In Gone With the Wind, how is plantation life portrayed in the film versus how it is portrayed today in the media and other manifestations of popular culture?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

It is important to note that after the publication of Margaret Mitchell's novel, it was praised for its historical accuracy.  Nevertheless, the romantic portrayal of the plantation life as Big Jim and the others stroll to work, singing cheerfully, is unrealistic.  This incident and the overall depiction of the slaves as always contented in their stations is, of course, unrealistic.  On the other hand, that they were treated reasonably well on most plantations, such as there were by the O'Hara's, especially Mrs O'Hara, who tends to the sick, is realistic in many cases.  For, the slaves were valuable property and owners did not want to lose on their investments; in addition, many a wife of the plantation owners possessed a tender heart.  The scathing portrayal of Simon Legree in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin was certainly exceptional, rather than the norm.  It is a matter of historical fact that Ms. Stowe admitted to having "exaggerated" the cruelty of slave owners in order to further the cause of emancipation. Truly, some of the orther attacks, such as the overall romanticized depiction of life on the plantations, are valid, but others are unfounded just as the attack upon Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn have been in which Huck, like Scarlett and Mammy, has a loving parent-child type of relationship between himself and Jim.

Within the household, the slaves were usually treated fairly well. And, white children played with black children, they nursed from their Mammies' milk and were often very close to this mother-figure.  So, the portrayal of the relationship between Mammy and Scarlett holds much verisimilitude.  Certainly, it is a matter of historical fact that in the South as late as the 1950s, children were often very fond of their black maids, for they were the ones who chiefly cared for them lovingly, bathing them, cooking for them, playing with them, and disciplining them.  (Such a relationship is portrayed in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.)

With the birth of the Civil Rights Movement, of course, Gone With the Wind and other works came under attack as racist in its portrayal of blacks.  However, after the burning of Atlanta and emancipation, that the freed slaves, bereft of employment, shelter and nourishment may have, indeed, resorted to stealing and other crimes of desperation as they are depicted in the "tent city" where people fear to go. Sometimes in modern efforts to promote human rights, there is a tendency to deconstruct and derogate all things in the past that were connected to an evil.  (This it seems, is the cause celebre of contemporary America.)  Thus, it is important to remember that the film Gone With the Wind  is primarily a romanticized portrayal of the struggle of people caught in life-changing historical events as the aristocratic way of life of the Old South is destroyed by the Civil War. The characterization of Scarlett O'Hara depicts an indulged young lady who does not find her inner strength until she has to struggle to live; furthermore, some of the things Scarlett does are clearly a stretch of realism.  But, she does overcome adversity, just as others after her have done so. This portrayal of a time in history is not meant to be starkly realistic for a number of reasons, one of which is that in 1939, in the wake of the Great Depression, people came to the movies for escape, not realism. That both the novel and film are a story of encouragement is evident in the ending:

With the spirit of her people who would not know defeat, even when it stared them in the face, she raised her chin. She could get Rhett back. She knew she could....