Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Gone with the Wind is a historical romance that uses Scarlett O’Hara as the symbol for Reconstruction in the South. Like Atlanta, which sheds its image of Southern gentility after the Civil War, Scarlett is allowed to break away from the conventionalities of proper Southern womanhood. The exigencies of war, its devastation and defeat, enable Scarlett to adopt behavior more suited to her energy and character as she struggles to support her family, to restore the plantation Tara to productivity, and later to become a commercially successful businesswoman in Atlanta, operating a general store, a lumberyard, and a mill.

Scarlett is motivated by her need to survive and to care for an extended family, which includes Ashley and Melanie Wilkes, their child, and the loyal family slaves. Only Scarlett has the determination, courage, and practicality—perhaps even the stubbornness—to accept the challenge of survival in the radically changed post-Civil War world. Her second and third marriages, to Frank Kennedy and Rhett Butler, are marriages of expedience, both for commercial gain.

Scarlett lacks both analytical and sensitivity skills, replacing them with her determined will to act. Thus, as she faces death, starvation, rape, exhaustion, loss of her beloved mother, and fear of losing Tara, as she acknowledges the commodification of sex and marriage disguised as romance by her culture and barters her body for tax money, she is forced to face the worst. Yet the novel is also about heroic growth to maturity for Scarlett. As she develops a sense of security about her survival, she begins to develop those qualities of sensitivity and concern for others that complete such maturity.

Intertwined with Scarlett’s story of growth to heroic selfhood is a typical woman’s romance tale. Rhett Butler, who moves in and out of Scarlett’s life, plays the typical scoundrel hero so popular in this kind of fiction. He perceives Scarlett as a brave but naïve woman-child whom he can rescue and indulge after they are married. The romance formula is undermined, however, when Rhett neglects to come to Scarlett’s rescue on several occasions, forcing her to develop the self-confidence and courage that he later rejects. Thus, Scarlett is empowered by the failure of both romantic heroes—Rhett and the ineffectual Ashley. Also at odds with the romance novel formula are Scarlett’s three marriages, all occurring during the time that she is in love with a fourth man whom she no longer desires by the end of the novel. Also, when she finally “comes to realize” her love for Rhett, a central aspect of the formula, he no longer desires her. There is no happy ending or reconciliation of lovers; rather, Rhett walks out the door into a fog of confusion.

Gone with the Wind is also a story about land and agriculture. When she realizes that her mother has died, Scarlett’s need to find comfort and security either on her mother’s or Mammy’s bosom is replaced by the stability and meaning that she finds in the red earth of Tara. It is farming about which Scarlett cares most, although her insistence on keeping Tara and restoring it to some degree of productivity requires her to leave it to marry Frank Kennedy. At the unhappy ending, Scarlett decides to return home to Tara and to its beloved earth in order to restore her sense of hope and of purpose.

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*The South

*The South. Southern region of the United States. Most of the characters of Margaret Mitchell’s novel see the “South” as encompassing the states between the Lower Mississippi River on the west to the Atlantic Ocean on the east, from Tennessee on the north to the Gulf of Mexico and Florida to the south. However, the novel’s central characters—with the exception of Rhett Butler—have a narrower view of the South, which they see as encompassing the region between their part of Georgia, east to Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia. To others, the limited area includes only the Clayton County and Atlanta area.

The novel depicts the South as a great lady who sheds tears of blood on the Civil War battlefields. Her strength endures just as the strength of the Southern women when fighting to hold on to a way of life that is fast sliding away with the loss of each Confederate soldier and the destruction of homes, plantations, and towns. During the Civil War, Union general William T. Sherman—who became famous for his devastating march through Georgia—said that the spirit of the Southern matriarch would have to be broken for the Union to win the war. As the novel progresses, the South slowly relinquishes her gentility and gracefulness to the realities of an unfamiliar, unwelcome, and harsher way of life.


