Gone with the Wind: Essay Q&A
1. It is often said that Scarlett represents the South. Discuss this proposition, giving consideration to how Scarlett changes throughout the novel, and how those changes parallel the changes that take place in the South.
Scarlett has characteristics of the Old South and the New South. On one hand, she has a nostalgic attachment to the Old South. This is evidenced by her strong desire to be a "great lady" in the traditional mold, like her mother, Ellen, and her love for Ashley, which is based largely on her notion of him as "a gentleman" of the Old Southern sort. Scarlett's love for Tara also shows her attachment to the past. Before the war, Scarlett's life revolves around the Old Southern expectations of flirting with wealthy young men from plantation families and pretending to be ladylike.
Playing the role of a lady never comes easily to her, however, as her true nature is selfish, vain and calculating, and she has a ruthlessness, greed and ambition that crave expression. These are all New Southern, Northern-influenced characteristics that she inherited from Gerald's side of the family. They serve her well when the war begins to destroy the old social structures and conventions. As the old power structures collapse, Scarlett is able to move into the vacuum. She does not really change, but she becomes more herself. As Gerald declines, she takes charge of Tara. When Frank fails to make the best of his businesses, she takes them in hand and makes them profitable. Taking advantage of an opportunity to make large profits from the rebuilding of Atlanta after the Yankee burning, she buys and successfully operates her own sawmills, earning the condemnation of Old Southern society for being "unwomanly." Her journey to self-sufficiency, which began when she delivered Melanie's baby unassisted, culminates in her supporting the Wilkes family and many members of her own family. This journey is paralleled by the South's changing from a leisure society based on slavery, inheritance and land ownership to an entrepreneurial society based on individual drive and ambition. Atlanta becomes a magnet for Scalawags, Yankees and carpetbaggers - unscrupulous, ambitious and determined to make a profit at any cost - to the disapproval of the Old Southern traditionalists.
The only person who helps Scarlett consistently in her business activities is Rhett, who, like Scarlett, embodies many qualities of the New South. Both Scarlett and Rhett are opportunists and work with Scalawags, Yankees and carpetbaggers when it is profitable to them, reflecting the ideological flexibility that the South had to adopt in order to survive the war. In doing so, they become very unpopular with the Old Southern society, which refuses to compromise or change - and which is doomed as a result.
Scarlett's identification with the New South is reflected in her moving from Tara to Atlanta. Atlanta is a bustling city, which has more in common with the New South than the Old South, being constructed around a railroad hub. During the war, the city becomes a magnet for opportunists of all kinds, many of whom become Scarlett's new friends as her Old Southern friends and acquaintances snub her. In the end, however, Scarlett returns to Tara, showing that however much of a New Southern woman she has become, her roots and the source of her strength remain in the Old South.
2. How does Mitchell portray black people and slavery in the novel?
Mitchell, in common with her characters, takes the attitude of a Southern plantation owner to black people and slaves. She never questions the institution of slavery, seeing nothing wrong with it as long as owners treat their slaves fairly. She never mentions any incidences of abuse of slaves by owners, though this certainly existed.
Mitchell approves of the loyal and devoted slaves like Pork, Mammy and Uncle Peter, who, after the war and emancipation, wish to stay with their white former owners. She strongly disapproves of the freed slaves (termed "free issue niggers"), describing their lives as "a never-ending picnic, a barbecue every day of the week, a carnival of idleness and theft and insolence." She describes the freed slaves themselves as "lazy and dangerous as a result of the new doctrines being taught them." Not one of the characters has anything good to say about the freed slaves, and even Mammy holds them in contempt. It is significant that Scarlett is attacked by a freed slave in Shantytown and rescued by Uncle Sam, a slave who has tried freedom and rejected it, wanting only to return to Tara.
A more balanced account of the emancipation of slaves might include mention of the immense hardship faced by these people, who had no money, no property, little or no education or training, and no experience of life beyond slavery. Many ended up in shantytowns in the towns and cities. Historically, the Freedmen's Bureau did much useful work in assisting former slaves build new lives, but Mitchell portrays it as an organization run by cynical opportunists like Wilkerson and dedicated to agitating blacks against whites.
Mitchell's attitude to black people and slavery is without doubt an accurate portrayal of prevailing white attitudes in the time when the book was set (1860-1870s) and at the time when it was published (1936). By modern standards, however, the book reads as shockingly racist.
3. Discuss Mitchell's portrayal of the war.
The literature of Mitchell's time often glorified war, but Mitchell takes an uncompromisingly negative view of war. Only innocents like the Tarleton twins who know nothing about war are enthusiastic about going off to fight. Not only do they die in the war, but so do all of Mrs. Tarleton's sons. It is clear that Rhett comes the closest to being Mitchell's spokesperson on the subject of the war, because he is a character who is honest even when it is not in his interests to be, and because he never encounters any intelligent opposition to his arguments. His speech in Chapter 12 (" 'All wars are sacred. To those who have to fight them. If the people who started wars didn't make them sacred, who would be foolish enough to fight?...' ") states two important points. First, politicians ("stay-at-home orators") cynically manipulate the people into fighting their wars by falsely invoking some sacred or high-minded cause. Second, all wars are really about money, but this is hidden from the people.
Mitchell reinforces her view of war by having Rhett's views confirmed from a most surprising source: the honorable and patriotic Ashley. Unlike Rhett, who avoids fighting in the war until the last minute and (in common with many other opportunists) simply uses the war to make money, Ashley readily goes off to fight. But Ashley's letters reveal that he feels exactly the same way about the war as Rhett.
