rhett both love Scarlett and lust after her, but both push her away. Ashley chooses Melanie, the better social match, over Scarlett, the woman that fascinates him. Rhett mercilessly teases Scarlett and feigns indifference to her, terrified to reveal his feelings and invite the brutality with which she treats the men who love her. Both Ashley and Rhett are particularly fond of Melanie, who does not obsess them as Scarlett does but who comforts them with her traditional values and her nurturing.
How are slavery and black people depicted in Gone with the Wind? Can the novel be labeled racist?
In Gone with the Wind, Mitchell writes about slavery from the perspective of Southern plantation owners. She depicts house slaves like Mammy and Pork as devoted and loving servants whom the whites treat like family. In the novel, all masters treat all slaves well. Although some admirable characters dislike slavery, Ashley and Frank among them, once the slaves are freed both the characters and the narrator describe blacks as “trashy,” “insolent,” and “creatures of small intelligence.” Slaves and free blacks are often described as animals and compared to monkeys and dogs. All ex-Confederates in Scarlett’s circle belong to the Ku Klux Klan, and both Tony Fontaine and Rhett kill a black man with no feelings of remorse or guilt.
Mitchell paints a historically accurate picture of the brutal treatment of freed slaves, but she provides an extremely unrealistic picture of the way slaves were treated before emancipation. While some white owners treated their slaves well, the rampant abuse of slaves in the South is will documented. The characters’ contempt for freed slaves can be interpreted as a realistic depiction of Civil War–era racism, but the narrator’s racist attitude toward black people cannot be excused so easily. By current standards, the novel is shockingly racist. By the standards of Mitchell’s time, the novel’s portrait of race relations is typical. Mitchell published her novel in the 1930s, when white acceptance of overt racism was not uncommon.
1. Is Scarlett O’Hara a feminist character? Explain why or why not, considering historical context, Scarlett’s character traits, and her relationship with Rhett.
2. What values and lifestyles do Tara and Atlanta represent? How does Scarlett change as a result of her interactions with these two settings?
3. Discuss some of Scarlett’s unscrupulous actions—for instance, her employment of convicts in the mill. How does she justify these actions? How do other characters react to her? Does the narrator judge her, defend her, or remain objective?
4. Discuss class issues in Gone with the Wind. How does Mitchell portray characters who do not belong to the white plantation-owning class? How do the Civil War and Reconstruction change class boundaries?
5. How do Gerald and Ellen influence Scarlett’s character? What traits does she inherit from each?
6. What role does Melanie play in the novel? How and why does her relationship with Scarlett change over time?