Tara. Elegant plantation of Gerald O’Hara and his family, located in Clayton County, Georgia. Tara symbolizes the way of life and the entire world as perceived by plantation families. Her graceful hospitality, the well-greased joints of farming, entertaining, caring for the sick and elderly, reflect the strength and loving care of the matriarchal society. The functioning of this family within a Celtic society symbolizes the work supervised and completed to conquer the wilderness and create the lavish homes, in which white women rule supreme and their men sit back and bask in the glory of their smiles. Just as the characters feel security within the arms of the matriarch and her “mammy,” Tara itself provides safety and security for all of those who live within its confines.


*Jonesboro. Seat of Clayton Country, immediately southwest of Atlanta. As the home of the central government of Clayton County, this town provides the controlling elements. In the prewar period, it embraces the formation of the Troop, maintains its status as transportation and communication center, and houses county governmental agencies and privately owned commercial businesses. During the war, the railroad creates the impetus for the Union armies to attack and occupy the town. Many beautiful homes are destroyed by fire, looting, and occupation by both Confederate and Union troops. Their headquarters and hospital is the Warren House. Reconstruction creates an unknown world of scalawags, carpetbaggers, Union soldiers, and free blacks, and a general feeling of fear previously unknown to the residents of Clayton County.


*Atlanta. Capital and largest city of Georgia. Established as the cultural, social, commercial, and transportation crossroads, Atlanta symbolizes the genteel Southern matriarch in a comfortable urban setting without the ever-present supervision of a plantation. Before the war, new money and aristocratic hostesses rub elbows for the benefit of the Southern cause. During the war, these same women nurse the wounded in the Atlanta hospitals, care for the graves of both Confederate and Union soldiers in Oakland Cemetery, feed the hungry, and defend their homes before they are forced to evacuate to places they hope will be safer. Postwar Reconstruction brings military law under Union troops, roaming bands of free blacks, and carpetbaggers. The matriarchs who have returned to their homes must protect themselves with both bodyguards and weapons. The establishment of the Ku Klux Klan and nightriders creates fear as well as antagonistic courts and law enforcers. No one wins this war. In attempting to break the spirit of the Southern women, Reconstruction creates an even firmer resolve, not to restore the slave-labor society, but to maintain the family property despite heavily levied taxes and foreclosures.

Butler home

Butler home. House that Rhett Butler builds for Scarlett when they are married after the war ends. The house is gaudy, pretentious, dark, and unfriendly; it symbolizes everything that Scarlett believes she has lost in the war. It may be characterized as a sporting house, built with money from a man for a kept woman who resents being kept. Just as rebuilding other areas of the South supposedly provides a better life for free blacks, more opportunities for “white trash,” and a harder life for the genteel white Southerners, this new house supposedly secures all that Scarlett regards as having been lost at Tara. However, the component all Southerners most need does not appear. Contentment, security, and the loving arms of the matriarch are gone forever.

Aunt Pittypat’s house

Aunt Pittypat’s house. Home of Sara Jane Hamilton on Atlanta’s Peachtree Street. A small house by prewar standards, it provides respite and security for Emily and Wade Hampton and freedom from the rigidity of widowhood for seventeen-year-old Scarlett before the war. During the war, the small but steadfast house feeds and cares for battle-worn soldiers and allows occupants to view the steady trail of soldiers early in the war. Later, the wounded and dead pass by the house on their way to the hospital and cemetery. Like many Southern women who survive the Union siege of Atlanta, this small secure house is gray, tired, worn, and ragged, but unbroken. After the war, it provides security for Aunt Pittypat, her coachman, Uncle Peter, Scarlett, Wade Hampton, and Ella Kennedy, Scarlett’s daughter by Frank Kennedy, her second husband.

Twelve Oaks

Twelve Oaks. Plantation home of the Wilkes family; patterned after the real Lovejoy Plantation near Jonesboro. It is even more graceful than Tara, but the Union army burns it as it sweeps across Georgia. Although battle worn, Twelve Oaks provides a kitchen garden of withered vegetables for the starving residents of Tara after the Yankees plunder and destroy all sources of income and food at the O’Hara plantation.

