The novel opens in Georgia in April 1861 at Tara, the cotton plantation owned by the O'Hara family. Scarlett O'Hara, a striking young woman of sixteen, is sitting on the porch of the family home with the Tarleton twins, Stuart and Brent. The nineteen-year-old Tarleton twins have just been expelled from the University of Georgia, and their elder brothers, Tom and Boyd, have also left in solidarity with them. The twins discuss the prospect of civil war between the Confederacy of Southern slave-owning cotton-producing states and the "Yankees" - the North, which was industrializing and favored a wage economy over a slave economy. The Confederacy had seceded (broken away) from the Union in February 1861.
Scarlett is bored by talk of war, and changes the subject, asking the twins about the barbecue at the Wilkes' plantation, Twelve Oaks, the next day. The twins tell Scarlett that Ashley Wilkes, the son of the owner of Twelve Oaks, will announce his engagement to his cousin, Melanie Hamilton. Scarlett is shocked, as she had wanted Ashley for herself. She does not admit this to the twins, however, and they are baffled by her sudden quietness. They obtain her promise to sit with them at the barbecue and to dance all the waltzes with them.
After they leave Tara, the Tarleton brothers speculate about possible explanations for Scarlett's change in mood. They fail to find an answer and ask their black slave groom, Jeems, his opinion. Jeems points out that Scarlett went quiet at the news of Ashley's engagement.
Scarlett is left on the porch of Tara, feeling miserable. She cannot believe that Ashley could love "a mousy little person like Melanie." She thinks that he really loves her, Scarlett. Scarlett hides her feelings from Mammy - the black slave who has always been her nanny and before that, her mother Ellen's - as Mammy would tell Ellen.
Scarlett knows that her father, Gerald, has ridden over to Twelve Oaks plantation to buy the black slave Dilcey, the wife of his valet, Pork. Scarlett plans to find out from Gerald whether the twins' story is true. She runs to the road to meet him on his return.
Scarlett watches Gerald gallop towards home and jump a fence. Scarlett laughs, because he recently had a fall and promised Ellen, his wife, that he would never jump again. Startled that he has been seen, Gerald asks Scarlett if she is going to tell Ellen, but Scarlett insists that she will keep his secret. Gerald tells her that he has bought Dilcey and her little girl, Prissy. Scarlett casually asks if Ashley was there. Gerald instantly realizes that Scarlett is romantically interested in him. He confirms that Ashley is to marry Melanie, and advises Scarlett to forget about him, as he would not make her happy. He says that Ashley is too interested in books and poetry, and that the Wilkes are "queer folk, and it's best that they marry their cousins and keep their queerness to themselves." He adds that though Ashley is good at the traditional men's pastimes of riding and playing poker, his heart is not in them. He tells his daughter, "Land is the only thing in the world that amounts to anything."
As they go into the house, they meet Ellen carrying her medical kit, with Mammy following. They are going to the Slattery house, where the unmarried Emmie Slattery has just given birth to a baby that is not expected to live. Ellen intends to help with the baptism. Gerald and Mammy both rail against the Slatterys, poor farmers who live in the swamp bottom, as "white trash" undeserving of Ellen's help.
Scarlett muses on how her brash father managed to marry a refined aristocrat like her mother.
The chapter begins by telling Ellen's story. She had come from a French aristocratic family, the Robillards, from Savannah. In spite of Ellen's calm, gentle manner, she was always obeyed at Tara, whereas Gerald's blustering was ignored: "There was a steely quality under her stately gentleness that awed the whole household." When Ellen was fifteen, she had been passionately in love with her cousin, Philippe Robillard. Her family had driven him away and he had died in a barroom brawl. Heartbroken, Ellen had decided to leave her home to get away from reminders of Philippe, and, to the mystification of her family and the high society in which she moved, accepted a proposal of marriage from a low-born but kindly Irishman - Gerald.
Gerald had come to America from Ireland at the age of twenty-one. Gerald's family was poor and Catholic, and for years had actively opposed the occupying English (and Protestant) government agents (called Orangemen after the Protestant King of England, Scotland and Ireland, William of Orange, 1650-1702). Gerald had killed an English landlord's rent agent and had left Ireland with a price on his head. He had gone to work at the Savannah store belonging to his brothers, James and Andrew, who were already living in America. Gerald was ambitious, and had not wanted to spend his life in the store. He had won his black slave valet, Pork, and later, his plantation, Tara, in games of poker. By remortgaging his land and borrowing money from his brothers, he had bought enough slaves to rebuild the burnt-out house at Tara. While not an educated man, Gerald's charm had enabled him to be on good terms with most of his neighbors, except the "white trash" Slatterys.
Aged just fifteen, Ellen had moved with Gerald to north Georgia to become the mistress of Tara. She had quickly grown into an efficient manager of the plantation and the best-loved neighbor in the county. Her life was hard, but she accepted that it was a woman's lot to manage the property, and the man's to take credit for it.
