Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell has been hailed as a triumph of American Literature for its all-encompassing portrayal of the Old South, Reconstruction and American Civil War in spite of its romantisization of the Old South and apparent racism. The charm about this 1000-page novel is that though the end is tragic, there is hope and determination for a new better tomorrow - something that the women of 1930's needed very much after the Great Depression. This novel with its strong female characters like Scarlett and Melanie might have been a positive influence on these women, who perhaps gained strength and inspiration from these characters in the story.
Edward Wagnknat, in his essay "Novelists of the Thirties", commented on its popularity writing:
"...many people found themselves fighting as bitter a battle as Scarlett O'Hara herself. It was exhilarating to watch Scarlett fight and win, even if she did not always employ the most genteel means, at least she doesn't lie down and die". (TCLC, 325)
The novel has something for everyone. It deals with Civilization, Class, Culture, Race, Money, Love, Politics, Reconstruction, Power, War and most importantly survival. "Survival" according to Mitchell is what this novel is about. The audience of that time could very well identify it.
Most of all, what makes this novel unforgettable is the heroine - a woman named Scarlett O'Hara - a woman of great strength who overcomes all tremendous odds to prove what determination and courage can achieve. Scarlett is perhaps the most hated and the most loved character of American literature. People love and admire her cause she is strong-willed, courageous and determined. But she is also vain, self-absorbed and flirtatious which makes her an unlikely heroine. Her character makes us uncomfortable because she exposes the truth about gender and sex both referenced and violated in the novel while representing the transformation of values during an era of social and economic change. She is a rebellious outcast who will do anything to emerge victorious. She has a knack of seeing reality of things and making decisions she will follow till the end.
The character of Scarlett is multi-dimensional. Through her monologues; dialogues; and, through the narration and description by the author, we very quickly gain a sense of her history, her story, emotions and motivations. We also get to view human nature through a different perspective. The book begins with Scarlett portraying a very lively image of a Southern belle in public flirting with the gentlemen of the neighborhood and using 'Fidel-Dee-Dee' whenever men start to talk about war. In private she dislikes to act silly at times demonstrated by the lines she says to Mammy:
'why does a girl have to be so silly to catch her husband?'(Mitchell, 80)
Till here Scarlett appears like a child desperately wanting attention. She steals Honey Wilkes Beaux Charles Hamilton just to spite Ashley, who she thinks loves, but marries his cousin Melanie Hamilton, Charles' sister. She is vengeful and self-centered but that is not all that she is. Other facets of her character come out only after the war starts.
The reason why Scarlett is such a memorable character is perhaps because she is the most real character in the story. She denies reality at times or at least puts off thinking about it till she is not in an emotional turmoil and can think rationally. Scarlett lives life rationally and scarcely cares for others opinions.
She single-handedly drives a broken carriage with an injured horse carrying Melanie, her son Wade, Melanie's child and Prissy to leave Atlanta and travel to Tara. As soon as she realizes that her mother has died and her father has gone crazy she takes up the responsibility of her family, Melanie and Tara, her plantation, which the Yankees have destroyed. She works in the fields of Tara herself like a slave to ensure good harvest of cotton. One of the most memorable scenes of the novel is when she goes to Twelve Oaks and finds that both the plantation and the crops have been destroyed. She digs radishes in the slave's garden and here she makes a promise to herself:
'As god is my witness, as god is my witness, The Yankees aren't going to like me. I'm going through this, and when its over, I am never going to be hungry again. No, nor my folks. If I have to steal or kill- as god is my witness I'm never going to be hungry again.' (page 419)
This is the moment where she gives up all her southern belle gentility and perseveres towards financial security using whatever means to become a wealthy and a successful businesswoman. It seems that war and poverty affected her deeply as stated in the book where she yet gets nightmares of the past.
She is an anti-heroine at its best. She is not perfect but is a product of her times. She is portrayed as a woman who ignores the rules by the society, manipulates love of her loved ones and uses it for her own benefit, dominates and seduces men, harbors love for her friend and sister-in-law Melanie's husband Ashley. These factors condemn her in the eyes of the Old South society. She marries a man she does not love in order to get the money to save Tara, the man being her sister Suellen's beaux. She kills a Yankee who has come to steal from her and Tara, and then with Melanie's help she loots and buries him. Indeed she is "glad with a cook tigerish joy" whenshe shoots the man (431). She socializes with the Northerners in power to further her business even though the old society does not approve of it and she personally hates them. She offers to prostitute herself to Rhett for taxes. She becomes self-reliant, business-savvy and even ruthless, traits that were shocking to her society that emphasized female timidity. These events prove her to be a complete opposite of the traditional feminine heroines.