Fontaine plantation

Fontaine plantation. This yellow-stucco house, home of three generations of strong Southern women, provides moral support and some food for Scarlett and her family.

Tarleton plantation

Tarleton plantation. Largest horse-breeding farm in Georgia. All of its horses and men serve in the “War Against Yankee Aggression.”


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Margaret Mitchell worked steadily on Gone with the Wind for four years, from 1926 to 1929, but it was not published until 1936, receiving a Pulitzer Prize in 1937. It is an antiwar novel that depicts the devastation of war not only as it affects an entire region but also as it specifically affects the land and women’s lives, forcing them into independence, poverty, and/or loneliness.

Like other Southern women writers, Mitchell identifies the Southern lady either with ideal passivity, selflessness, and exquisite moral virtue or with feminine beauty and flirtatiousness, at the same time that her main female character struggles against these limitations to become a person. Issues of women’s work, independence, and need for wholeness, rather than role-playing, are typical issues faced by these writers, including Mitchell.

Mitchell raises two key feminist issues, but she leaves them for her readers to resolve. One occurs when the drunken Rhett carries Scarlett up the stairs to their bedroom. Many feminist critics condemn this as a rape scene which, therefore, may be used to romanticize rape, denying its pain and dehumanization in real life. The second issue revolves around the final scene in which Rhett rejects Scarlett’s newly realized love for him and leaves her. Is Rhett Butler worthy of the person Scarlett is in the process of becoming? Can a strong male hero accept a strong female counterpart? These questions are made more problematic by the popular film version of Gone with the Wind, which came out in 1939. Although the film does a credible job of depicting Scarlett as a survivor in the period during and immediately after the Civil War, it does not allow her the growth that Mitchell has created for her in the novel.

Gone with the Wind also exists within a tradition of women’s rural literature, which includes such novels as So Big (1924), by Edna Ferber; Barren Ground (1925), by Ellen Glasgow; and Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! (1913) and My Ántonia (1918). These novels depict women as intelligent and capable farmers. In Gone with the Wind, Scarlett is primarily a farmer who must leave the farm in order to support it. Like Scarlett, these female farmers value the land that they successfully cultivate. It becomes more than a means to success, but a transcendent force that sustains them spiritually as well as economically.

A problem in Gone with the Wind that is unresolved by Mitchell is a racism inherent in her glorification of antebellum plantation life as an idyllic setting with happy slaves and bountiful land. Furthermore, her portrayals of Mammy, Prissy, and Big Sam all represent stereotypes developed to justify slavery and the plantation system as a benevolent institution. Unfortunately, Mitchell fails to provide any kind of serious critique of a plantation life that is based on slavery, although she readily undercuts many other aspects of Southern life, especially the limitations of women’s lives.

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

The Great Depression and Reconstruction Eras
Although Mitchell's 1936 novel Gone with the Wind focuses on the...

(The entire section is 760 words.)


(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Gone with the Wind opens in 1861 on the O'Hara family's plantation, Tara, a spot of pastoral splendor that Mitchell modeled on an...

(The entire section is 122 words.)

Literary Qualities

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Historical romances have been popular in American literature since the nineteenth century—many of them set in the Civil War era and many of...

(The entire section is 492 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Gone With the Wind deals with the period of the greatest internal conflict the United States has ever endured. Unlike many of its...

(The entire section is 1563 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

1870s: The only proper occupation for women is wife and mother. Only dire financial circumstances force women to work outside the...

(The entire section is 345 words.)

Topics for Discussion

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. Does Melanie make a more suitable wife for Ashley than Scarlett would have?

2. Why does Scarlett marry Melanie's brother,...

(The entire section is 174 words.)

Ideas for Reports and Papers

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. Research the historical accounts of the burning of Atlanta and compare them to Mitchell's account.

2. Research and report on...

(The entire section is 109 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

Research the New Deal programs implemented during the Depression era and compare them to programs initiated in the South during the...

