Scarlett must adapt quickly to keep pace with the quick changes facing the South. Starvation, the chaos of the war, and the lack of help transform Scarlett from a spoiled coquette into a hardened woman. She stoops to levels she could never have imagined in her old life. Although she adapts, however, Scarlett does not really change. She simply gives free reign to the tendencies once considered shamefully unladylike. In some ways, Scarlett has always had a personality ideally suited to disaster. Her old cunning and selfishness now serve her well, and by developing traits she always possessed she becomes completely self-sufficient and competent. Because Scarlett has never held to the standards of the old times, she has no trouble dropping them now. She is determined to “change with changing ways,” as Old Miss Fontaine puts it. Scarlett and Rhett stand out among the novel’s Southern characters for their chameleon-like ability to adapt to a new set of conventions.
During the hard months at Tara, Melanie becomes mentally stronger, and we start to see her as an alternative heroine to Scarlett. Melanie retains her kind heart, timidity, and physical frailty, but she gains a quiet, fiery determination. She helps Scarlett put out the fire set by the Yankee, and, in one of the novel’s most memorable scenes, tries to defend Tara against the Yankee thief by wielding a sword too heavy for her to lift. Melanie is just as brave as Scarlett, enduring the same hardships and exhibiting the same steely determination to survive, but Melanie’s bravery is untarnished by the selfishness and ruthlessness that drive Scarlett. Melanie’s belief in helping others and in maintaining Southern values motivates her heroic actions. Mitchell suggests that Melanie possesses a more worthy breed of heroism than Scarlett does, but she also suggests that because Melanie lacks Scarlett’s nastiness she will not survive the new order. Like Ashley, Melanie represents the Old South, a South that cannot survive in the post–Civil War era. The weakening of Melanie’s body parallels the weakening of the South. As Melanie becomes sick during pregnancy in Atlanta, Atlanta becomes sick. As Melanie totters around Tara, Atlanta struggles to stay alive. Despite their struggles, however, both Melanie and the South maintain their pride and gentility.
Mitchell’s use of derogatory terms for specific ethnic or socioeconomic groups causes many readers discomfort. Throughout the novel, white characters and black house slaves refers to field hands as “darkies,” “niggers,” and “free-issue trash.” Poor whites are labeled “white trash” and “crackers.” Many of these racist and classist terms, offensive though they may be, were part of the common language of the time period in which the novel is set. Mitchell researched her novel meticulously, and in order to paint a true-to-life picture, she used the idiom of the Old South. However, while historical accuracy can explain some characters’ use of this language, historical accuracy does not compel the house slave Pork to talk of “trashy niggers.” Pork uses this language solely to denounce other black people. Surely a self-hating individual such as Pork could have existed in the Civil War South, but Mitchell fails to depict such an individual’s more numerous counterparts, who hated the torture they suffered at the hands of white oppressors, and who longed to regain their dignity.
The slaves depicted in Gone with the Wind, especially the freed slaves, are stereotypes rather than real people. Historically, some slaves remained loyal to their white owners after the Civil War, but many of them left to find the freedom they had long been denied. Mitchell thus paints an unrealistic picture when she writes that not a single house servant deserts Tara. Mitchell buys in to the white party line of the Civil War era, which held that slaves loved and needed their masters. In this novel slaves profess overwhelming and unrealistic loyalty to white families. For instance, in Chapter XVII, Big Sam digs trenches with pride because he thinks he is helping gentle white people to hide. Mitchell makes Big Sam not only loyal to his slave-owners but also naïve and childish, and therefore in need of white guidance and support. Mitchell also stereotypes slaves as dishonest, having Prissy, for example, lie about having experience delivering babies. Gone with the Wind contains multiple derogatory descriptions of blacks; it perpetuates negative stereotypes rather than investigating the black position in the South at the time of the Civil War.