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Gone with the Wind | Study Guide

Margaret Mitchell

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Gone with the Wind | Themes



Margaret Mitchell once said of Gone with the Wind, "If the novel has a theme it is that of survival." Both Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler are survivors first and foremost. One or both face almost every challenge imaginable: war, starvation, physical violence, death of family members, marital problems, delivering babies, imprisonment.

Scarlett and Rhett survive largely because they adapt their ethics and standards to their circumstances. Mitchell doesn't necessarily celebrate that. Many other characters in the novel find a way to survive without sacrificing their principles, including Melanie. Although she appears fragile, Melanie surmounts many of the same obstacles Scarlett faces, but she does it with her integrity intact. When Melanie dies toward the novel's end, it is because she dared to take the risk of getting pregnant again. She is strong and true to herself to her last breath.

Mitchell also explores why some people don't survive. Grandma Fontaine speaks to Scarlett about "gumption"; some have it and some don't. But Will Benteen gives a similar, better explanation: some people don't survive because they lose their "mainspring." Will, speaking at Gerald O'Hara's funeral, says Gerald lost his mainspring when his wife, Ellen, died. Gerald survived fleeing Ireland, building his plantation from nothing, losing three children, and the ravages of war. Those things didn't beat him, but losing his "mainspring" did.

The mainspring theory explains a lot about how characters in the book respond to challenges: Carreen's mainspring is "busted" when her fiancé, Brent Tarleton, is killed in the war; she retreats from the world. Ashley's mainspring is busted twice: first with the loss of Twelve Oaks and the life he'd planned, and second with Melanie's death. Ashley is going through the motions for most of the book. Rhett's mainspring is also busted when he loses his beloved daughter, Bonnie. As for Scarlett, Tara seems to be her true mainspring. Had she lost the plantation, it's hard to imagine what she would have done.

Breeding and Bloodlines

The book repeatedly explores the idea of breeding, or "what's in the blood." Mitchell first describes Scarlett O'Hara by identifying the features she got from her mother, "a Coast aristocrat of French descent," and those she got from her "florid Irish father." Rhett Butler frequently cites Scarlett's Irish heritage too, and when Scarlett first realizes she must save Tara, she imagines her Irish ancestors cheering her on. In Chapter 5 Beatrice Tarleton says the Wilkes family is weakening its bloodlines by allowing cousins to marry. Even Rhett is proud of his family: he brags about Bonnie's "Butler blood" and her "Robillard strain" from Scarlett's mother.

There is a darker side to this emphasis on blood and breeding that fits in with ideas at the time about races and identities. People use bloodlines to judge one another. Whites in the post–Civil War South adhered to the "one drop rule": those who had even a single drop of African American blood were considered African American, even if they appeared to be white. African American blood was so powerful, according to this theory, that an otherwise "socially acceptable" person—i.e., one who could pass for white—would be tainted by just one drop.

Men versus Women

Gone with the Wind is famous for all its big dresses, big romance, and big emotions. Yet the book offers a more complicated and nuanced view of the relationship between men and women than its outer trappings suggest. The novel is set in a masculine world, one in which women are supposed to stay home and be sheltered. But through characterization and events, Mitchell presents a different interpretation: women are perfectly capable of handling much of what men do, but they prefer that men handle certain things for them, or simply allow them to avoid making waves.

Roles are clearly defined at the start of the novel. Men go to war, handle crops, and manage money. Women are cared for and protected and not expected to worry about these difficult issues, unless their husbands want them to listen. So although Ellen O'Hara is a very accomplished woman, she defers to Gerald because she knows her job is to please him. And Frank Hamilton won't tell Scarlett about the Klan because he doesn't want to worry her.

Yet from the start Mitchell's characters subvert some of these expectations. Scarlett doesn't care about the war—not because she's a woman but because she's selfish. Ellen may appear to do what Gerald demands, but she is the real power at Tara. Ashley Wilkes enjoys Melanie's company because she is intellectual and can engage in a complex conversation with him. Ashley doesn't fit prescribed gender roles either. No one calls him effeminate to his face or incapable: he can ride and hunt and apparently is a brave soldier. But he is in no way a dominant figure, and he leans on Scarlett far more than any "real" man would, as Rhett is fond of pointing out.

Yet in other ways Mitchell's novel conform to the gender-role expectations of its time. Scarlett's first two marriages are disastrous because she marries men who are not "manly" enough to handle her. Frank Hamilton is perceived as less of a man because Scarlett, his wife, runs her own business. Only Rhett, who is unquestionably a manly man, can manage Scarlett—though some of his "management" techniques would be considered spousal abuse today.

In the world of Gone with the Wind a woman's place is in the home, but inside the home she holds more power than men realize. At various points Mitchell describes Gerald, Ashley, and even Rhett as "child-like." Women are in charge of the children—be they real children or childlike men. When Rhett is grieving over Scarlett's miscarriage and injury, Melanie sees him as "so like a child in a suddenly hostile world. But everyone was like a child to Melanie." As Melanie is dying, she asks Scarlett to care for both Beau, her son, and Ashley, her husband. Scarlett realizes Ashley is in fact like a child: "That's why she said look after him and Beau, in the same breath ... he can't stand anything without her." Rhett, Ashley, and Gerald, the three men who dominate most of the book, all fall into "child-like" behaviors when their women are dying or gone.

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