Gender and Social Class Structure
The world presented in Gone with the Wind is one defined by rigid gender and social codes of conduct. Clear rules govern the dress, actions, and speech of ladies and gentlemen, and the punishments for transgressions, especially those of a sexual nature, are severe. When Rhett first appears at the Twelve Oaks party, a scandalous rumor circulates about how he is not "received" in his home town of Charleston because he once stayed out all night with a woman and then refused to marry her, damaging both of their reputations permanently. Rhett is not considered a gentleman, a dangerous state, because, as Scarlett explains, "there was no telling what men would do when they weren't gentlemen. There was no standard to judge them by."
Although Scarlett tries to adhere to the social conventions of gender, she feels as constrained by them as Rhett does. When Rhett asks Scarlett to dance at a war fundraiser, she eagerly accepts, shocking Atlanta society by violating the mourning period required for the death of her husband. Later in the novel, after the war is over, Scarlett feels the training she received from her mother in being a lady is virtually useless to her in such changed and difficult circumstances. She succeeds financially in Atlanta by breaking all the rules, shocking society again when she buys and operates a lumber mill without the help of her husband, Frank Kennedy. Numerous references are made to the fact that this behavior "unsexes" her. Soon, like Rhett, she is not "received" by many families, save Melanie and Ashley's. Ironically, even the town whore, Belle Whathing, condemns Scarlett's "unladylike" behavior.
Mitchell illustrates the social class structure with various characters that represent different levels of society. At the very bottom of the white class structure are the Slatterys, the poor neighboring farmers of the O'Hara family, who own no slaves. Even Mammy looks down on them, calling them "white trash." Next up the ladder are the small farmers like Will Benteen, who own a few slaves and are moderately successful, but certainly not rich. At the top of society are the planter gentility with massive plantations and hundreds of slaves like the O'Hara family and their neighbors, the Fontaines, Calverts, Wilkeses, and Tarletons. The Civil War of course, obliterates these distinctions and everyone must make their own way, regardless of family name.
Financial ruin radically alters social class relations. Melanie and Scarlett are devastated when they learn of the engagement of their friend Cathy Calvert to the overseer of the Calvert's plantation, a man who is definitely "beneath" Cathy. Before the war, the O'Hara family never would have associated with Will Benteen, but Scarlett comes to depend on him to help rebuild Tara. Even among the slaves there is a certain hierarchy—house servants are superior to field hands. After the war, when the field slaves have run off and Scarlett asks Pork to go catch a sow that has escaped, he refuses at first saying, "Miss Scarlett, dat a fe'el nan's bizness. Ah's allus been a house nigger "
Mitchell herself identified survival as the key theme of Gone with the Wind, claiming fascination with the topic of who survives during challenging times and why. In the Reconstruction era following the devastation of the Civil War, Rhett and Scarlett emerge as survivors while Ashley and Melanie flounder.
The ability that Rhett and Scarlett both possess to assess circumstances realistically and adjust to the changing times greatly benefits them. One of Scarlett's biggest frustrations with everyone around her is that they persist in living in the past. Rhett is the one exception. A true opportunist, Rhett tells Scarlett early in the novel that there is money to be made both in the construction and destruction of a society.
Instead of going off to war, Rhett profits from it by becoming a blockade runner, dealing in gold rather than Confederate currency, and keeping his money in stable European banks until the war is over. And Scarlett, seeing how necessary lumber will be for Atlanta's efforts at rebuilding, profits by buying a lumber mill.
At the opposite extreme are Melanie and Ashley. Ashley attempts to help out at Tara by farming, but proves a dismal failure. As Will Benteen tells Scarlett, "God knows he tries his best but he warn't cut out for farmin' and he knows it as well as I do…It ain't his fault. He just warn't bred for it." Later, as Scarlett's mill manager, his poor business sense and moral objections to using convicts and other unscrupulous business practices make him less financially successful than the manager of Scarlett's other mill. Groomed for life as the gentleman of a large plantation, Ashley is lost in the new South. His wife Melanie also remains faithful to the memory of the old days, loyal to old traditions. She becomes the leader of a group of Atlanta ladies who dedicate themselves to such organizations as the Association for the Beautification of the Graves of Our Glorious Dead and the Sewing Circle for the Widows and Orphans of the...
(The entire section is 2105 words.)