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On a May morning in 1862,
Scarlett, Prissy, and Wade arrive in Atlanta to visit Melanie and
Aunt Pittypat. Atlanta, a railroad hub, has sprouted army departments,
hospitals, and foundries during the war. At the Hamilton house on
Peachtree Street, Pittypat and Melanie are thrilled to see Scarlett.
Uncle Henry, Pittypat’s brother, talks to Scarlett about Charles’s
fortune, which is now Scarlett’s. The hustle and energy revive Scarlett.
Her only complaint is that she must do volunteer nursing work in
the soldiers’ hospitals, which are full of sweaty, wounded men that
stink of gangrene.
The hospital holds a fundraising bazaar, but as a widow
in mourning Scarlett cannot attend without breaching decorum. Unlike
the other widows, she thinks it unfair that she works like a “field
hand” to prepare for the bazaar but cannot attend. At the last moment, Scarlett
and Melanie are called in to work at a booth. At the bazaar, Scarlett
is shocked by her own lack of patriotism during the speeches about
the glorious Confederate cause. She longs to dance. Rhett Butler,
now a famous blockade-runner for the South, appears and teases her
about her marriage to Charles. Dr. Meade, Atlanta’s foremost citizen,
sends around a collection basket to encourage women to donate their
jewelry. Scarlett donates her hated wedding ring. Melanie mistakes
Scarlett’s action for courage and throws her own wedding ring into
Dr. Meade scandalously proposes that gentlemen must bid
to dance with the lady of their choice in order to raise money for
the hospital. As a widow, Scarlett is strictly forbidden to dance,
but Rhett bids a hundred and fifty dollars in gold on her. To the
shock of the crowd, Scarlett accepts and hurries to the dance floor.
Rhett tells Scarlett that he admires her beauty and spirit and that
he knows the Cause bores her as it bores him. Scarlett pretends
to be angry, but she knows that what he says is true.
The next morning, Atlanta buzzes with gossip about Scarlett’s shocking
behavior. Pittypat says that Rhett is a terrible man, but forgives
him when he sends a gift: Melanie’s wedding ring, which he bought
back. Gerald arrives to confront Rhett and take Scarlett back to
Tara in disgrace. He leaves to talk to Rhett and returns in the middle
of the night, drunk and penniless from playing poker. In the morning,
Scarlett promises to keep his behavior a secret as long as he allows
her to stay in Atlanta. He agrees.
The following week, Scarlett sneaks into Melanie’s room
to read a letter Melanie recently received from Ashley. In it Ashley
discusses his doubts about the war, but Scarlett pays little attention
to his soul-searching questions. She is simply relieved that Ashley
has not written Melanie a love letter. Scarlett puts away the letter,
convinced that Ashley still loves her.
Mitchell divides Gone with the Wind into
sixty-three chapters, dividing those chapters into five parts. Each
new part begins with a shift in Scarlett’s life and in the life
of the South. Chapter VIII, the first chapter of Part Two, marks
the end of Scarlett’s comfortable and privileged life at Tara and
the beginning of her consciousness of the Civil War. Though the
war actually starts in Chapter VII, Scarlett does not move to Atlanta
until Chapter VIII, and it is only in Atlanta that she begins to
feel the reality of the war. Part Two also marks the beginning of
Scarlett’s life as a seventeen-year-old widow. Earlier, back at
Tara, gala parties and masses of admirers surround her. In Atlanta
her social life changes entirely. Although Scarlett knows some people
in Atlanta, she now spends her time with Melanie, Pittypat, and
older married or widowed women.
The Civil War relaxes the stringent rules governing women’s behavior,
however. Because men must go off to war, courtship and marriage
must happen with new speed. The hospitals need volunteers so badly
that even widows like Scarlett find themselves attending to wounded
and sick men and seeing sights previously thought too vulgar for
a woman’s eyes. Even guidelines for widows change slightly. According
to the customs of the Old South, widows must wear black for years
after the death of their husbands, and for them it is unthinkable
to enjoy the company of an unmarried man, much less dance with one.
However, the topsy-turvy atmosphere of war makes such rules mutable,
and thus Scarlett can dance with Rhett in Chapter XII and afterward
still show her face in Atlanta society. In a time of few resources
and overwhelming motivation to support the war effort, people realign
their priorities to give primacy to the war rather than to custom.
Just as Mitchell uses Ashley and Rhett to represent the
Old South and the New South, respectively, she equates Tara with
the Old South and Atlanta with the changing, New South. Tara stands
for a slavery-driven plantation world of leisure and luxury for
the wealthy owners. Atlanta, Gerald tells Scarlett, was born the
same year she was, and like Scarlett it lives through newness and
change. Scarlett’s old way of life cannot survive in this new world.
No longer idle and pampered as she is back at Tara, she spends much
of her time nursing wounded soldiers and rolling bandages for the
war. She even notes that she feels like a slave. In Scarlett’s eyes,
at least, social codes have been turned on their heads when a Southern
belle like herself must work as hard as a field hand. At Tara, Scarlett
tries to adhere to old Southern values. In Atlanta, however, she
begins to defy the rules that society has impressed upon her since
birth. Scarlett has always felt rebellious, but in Atlanta she acts
on her rebelliousness, boldly dancing despite her widowhood. Scarlett
remains nervous about stepping out of line, but Atlanta’s wartime
culture grants her room to express her strong will and follow her
selfish desires—until Atlanta itself changes in Part Three.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Gone with the Wind!