Scarlett O’Hara, a Georgia belle. Gently bred on Tara plantation and the wife of Charles Hamilton, she finds herself, through the fortunes of war, a widow and the mistress of a ruined plantation with a family to feed. With an indomitable will to survive and an unquenchable determination to keep Tara, she improves her fortunes with the aid of her own native abilities and opportunistic marriages to Frank Kennedy and Rhett Butler.
Ashley Wilkes, Scarlett O’Hara’s sensitive, sophisticated neighbor, with whom she fancies herself in love. His genteel sensibilities and quiet resignation are a poor match for Scarlett’s practicality and strong will, which she realizes in the end.
Rhett Butler, a cynical, wealthy blockade runner, Scarlett O’Hara’s third husband. Knowing Scarlett for the unscrupulous materialist that she is, he nevertheless admires her will to survive and is plagued with a love for her, which he finally overcomes just as she discovers that it is Rhett and not Ashley Wilkes that she loves.
Charles Hamilton, Scarlett’s first husband, whom she marries for spite.
Frank Kennedy, Scarlett’s second husband, whom she marries for money.
Melanie (Hamilton) Wilkes
Melanie (Hamilton) Wilkes, Ashley Wilkes’s reticent, ladylike wife.
Gerald O’Hara and
Ellen O’Hara, Scarlett’s parents.
Bonnie Blue Butler
Bonnie Blue Butler, the daughter of Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler.
Suellen O’Hara, Scarlett’s sister.
Miss Pittypat, Melanie Wilkes’s aunt.
India Wilkes, Ashley Wilkes’s sister.
Mammy, Scarlett’s nurse.
When Margaret Mitchell began work on her novel in 1926, few people suspected that in just a few years the bottom would fall out of the stock market and the world would be plunged into nearly a decade of economic depression. As it happened, the theme of survival by any means and against any odds spoke directly to a generation struggling to put food on the table and meet mortgage payments. From the novel's opening scene, when Gerald O'Hara explains to his daughter that love of the land is a distinctly Irish trait, to its conclusion, when Scarlett vows to return to Tara, Gone with the Wind suggests that Scarlett draws her strength from the soil.
This theme was a potent one for the audience of the 1930s. America was then far more rural than it is today, and a much larger portion of the population either lived on a farm or had been raised on one. During the Depression, many farmers were unable to pay off their mortgages and banks were forced to foreclose on their land. Those who had lost their farms could well understand Scarlett's attachment to her home and the desperate effort she was willing to expend to save Tara. Scarlett's speech upon her return to Tara, its fields ravaged by Sherman's passing army, has inspired readers with its message of hope, albeit hope tinged with desperation: "As God is my witness, as God is my witness, the Yankees aren't going to lick me .... If I have to steal or kill—as God is my witness, I'm never going to be hungry again."
Katie Scarlett O'Hara, a much-sought-after southern belle in the carefree days before the outbreak of war, fancies herself in love with Ashley Wilkes. When Ashley announces his engagement to his cousin, Melanie Hamilton, Scarlett impetuously decides to marry Melanie's brother Charles. Widowed almost immediately, Scarlett later marries her sister's beau, Frank Kennedy, for financial support, and joins him in...
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his lumber business. Scarlett continues to worship Ashley and to resent the angelic Melanie, but her attention is increasingly occupied by the rakish Rhett Butler. From the moment that Rhett first mentions that the South brings nothing to the war but "cotton, slaves, and arrogance," his realism, bordering on cynicism, makes him unpopular among those southern idealists who cling to visions of past glory. After Kennedy dies in a Ku Klux Klan raid staged to avenge Scarlett, she is free to marry Rhett. His air of superiority and command, combined with his love for Scarlett and their daughter Bonnie, makes him a complex and eternally interesting figure. While focusing on the interplay between Scarlett, Rhett, Ashley, and Melanie, Mitchell imbues others—notably Mammy, Prissy, and Belle Watling—with considerable depth of character.
Through the personalities of its major characters, Gone with the Wind examines the qualities necessary for the preservation of southern culture. Ashley Wilkes, a weak, impractical idealist, symbolizes a doomed generation, while Rhett Butler's cunning provides a possible model for survival. It is Scarlett O'Hara, however, who most effectively speaks for all people who cling to lost dreams while watching their world erode. She is a tragic heroine, unable to relinquish the past but unintimidated by the future. Because she fails to temper her great strength with any recognition of her weaknesses, she must endure test after test until she is broken. For her perseverance and spunk, Scarlett has won the admiration not only of southern readers but of individuals everywhere who share her dream of survival.
The total Gone With the Wind "experience," as one could call it — the combined impact of novel and film on the United States and the world over the past fifty years — has made folk heroes out of the main characters. The love story of Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler, the love of Scarlett for Ashley Wilkes, her resentment toward the noble Melanie, the cynical realism of Rhett, and the determination of Scarlett, are all well known to millions. The single character who has captured the imagination of the readers has been Scarlett, who has been psychoanalyzed and imitated endlessly. Collectible dolls showing her in her barbecue dress from the early scene at Twelve Oaks, movie posters featuring her and Rhett, references to her personality and behavior — all these abound.
Scarlett's personality is usually revealed best in scenes with Rhett, whose refusal to accept her hypocrisies guarantees that they will be brought to the reader's attention. Rhett's realism makes him unpopular with various people throughout the novel, beginning with the moment when he first mentions that the South has nothing with which to go to war but "cotton, slaves, and arrogance," a view which Ashley comes to share. Rhett's realism is probably what is behind his own realization that he needs to return home to his roots at the end of the novel, that he needs them far more than he had ever realized. His air of superiority and command, undercut by his love for Scarlett and especially for their daughter Bonnie, makes him complex and eternally interesting, as does his strong masculine appeal, which is stressed from his earliest introduction.
The minor characters, too, have their place. The character of Mammy was probably solidified in people's minds by Hattie McDaniels's interpretation of her in the 1939 film, as was the character of Prissy, the scatterbrained house servant whom everyone remembers didn't "know nuthin' 'bout birthin' babies," defined once and for all by Butterfly McQueen's portrayal.