Ellen was determined that her three daughters should grow up to be great ladies, and though she succeeded with her eager-to-please younger daughters, Suellen and Carreen, Scarlett found it hard to be a lady. Scarlett's playmates were the children of the slaves and the neighborhood boys, and she liked tomboy activities such as climbing trees and throwing rocks. As she grew older, coached by Ellen and Mammy, she learned the feminine graces such as dancing and batting her eyelashes at men. Most importantly, she learned to conceal her intelligence and willfulness with the expected sweet blandness. She was willing to keep up a pretense of demureness because she found that such methods succeeded with men. But Scarlett had inherited Gerald's headstrong and impetuous nature, and Ellen and Mammy feared that this would preclude her from making a good match.
Pork brings his wife, Dilcey, to Tara. Dilcey thanks Scarlett for persuading Gerald to buy her, and offers her daughter, Prissy, to be Scarlett's personal maid. Scarlett expects objections from Mammy, who has always occupied this position, but Dilcey points out that Mammy is getting old. Scarlett says she will talk to Ellen about it.
Ellen and Mammy return from helping to baptize Emmie Slattery's newborn baby. The baby is dead, but Emmie seems likely to live. During the household prayers, which Ellen leads, Scarlett plots to win Ashley. She suspects that he does not know that she loves him, and plans to tell him at the barbecue. She expects that he will propose, and that they will run off to Jonesboro that afternoon and get married.
That night, Scarlett overhears Ellen telling Gerald to dismiss his Yankee overseer, Jonas Wilkerson, as he is the father of Emmie Slattery's baby.
Analysis of Chapters 1-4
These chapters establish the world of the pre-Civil War South, characterized by a class structure defined by family and money. Though rigid, this class structure is fluid enough to allow for self-improvement - for whites, at least. Gerald comes to America without the benefit of money or good breeding, but he is able to secure social acceptance through his kindness, charm, and generosity, as well as his commitment to Southern values -slavery, cotton, poker, horse-racing and contempt for the Yankees. After he becomes a wealthy cotton plantation owner, he consolidates his good social position by marrying into a wealthy aristocratic family.
For black people and for those who lack the drive to succeed, however, there is far less social flexibility. Every black person is a slave, though even the slaves have evolved their own social hierarchy, with the house slaves looking down on the field slaves. All the slaves in turn look down on "po' white trash" like the Slatterys, who rely on charity from rich people like the O'Haras to survive. It is symbolic that the Slatterys live in the swamp bottom; in the world of the Old South, they are the lowest form of life.
Anyone wishing to see a critique of the institution of slavery in this novel will be disappointed. The narrator takes the same view of slavery as the slave-owning characters, emphasizing their fair, humane and often indulgent treatment of their slaves without questioning the institution of slavery. For example, Gerald's purchase of Dilcey is presented purely as an act of kindness and generosity; the assumption that he has a right to buy another human being is not commented upon. Moreover, there is no portrayal of a slave standing up for his or her right to freedom in a dignified way: the honest slaves take pride in their status, and the dishonest or shiftless ones are portrayed as unworthy recipients of their owners' generosity.
Many critics have attacked Mitchell's portrayal of the black slaves, which sometimes veers towards stereotypes and which includes no mention of the undoubted abuse that many slaves suffered at the hands of their owners. At the same time, however, it is possible to draw a degree of social observation from Mitchell's portrayal of the slave characters. First, the novel probably holds up an accurate mirror to the attitudes held by most of the slave-owning class. The fact that there are so shocking to a modern sensibility shows how much society has moved on. Second, if Mitchell's slave characters are limited in their aspirations and grateful for their lot, this can lead us to reflect on aspects of racial injustice prevalent at the time, such as the fact that most slaves were denied all but a rudimentary education. Denial of access to education and the concomitant diversity of ideas is a time-honored route to oppression.
The author however, passionately confronts another aspect of social injustice: the restricted role of women. This theme is addressed primarily through the character of Scarlett, who is constantly bumping up against the boundaries imposed on her as a woman. In many ways, Scarlett takes the place of the son Gerald never had. He takes her into his confidence as if she is another man. She has inherited her father's masculine qualities of strong-mindedness and impetuosity, and shuns the company of women, preferring male company and male pursuits such as climbing trees. However, Scarlett has enough self-centered intelligence to adapt to gender restrictions and use them for her own ends. She learns enough feminine wiles to charm men, adopting a faeade of ladylike behavior, which she inwardly disdains as silly. The narrator evidently sympathizes with Scarlett, commenting on society's hypocrisy in expecting women to be purely decorative before marriage but to manage their husband's households and estates after marriage: "Before marriage, young girls must be, above all other things, sweet, gentle, beautiful and ornamental, but, after marriage, they were expected to manage households that numbered a hundred people or more, white and black, and they were trained with that in view" (Chapter 3). The strength and intelligence of women embodied in characters such as Ellen and Scarlett is emphasized and contrasted with the relative weakness of men: "The man owned the property, and the woman managed it. The man took the credit for the management, and the woman praised his cleverness. The man roared like a bull when a splinter was in his finger, and the woman muffled the moans of childbirth, lest she disturb him."
In examples of foreshadowing, certain aspects of the main characters which will play a major part later in the novel are emphasized: Ellen's saintly selflessness, Gerald's recklessness, and Scarlett's cunning. An implied conflict is also set up between Ellen's selflessness and Scarlett's selfishness. Scarlett views her mother almost as a divine being, an ideal that she herself cannot hope to attain if she is to pursue the many joys of life.