(The entire section is 139 words.)

Techniques / Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Historical romances have been popular since the nineteenth century, many of them set approximately during the Civil War, and this tradition...

(The entire section is 753 words.)

Related Titles / Adaptations

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

The 1939 film version of Gone with the Wind may well be better known than the novel. In the years following the novel's publication,...

(The entire section is 516 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

Athearn, Robert G. American Heritage New Illustrated History of the United States, Volumes 7 & 8. New...

(The entire section is 357 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Edwards, Anne. Road to Tara: The Life of Margaret Mitchell. New Haven, Conn.: Ticknor & Fields, 1983. A biography of Mitchell which describes her as a mixture, like Scarlett, of Southern belle and emancipated woman, both conventional and rebellious.

Egenreither, Ann E. “Scarlett O’Hara: A Paradox in Pantalettes.” In Heroines of Popular Culture, edited by Pat Browne. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1987. Places Scarlett O’Hara in the context of popular culture heroines while describing her resistance to such limits.

Gailliard, Dawson. “Gone with the Wind as Bildungsroman: Or, Why Did Rhett Butler Really Leave Scarlett O’Hara?” Georgia Review 28 (1974): 9-18. Argues that the work is a female maturation novel. Scarlett moves from being a “Southern Lady” to becoming a “New Woman,” but not with impunity, for she loses Rhett. Sees her as a child, and when she grows up, he leaves.

Harwell, Richard, ed. “Gone with the Wind” as Book and Film. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1983. A series of essays from both scholars and the popular press that review the traditions of Southern and Civil War novels, Margaret Mitchell as person and writer, the novel and its characters, and Gone with the Wind as a film event.

Harwell, Richard, ed. Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone with the Wind” Letters, 1936-1949. New York: Macmillan, 1976.

Jones, Anne Goodwyn. Tomorrow Is Another Day: The Woman Writer in the South. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981. Jones describes the influences from Mitchell’s life that forged her sometimes contradictory positions regarding the roles of the traditional Southern man, the ideal Southern woman, the courageous woman, and the rebel.

May, Robert E. “Gone with the Wind as Southern History: A Reappraisal.” Southern Quarterly 17 (1978): 51-64. Asserts that the novel is not really romantic, but rather propaganda that exaggerates the horrors of Reconstruction. Footnotes lead to sources about Gone with the Wind, Southern history, slavery, and the Confederacy.

Pyron, Darden Asbury, ed. Recasting “Gone with the Wind” in American Culture. Miami: University Presses of Florida, 1983. A collection of essays by various authors that explore Gone with the Wind from a critical perspective, as art, and in terms of its historical location.

Pyron, Darden Asbury. Southern Daughter: The Life of Margaret Mitchell. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. Devotes a considerable number of pages to the composition of the novel, including problems, inspirations, and reactions.

Rubin, Louis D., Jr. “Scarlett O’Hara and the Two Quentin Compsons.” In The South and Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha: The Actual and the Apocryphal, edited by Evans Harrington and Ann J. Abadie. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1977. One of the greatest scholars of Southern literature argues that the death of Scarlett’s mother frees her from the rules of the Old South to become an entrepreneur in the New South.

Sweeney, Patricia E. Women in Southern Literature. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1986.

Taylor, Helen. Scarlett’s Women: “Gone with the Wind” and its Female Fans. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1989. A collection of women readers’ responses to survey questions about the novel and Scarlett, reflecting the basis for their constant popularity. Includes analyses of theme, character, biography, politics, and film and literary history.

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

Gone with the Wind was adapted as a film in 1939, produced by David O. Selznick, and released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios. The film...

(The entire section is 33 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

Lay My Burden Down, edited by B. A Botkin (1945), is a collection of interviews with former slaves, recorded and transcribed by the...

(The entire section is 160 words.)

For Further Reference

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Edwards, Anne. The Road to Tara. New Haven and New York: Ticknor and Fields, 1983. This biography stresses Mitchell's personal life...

(The entire section is 182 words.)