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Gone with the Wind | Study Guide

Margaret Mitchell

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Gone with the Wind | Symbols



Tara, the O'Hara family plantation, symbolizes the traditional Southern way of life, which disappears over the course of the novel. Early in the book Margaret Mitchell recounts how Gerald obtained Tara and built it into a showplace. Tara, along with Ellen, Gerald's wife; and Pork, his valet, are the three elements Gerald needs to become a wealthy and well-respected landowner and leader of the community.

Gerald's passion for land, and for Tara in particular, stems from his Irish blood. Irish history is rife with people whose land was taken from them, and many Irish immigrants came to the United States for the same reasons Gerald did: to escape their troubles and build a new life in a place where no one would take what was theirs. Early in the novel Gerald says land is "the only thing worth working for, worth fighting for—worth dying for." At the time Scarlett dismisses his comments, but during and after the Civil War she comes to understand and share his views; she too will fight and kill and sacrifice anything rather than lose Tara. The plantation is her one consolation when Ashley won't run away with her. Much later, after her miscarriage, Rhett sends her to Tara, saying, "It doesn't do for Scarlett to stay away too long from that patch of red mud she loves."

After the war Scarlett, a character rarely given to thoughtful reflection, repeatedly muses about how many plantations are gone, never to return. In Chapter 57 Will Benteen tells her, "Tara's the best farm in the County, thanks to you and me ... but it's a farm ... not a plantation." Tara has survived, but it has changed, just as all of them have changed, to survive.


On the novel's first page the reader learns Scarlett had "magnolia-white skin—that skin so prized by Southern women and so carefully guarded." Mammy constantly reminds Scarlett to keep her sunbonnet on so she doesn't get freckled. Soft, pale skin is a sign of a true lady.

Later Scarlett's skin is no longer soft or pale; the Civil War means she must work in the fields to keep everyone fed. Mammy's skin-care recommendations seem pointless in this new world, where so much more than a smooth complexion is at stake. Yet society's judgments live on: when Scarlett tries to trick Rhett into proposing to her, he feels the callouses on her hands and says, "These are not the hands of a lady."

If Southern women are expected to be pale and sheltered, Southern men are expected to be rugged. One of Rhett's defining features is his swarthy, darker skin; when he begins partying less and spending more time with his daughter, Bonnie, he grows swarthier, which is a sign of thriving health—for a man. In Chapter 1 the Tarleton boys are also described as "sunburned." Gerald O'Hara's face is often florid, though this could be the result of alcohol rather than sunshine. Ashley, however, has pale skin—another indication he is not equipped for male life in the real world.

The most obvious symbolism of skin is the treatment of African Americans, particularly those with darker skin. The novel is rife with examples of African Americans, whether enslaved or free, being judged by their skin color in all its gradations.


In Scarlett's time—as in most—wearing fine clothes was a marker of wealth; for women abundant amounts of fabric signaled financial abundance. On the novel's first page Mitchell provides specifics about Scarlett's clothes, down to the "twelve yards" of fabric in her skirt. Before the barbecue at Twelve Oaks Scarlett spends a good deal of time deciding which dress she should wear, indicating her spoiled, cosseted lifestyle. During the Civil War Rhett makes a fortune smuggling fabrics for the ladies to use to make new dresses. After the war, when Jonas Wilkerson and his new wife visit Tara with the intention of buying it, Scarlett enviously notes Emmie's flashy but fashionable clothes. Scarlett feels she must dress up to fool Rhett into thinking she is doing well; she knows he will notice if her clothes are old and worn out. Later Rhett indulges their daughter, Bonnie, by allowing her to wear whatever she likes; when Scarlett complains Bonnie's blue velvet dress will get dirty, Rhett casually says they can replace the dress, conveying a sense of ease and wealth.

Clothes also indicate whether the novel's female characters follow societal expectations. Women who are not members of traditional Southern society, like Belle Watling and Emmy Slattery, show off "cheap" but fancy clothes. When she hopes to seduce Ashley, Scarlett wears a low-cut dress to the barbecue at Twelve Oaks, even though she knows it is not proper for the time of day. Scarlett is very aware of society's rules, but she is not afraid to break them if it will help her achieve her ends. Everyone is scandalized when Scarlett stops wearing mourning clothes after Charles's death, but she can't resist the beautiful green hat Rhett gives her. Late in the book, after Scarlett and Ashley are caught together, Rhett insists she wear an eye-catching dress to the party: a low-cut, jade green number with huge velvet roses. Rhett tells her: "No modest, matronly dove grays and lilacs tonight."

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