Scarlett portrays modern values like career success, self-expression and especially independence contradicting domesticity, self-denial and dependence the ideals of feminity. She like her husband Rhett also symbolizes the 'masculine' rather than the 'feminine' like Melanie and Ashley. She talks and acts like a man, taking over Tara; supporting Ashley and his family, managing the mill more effectively than her second husband Frank who she refers to as 'old maid in britches' and also refuses to have any children after Bonnie. She becomes a social pariah of the southern society because of her 'unwomanly' behavior and unscrupulous business practices. And it's not only because she owns a business. Mrs. Merriwether an upstanding matron and friend of Aunt Pittypat is not as condemned as Scarlett because as Rhett suggests she is less successful and does not appear to enjoy working. Besides that, men in her family help her in the business and the business itself revolves around the traditional feminine ability of pie making and baking.
The pre-war South where Scarlett lived was a place of strict gender division. In such times Scarlett comes forward as a feminist heroine because of her optimism, intelligence and bitter determination and also because of her survival through the Civil war and Reconstruction relying on no one but herself.
As Earl Bargainnier in his biography of Mitchell put it:
'Melanie may die, Ashley may be a lost soul, Rhett may leave, but Scarlett and Tara endure'. (Dictionary of Literary Biography, 225)
Scarlett is shown as a woman with gumption who does what she must do when she must do. She is courageous doing what she thinks is right no matter what the cost.
She possesses more of her Irish father Gerald's no-nonsense attitude, stubbornness and determination rather than her lady-like mother's refined southern manners and gentility. She longs to be a 'great lady' like her aristocratic mother Ellen. This may be one of the reasons she clings on to her infatuation for her sister-in-law Melanie's husband and her friend Ashley Wilkes. She goes after him because he is a proper honorable gentleman and she wants to be a lady while she does not accept her feelings for Rhett as according to her he is 'no gentleman'. (131) Scarlett's weakest flaw is her inability to decipher feelings. She is so self-absorbed that she hardly understands her feelings or others. She falls in love with Ashley because he is what she should fall in love with. She never truly understands how ill-suited they are. Scarlett never really gets over her feelings for him till the end of the book where she realizes she never really loved him but rather loved the idea of loving him. She fails to notice what a perfect match she and Rhett Butler make until it is too late. She loses Rhett because she cannot see the intense love between them and when she does Rhett is done loving and waiting for her to grow up.
Gone With The Wind it seems is not only about love and survival but also a story of growing up. Some may say Scarlett loses Rhett also because of her inability and unwillingness to do more than pretend the role of a submissive wife. Rhett wants complete surrender while Scarlett being Scarlett wants independence. Rhett was bound to leave sooner or later. Scarlett is also blind to Melanie's true nature throughout the novel passing her off as a frail and timid woman never really realizing how much she has come to rely on her until she is dying.
Scarlett like Rhett Butler serves as a symbol of both the old and the new south. She holds on to Ashley who symbolizes the Old south, an idealized lost world of manners and chivalry. She also unlike Melanie and Ashley learns to adapt wonderfully to the harsh and opportunistic world of new south ultimately falling for Rhett Butler symbolizing the coexistence of the Old South and the New South. In fact some might even say that Scarlett belonged to that age as her ruthless and "calculating" character matches the changing times. Her growth from a young simpering belle to the astute business woman she had become shows the growth of the antebellum south from a land of slavery and chivalry to the opportunistic new south. Ashley in Chapter XXXI says to Scarlett that "The people who have brains and courage come through and the ones who haven't are winnowed out." (513)
Scarlett indeed falls under the category of the ones with brains and courage.
Scarlett is not the only strong female character in the novel. Melanie Wilkes her sister-in-law is equally strong but in her own quite gentile feminine way. She faces reality coolly and stands by Scarlett in every crisis that the war and reconstruction brings. Only Melanie defends prostitute Belle against other women's disdain and rejection. She helps Scarlett loot and bury the body of the Yankee soldier Scarlett has killed. She facilitates the restoration of Atlanta. Melanie becomes a social pillar of Atlanta, known for her charity and kindness after the war and reconstruction. She protects Scarlett from the condemnation of the society's eyes. She also protects Ashley from the future he is not ready to face. She saves Scarlett's reputation by graciously asking her to co-hostess Ashley's birthday party that night. Scarlett never really understands till Melanie is on her deathbed that it is Melanie's unchanging love, devotion and support that acts a source of her strength.
