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Gone with the Wind | Study Guide

Margaret Mitchell

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Gone with the Wind | Context


American Civil War

Gone with the Wind is set in the South and takes place shortly before, during, and after the American Civil War. The war lasted for four years (1861–65) and sprang from the growing division between Northern industrialism, which relied on paid labor, and Southern agriculturalism, which relied on slave labor. With the election of Abraham Lincoln—a Northern Republican—as president in 1860, the Southern states feared their way of life would be threatened. Seven Southern states withdrew from the Union and formed the Confederate States of America. After the attack on Fort Sumter in Charlestown, South Carolina (April 12–14, 1861), four more states seceded and joined the Confederates; this marked the beginning of the Civil War.

Men from both sides volunteered to protect their ideals, though in Gone with the Wind, the ideals portrayed as worth protecting belong only to the South. Soldiers found themselves in brutal battles, which resulted in a staggering loss of life: more than 620,000 men succumbed to disease or wounds. Slavery became more of an issue as the war progressed. With the men away at war, women in the South were left to manage large plantations with slaves, as Scarlett O'Hara does in the novel. In 1863 Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which abolished slavery.

The South was led by General Robert E. Lee and bolstered by a strong belief in the right to secede. After the Emancipation Proclamation, however, the Northern troops rallied, gained momentum, and started to win battles. Eventually they won the war, leaving the South devastated and forever changed.

Reconstruction and Social Changes

Reconstruction was the South's post–Civil War period of rebuilding—physical, social, and political—and much of Gone with the Wind is set during this unsettled and unsettling phase of history. Reconstruction was led by the federal government, which—understandably—did not trust the Southern states. The federal government wanted state and local governments made up of people without old loyalties to slavery or the Confederacy; that ruled out most of the wealthiest and best-educated people in the South. New groups began to spring up: so-called carpetbaggers, scalawags, and freed slaves. To Southerners the carpetbaggers were Northerners who had come to take advantage of the postwar chaos. Scalawags were Southerners who cooperated with carpetbaggers and the federal government. Scalawags were often poor whites who never had any slaves to lose, or Southerners who had been covert Union sympathizers throughout the war.

Some African Americans enjoyed major gains during Reconstruction—beyond freedom, some obtained their own farms, and African Americans were elected to public office for the first time. Others however became servants for the same households they'd worked for before the war, with arguably little improvement in status. Several slaves at Tara, the O'Hara's plantation in Gone with the Wind, stay on as servants.

Many Southern whites believed the new social organization was a corruption of their race. The Ku Klux Klan, or KKK, formed in the 1860s and became the arm of racist violence throughout the rest of the 19th century and beyond—it is still in political operation today. The KKK's aim was to restore the pre–Civil War social order. Many Northerners were shocked by the Klan's activities and saw it as evidence that the South hadn't really learned from the war. Several of the main characters in Gone with the Wind, including Rhett Butler and Ashley Wilkes, take part in Klan activities, which are portrayed in an idealized positive light. Margaret Mitchell was a Southern woman who grew up listening to stories about the Confederacy; her descriptions of Southern attitudes were no doubt consistent with what she had heard.

Race Relations in Gone with the Wind

As a Southerner with a grandfather who fought for the Confederates in the Civil War, Margaret Mitchell strives to paint slavery and slave owners in the best possible light. In the novel slaves are rarely beaten, and no mention is made of rape, murder, or any of the other abuses that befell many slaves in the South. In part Mitchell could justify this absence because of her story. Young women like Scarlett O'Hara were largely sheltered from the more violent aspects of slave owning, and Gerald, Scarlett's father, is shown as a soft-hearted man and not the type of person to beat anyone without cause.

Mitchell also tends to use the "magic negro" concept, particularly with characters like Mammy. The "magic negro" often appears in fiction by white authors; this character helps and supports the white main character, demonstrating endless patience and wisdom. Mammy supports and cares for Scarlett and never questions her subservient role, even when she becomes free. Other well-known "magic negroes" include Uncle Tom, from the 1852 novel Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, an anti-slavery novel credited with helping to set the stage for the Civil War; and Uncle Remus, the title character in a collection of folktales by Joel Chandler Harris, published in book form in 1881.

Reflection of Life in the 1930s

Mitchell published Gone with the Wind at the height of the Great Depression (1929–39), a period in which 25 percent of the American public was unemployed. Although the book is set during an earlier era, Mitchell was very much influenced by the time in which she wrote it. The idea of survival—or as Mitchell calls it, "gumption"—and rebuilding one's life from little or nothing, as Scarlett O'Hara does, was popular in the 1930s. Many people lost everything during the Depression, and they wanted to hear about those who didn't give up. People who disapproved of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal government programs (1933–39) to help those in need were particularly drawn to stories of those who helped themselves, as Scarlett does.

Gone with the Wind also follows some of the entertainment trends of the 1930s. Movies from this era often broadcast the message that money can't buy happiness and showed rich people as evil or unethical. They also began exploring new ideas about women and their ability to run a business or provide for themselves. Even before it became a movie, Gone with the Wind had a 1930s movie heroine in Scarlett.

About Language

Gone with the Wind's language reflects the era in which the novel is set: the Civil War and Reconstruction-era South. When Mitchell wrote the novel, in the 1920s and 30s, many people still used terms considered unacceptable in most contexts today.

  • Negro was a polite way to refer to an African American person. It comes from Latin, French, and Spanish words meaning "black."
  • Darky was more casual but not necessarily intended as rude at the time.
  • Nigger was openly and personally insulting. In addition, an African American person might refer to another African American person as a nigger, and the novel is full of such language, and it indicates a lack of respect for the person in question.

Mitchell uses very broad dialect for the speech of slaves such as Mammy. This practice partially reflects the reality that slaves often spoke in styles that were different from their white masters, but these differences are greatly exaggerated and stereotypical. The differences tend to imply that African Americans were less intelligent than whites.

Mitchell's use of broad dialect may have been more influenced by "blackface" performers than by African American speech patterns. Blackface minstrel shows were usually performed by white entertainers who darkened their skin and performed song and dance routines or told jokes in an assumed—and largely stereotyped—African American style. While vaudeville was no longer popular in the 1930s, radio programs such as Amos 'n Andy largely recycled that same exaggerated blackface dialect and some of the same racial stereotypes.

Mitchell also introduces some terms that identify white Southerners as belonging to different social classes, specifically cracker and poor white. The planters, or plantation owners, were the wealthiest Southerners with the greatest social standing. Scarlett's father, Gerald; the Tarleton family; and the Wilkes family are all examples of the planter class. Crackers were white farmers who had smaller farms and owned fewer slaves. Poor whites, such as the Slattery family, owned no slaves and were forced to pick their own cotton and tend their own farms. The characters are repeatedly cast into these categories in the very fragmented and hierarchical world of the Old South.

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