The decision of the South's leaders to secede from the Union and then to go to war against the North is revealed in the novel as foolhardy. On this issue, too, Rhett is the spokesman, backed up by Ashley. Rhett points out that the South has no armaments manufacturing, no textile mills, and hardly any iron foundries. The North has all these, along with a steady flow of immigrants prepared to fight in the war. The South's source of wealth, its cotton exports, can be, and is, readily blocked by the North. When Rhett points out these truths, however, he is howled down by the patriots who have been told that the war is sacred. Naturally, he is proved right, and the South plunges into a war that it cannot possibly win.
Mitchell never points to a single benefit that comes out of the war. She emphasizes the terrible waste and destruction of lives and property. An example is the Yankee soldiers' looting and stealing food and livestock from the plantations. What they cannot steal, they burn, as in the incidents at Tara when soldiers burn the house and the cotton. The fact that the soldiers lay waste to Tara twice is particularly shocking, as the second time occurs when Scarlett has driven herself and her household almost beyond endurance to begin rebuilding their stocks of food after the first attack. The sense is that the war is so destructive that it renders all honest human endeavor futile. The only people who benefit are the less than scrupulous ones like Rhett who profit from shortages and chaos. By the end of the novel, hardly any young men remain alive among Scarlett's former neighbors.
4. Compare and contrast the characters of Rhett and Ashley.
In many respects, Rhett and Ashley stand in contrast to one another, but they also share similarities.
Rhett is dark and dashing, with a cynical wit and the reputation of a scoundrel. Disowned by his family, he is impatient with the Old Southern conventions and hypocrisies that prevent people seeing reality, and embraces the New Southern qualities of self-reliance and entrepreneurship. He sees no reason why he should fight for "the Cause" and spends the war making money as a blockade-runner and speculator, joining forces with the 'enemy' Yankees where necessary. He only joins the army in a last-minute fit of patriotism when the war is already lost.
Ashley, on the other hand, is a blond Old Southern gentleman, honorable, respectful of tradition, a mainstay of his family, and interested in the arts and poetry. While Rhett has a New Southern eye to the present and the future and meets every challenge that the war and Reconstruction can offer, Ashley cannot face reality or adapt to the changing times, and takes refuge in dreaming of the past. Ashley patriotically goes to fight for the Confederate cause, but interestingly, his attitude to the war is the same as Rhett's. Neither believes in the sacredness of the Cause and both think that politicians have betrayed the people into an unnecessary war. They both think that the Old Southern way of life is doomed, though they respond to this conviction in different ways: Rhett embraces the New Southern ways, while Ashley seems to have made a decision to go down with the Old South. Rhett and Ashley agree on the Ku Klux Klan. While they both supported the Klan, they also disbanded the local branch because they believed it to be politically counterproductive, giving the North an excuse to crack down on the South.
At the novel's end, Rhett becomes more like Ashley, as he decides to return to his roots in Charleston and try to recapture something of the life of an Old Southern gentleman. However, he only has the luxury of doing this because he has made his fortune in his New Southern years. Ashley, who has consistently been an Old South man but has compromised his Old Southern honor with his illicit love for Scarlett, faces a more uncertain future, perhaps continuing to live off Scarlett's charity. As Scarlett finally realizes, the real difference between Rhett and Ashley is not that the first is a scoundrel and the second a gentleman, but that Rhett is strong while Ashley is weak.
5. Discuss Melanie's role in the novel.
Melanie's governing quality is that she only sees the good in other people. She is devoted to Scarlett and becomes her staunchest defender. This leads to one of the many ironic situations in the novel, because Scarlett feels only jealousy, hatred and contempt for Melanie since Melanie married Ashley. Scarlett does support Melanie, staying by her side in Atlanta when most others have fled from the Yankee bombardment and delivering her baby. However, Melanie is unaware that Scarlett is not acting out of altruistic motives but out of the selfish motive that she made a promise to Ashley and wants to keep his favor.
Melanie continues to stand by Scarlett, such as when she emerges from her sickbed with Charles' sword, ready to defend Scarlett and Tara from the Yankee looter. In spite of herself, Scarlett begins to feel a grudging respect for Melanie's courage. This line of moral growth in Scarlett culminates in the episode where Scarlett and Ashley are discovered embracing. Once again, Melanie courageously supports Scarlett, and even Scarlett is shamed into realizing that "she owed Melanie a debt for her championship." Scarlett knows that she cannot unburden her own heart and confess all to Melanie, as it would destroy all that Melanie holds dear. So Scarlett keeps silent, and must carry the burden of her guilt alone; Rhett refers to this as her "cross." This is the first time that Scarlett has sacrificed her own desires for the sake of another. She is forced to do so by the power and strength of Melanie's quiet goodness and courage. Thus Melanie is a moral force in the novel.
This aspect of Melanie is also evident in her relationship with Rhett. Melanie is as loyal to Rhett as she is to Scarlett, and attests to his fundamental goodness when the rest of Atlanta ostracizes him for speculating and associating with Yankees. Rhett, who respects few people, admires and is fond of Melanie, putting aside his usual cynical manner in his dealings with her. He admits to Melanie that he loves Scarlett, when he cannot tell Scarlett. When she dies, he calls her a "very great lady," a eulogy such as he never gives anyone else. Melanie's noble character provides a foil to Scarlett's very different strength, and some critics see her as an alternative heroine to Scarlett.
Symbolically, Melanie represents the Old South and her growing physical weakness parallels the decline of the South during the war and Reconstruction. While she is outwardly frail and one of the weak who is winnowed out in the changing times, Melanie, like the South, has an inner steely spirit that never falters.