Melanie acts as a perfect foil to Scarlett's character. While the society criticizes Scarlett for being "fast" (104), "unwomanly" (821), "immodest" (821), "common and vile" (822), and Melanie is, according to the society, a "great lady" (660). Melanie is stereotypically 'feminine'. She is kind, gentle and thinks well about everyone. As Mitchell puts it
'Melanie had the face of a sheltered child who had never known anything but simplicity or kindness, truth and love, a child who had never looked upon harshness or evil and would not recognize them if she saw them. Because she had always been happy, she wanted everyone about her to be happy or, at least, pleased with themselves. To this end, she always saw the best in everyone and remarked kindly upon it. There was no servant so stupid that she did not find some redeeming trait of loyalty and kind-heartedness, no girl so ugly and disagreeable that she could not discover grace of form or nobility of character in her, and no man so worthless or so boring that she did not view him in the light of his possibilities rather than his actualities.' (154)
Even her death portrays feminity as she dies because of childbirth that in those times that was equivalent to dying as a soldier in the war. Melanie all through the novel is an image of inner grace and beauty.
One of the notable ironies of the story is Melanie's insistence on the goodness and bravery of Scarlett's heart while the only reason Scarlett saves Melanie is because of the promise she made to Ashley. Scarlett is mighty jealous of Melanie, as Melanie is everything Scarlett wants. She has the man Scarlett imagines herself in love with. She is what a true lady is like, like her mother Ellen. Seeing her through Scarlett's perspective in the beginning she seems to be too nave and too good to be in real. But as the story progresses we can see the goodness of her character and an inner strength, which despite physical weaknesses only seems to grow. She and Scarlett are very similar in on aspect: practicality.
Unlike Scarlett, Melanie is a two-dimensional character not changing throughout the novel. Always the frail, timid, caring good-natured wife and paragon of southern values and virtues, Melanie like her husband Ashley in a way symbolizes the Old South - the South that is "gone with the wind which had swept though Georgia", destroying and changing everything in its path (389).But while Ashley cowers away from his problems and difficulties she faces them head-on. Even then her charity activities after the war shows that rather than looking forward like Scarlett and Rhett she always looks back: working for such causes as the graves of the war dead and widows and orphans of Confederate soldiers. She like the Old South dies because of its inability to adapt with change and resistance to this change. Ironically she dies after she leaves with Ashley. Mitchell through this tries to point out that Melanie's world, the world that she represents, the Old South, is too weak to survive into another generation without Scarlett, and reliance on Scarlett means accepting what she stands for, the New South, which in turn means accepting self-destruction. Not only here even before when Scarlett delivers Melanie's baby her reliance on Scarlett, a combination of both the Old and the New South, is emphasized.
Melanie is an alter ego of Ellen O'Hara, Scarlett's mother, a woman Scarlett reveres and wants to be like before the war carries away with it all the pretence of being the southern belle and the thin crust of feminity she carries around her. Even after her death Scarlett is always in conflict with herself over what she wants to do and what Ellen would do. Ellen like Melanie is a strong character in her own silent way. She is a highly competent manager at Tara and is highly respected by both the slaves and the employees. Indeed it is her who maintains Tara rather than Gerald.
She is what William R. Taylor's in his "Cavalier and Yankee" declares the "heart and soul" of a plantation.
The character of Ellen unlike Scarlett is two-dimensional. Ellen O'Hara is compassionate, dignified and refined. She is completely feminine. She is a symbol of southern gentility and a Christian lady which symbolically dies with the coming of the Yankees. Ellen dies at a crucial time during the war of typhoid, which she contracts from the "white trash" Slattery's while nursing them through the disease. The death of Ellen is an important factor for the changes in Scarlett. It is after this that Gerald goes crazy and Scarlett takes over the reins of Tara.
There are other strong characters too. Like Grandma Fontaine who does not have a major role though but surely worth admiring. Grandma Fontaine is the head of the Fontaine family, who own a plantation near Tara. She is the one who advises Scarlett over surviving hard times like At Gerald's funeral, she explains to Scarlett the "secret of survival," and how it often hinges on selfish behavior: "When trouble comes, we bow to the inevitable without any mouthing, and we work and we smile and we bide our time. And we play along with lesser folks and we take what we can get from them. And when we're strong enough, we kick the folks whose necks we've climbed over (Mitchell, 710). By exercising willpower, Old Miss Fontaine, who watched Indians scalp her entire family as a child, with sheer determination and courage worked to raise her own family and run a plantation.Belle Walting, the prostitute also plays an important role in the novel. Indeed at times she is more humane and caring than Scarlett like when she saves the members of Ku Klux Klan and also when she gives money to Melanie for the cause. Belle is not even that dissimilar to Scarlett, perhaps even an exaggerated version of Scarlett herself as when it comes down to money none of the two women shy away from using their body to acquire it.
