Sixteen-year-old Scarlett O’Hara lounges on the front porch of Tara, her father’s plantation in northern Georgia, in the spring of 1861. She flirts with the nineteen-year-old twin brothers Brent and Stuart Tarleton. The boys excitedly discuss the rumors that a war will soon break out between the North and the South. Scarlett changes the subject to the next day’s barbecue and ball at the Twelve Oaks plantation. Brent and Stuart tell her that Ashley Wilkes, the son of the proprietor of Twelve Oaks, will announce his engagement to Melanie Hamilton, his cousin, at the ball. Scarlett, who wants Ashley for herself, tries to act normally but cannot maintain her vivaciousness. The twins leave, baffled by Scarlett’s sudden silence.
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Distressed by the news of Ashley’s engagement, Scarlett hurries to the road to wait for her father, who has gone visiting at Twelve Oaks. Gerald O’Hara rides into view at breakneck speed and jumps a fence. Scarlett teasingly reminds him that he promised her mother, Ellen, not to jump fences, but she vows to keep his reckless behavior a secret. At Scarlett’s probing, Gerald confirms that Ashley plans to marry Melanie. He sharply warns Scarlett that she and Ashley would make a terrible match. Gerald says the Wilkeses are too interested in music and poetry, and though Ashley excels at masculine pursuits like riding and shooting, his heart is not in them. On the porch, Scarlett and her father encounter Ellen, who is rushing out to help baptize Emmie Slattery’s dying newborn. Mammy, an old slave who has been with Ellen since childhood, does not think Ellen should help the unwed Emmie, whose “white trash” family lives adjacent to the O’Hara plantation.
Scarlett thinks about her mother’s gentle grace and good breeding, so different from her own willful and passionate ways. Scarlett inherited her temperament from Gerald, who fled his unremarkable life in Ireland after killing another man in a feud. Gerald won his first slave, Pork, and his plantation in a poker game. Though lacking good breeding, Gerald won over the neighbors’ hearts with his kindness. Ellen, a placid, serious woman from the aristocratic Robillard family of Savannah, agreed to marry Gerald after the death of her first love, her cousin Philippe. She blamed her family for driving Philippe away from Savannah and from her, and out of frustration and revenge she married the low-class Gerald. Scarlett, the oldest and most strong-willed O’Hara daughter, lacks beauty. Still, she has learned ladylike behavior from Ellen and Mammy and has used her charms to become the most-pursued belle in the neighborhood.
That day, Gerald has purchased a slave named Dilcey from Twelve Oaks so that Dilcey can be with Pork, who is her husband. At dinner that night, Dilcey thanks Gerald and offers Prissy, her daughter, to be Scarlett’s personal maid. Ellen returns late from the Slattery’s house. As Ellen leads the nightly prayer, Scarlett concocts a plan to win Ashley from Melanie. She resolves to tell Ashley she loves him at the barbecue. She feels sure that when Ashley knows her true feelings he will elope with her. Scarlett overhears Ellen telling Gerald that Jonas Wilkerson, Tara’s Yankee overseer, must be dismissed. Scarlett realizes that Wilkerson was the father of Emmie Slattery’s dead child.
The first chapters of Gone with the Wind present the pre-Civil War South. The O’Haras and the Wilkeses are upper-class, wealthy, white plantation owners who mix traditional values like chivalry, honor, and propriety with a pioneer-style enthusiasm for drinking, horseback riding, and shooting. Family and money rule the social hierarchy, as we see by the neighbors’ initial hesitancy to accept Gerald O’Hara. Even so, Gerald’s ultimate acceptance by the neighbors shows that a devotion to the South and to its culture—along with a good marriage—can secure respect for a self-made man such as he. The slaves also live in a set social order. House workers outrank field hands and take pride in their higher status. For poor whites like the Slatterys, called “white trash” by wealthy whites and poor slaves alike, survival depends on the charity of rich neighbors. Pride permeates even the lowest rungs of society, however, and the Slatterys refuse to be bought out of their land. The characters also take great pride in the South, and in the weeks before the war this pride swells among the young men who have signed up to fight against the North.
The Southern society of the novel expects men and women to conform to specific gender roles. The narrator notes that the man owns the property but the woman manages it; the man takes credit for managing the property, and the woman then “praise[s] his cleverness.” Owning property gives men rights and power, but they share little of the reward that results from the women’s hard work. Women have all the work and responsibility of running the property, but enjoy only those rights that men deign to grant them. The narrator stresses the absurdity of these gender roles, sarcastically saying, “[t]he man roared like a bull when a splinter was in his finger, and the woman muffled the moans of childbirth, lest she disturb him.” In this society, men expect women to suppress their needs and desires and focus attention on the men. Women are not even allowed to take credit for their own intelligence, bravery, and strength.