There are weak female characters too. An example of such a character is Aunt Pittypat who faints every time something wrong happens. Or India Wilkes who though has the cunning soul of Scarlett but no other redeeming qualities that Scarlett has. Scarlett's sister suellen too is shown to be cunning. She herself is cunning and even tries to tricks her own father Gerald into signing the Iron-Clad Oath of allegiance to the Yankee government so that they can claim a large sum of money in compensation for damages to Tara as she is tired of poverty.. Ellen, Melanie and Scarlett are all strong female characters.
Is this book a feminist book then? It would be very easy to say yes seeing how Scarlett does stand up against the men in her life. Sadly, it is not so. Two main issues in this book lead us to question the feminism in the book. Firstly, Scarlett may come forward as a feminist heroine but she herself is no feminist. She does not care whether women are treated equal or not, she does not care about women as a group, only about herself and her family. In fact all throughout the book relies on her feminine wiles to get what she wants by flirting with anyone who is male, white and has something she wants. She lies and steals men of other women like Honey's beaux Charles Hamilton, her first husband and her sister Suellen's beaux Frank Kennedy. Not that Suellen did not deserve it. There is also the matter of Scarlett trying to flirt with every man in pants just for the attention, Like the Tarleton brothers, Charles Hamilton and Frank Kennedy. She also tries to repeatedly attempts commit adultery with Ashley Wilkes. Definitely not a feminist material so far. What further confirms this claim is the morning after Rhett rapes her. Indeed she is actually happy the next morning she wakes up after her husband Rhett rapes her the night before and 'giggles foolishly' about the night before (919). She says "no" but actually means "yes" this poses a big question about her characterization and feminism in the minds of the presentist feminists.
The problem with male domination here is that the book equates male dominance as ability and willingness of a man to dominate a woman which in turn increases their attractiveness. This is not the only scene where Rhett tries to dominate Scarlett like where he says "No, I don't think I will kiss you, although you need kissing badly. That's what's wrong with you. You should be kissed and often, by someone who knows how." It is ironic to see that when Rhett dominates his women he is considered positively romantic but when the Yankee scavenger who Scarlett kills or the Stantytown drunks who attack Scarlett try to do the same the whole view changes. Another irony is that the only reason Rhett is drawn to Scarlett is she is strong and indomitable but all he tries to do in the course of their relationship is try to dominate her. Rhett's thirst for dominating Scarlett makes the rape or the ravishing scene much less eventful and much clearer though not any less offensive and disturbing. Rape or ravishment whatever one may call it or whatever reason one may give for it does not change the fact that Scarlett's contentment after the scene renders her as not that much of a feminist after all.
The second point against claiming this book a feminist one is the portrayal of Black women. The book is written about a time when blacks were slaves to the white. It is distressing to see that while the white women like Melanie and Scarlett are shown as intricate iron-willed women the black women are portrayed decidedly one-dimensional. Indeed they are very stereotypical and not fully developed. Though some may argue that characters like Mamie are shown to possess some intelligence but Mamie too is highly stereotypical. The only reason Mamie at times disobeys Scarlett is for Scarlett's own good. She is opinionated when she says "I said I was going to Atlanta with you and going with you I is," she tells Scarlett at one point. Mamie may have a mind of her own and she does not shy away from speaking her mind but that doesn't mean the book is impartial to the black characters and Mitchell relies heavily on stereotyping of such characters. Mamie practically does not have a life other than serving Scarlett and the O'Hara family, her masters. Even after the war and abolition of Slavery she stays with Scarlett. All she does is live life in servitude of her masters and tutor Scarlett in etiquette and manners and answer back to her when she thinks it's for Scarlett's own benefit.
The character of Mamie is not as debasing as character of Prissy though. She is shown to be lazy slave, unintelligent and prone to lying. Like when she lies to Scarlett about knowing midwifery and then Scarlett herself has to bring Melanie's baby to the world. The characterization of black female characters in the novel is downright demeaning. They don't have their own dreams and life outside the life of their masters. They are happy to remain as slaves and are nothing without their masters. Except for the bad ones, they are appallingly loyal to their masters and want their masters to take care of them even after the war. Gone with the Wind in fact supports the Ku Klux Klan and Slavery. It glories a system that was built on the enforced labor of hundreds of thousands of people, supports the Ku Klux Klan as an organization with respectable white man and shows the Freedman's bureau as a corrupt institution of Yankee men. The novel points out on white superiority and black compliancy. How can it be feminist when only half the women the ones that are white are shown as strong and competent while the other half the black women are shown as weak, half-witted and incapable of surviving on their own?
- Bargainnier, Earl F. "Margaret Mitchell." Dictionary of Literary Biography. Volume 9.
- Edwards, Anne.Road to Tara: The Life of Margaret Mitchell. New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1983.
- Mitchell, Margaret. Gone with the wind. Pan Books, 1936.
- Wagenknect, Edward. "Novelists of the Thirties." Twentieth Century Literary Criticism.