Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone With the Wind' - Book Summary

American film star Clark Gable (1901-1960) reading the novel 'Gone With the Wind' by Margaret Mitchell.
American film star Clark Gable reading 'Gone With the Wind' by Margaret Mitchell. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Story

At the O’Hara family cotton plantation Tara, in Georgia, the Civil War approaches. Scarlett O’Hara’s husband dies while serving in the Confederate Army, leaving her a widow and their baby without a father.

Melanie, Scarlett’s sister-in-law and the wife of Ashley Wilkes (the neighbor Scarlett actually loves), convinces Scarlett to grieve her dead husband at the Atlanta home of Melanie’s aunt, Pittypat.

The arrival of Union forces traps Scarlett in Atlanta, where she becomes acquainted with Rhett Butler. As Sherman’s army burns Atlanta to the ground, Scarlett convinces Rhett to save them by stealing a horse and carriage that will take her and her child back to Tara.

Although many neighboring plantations have been destroyed altogether during the war, Tara has not escaped the war’s ravages, either, leaving Scarlett ill-equipped to pay the higher taxes imposed upon the plantation by the victorious Union forces.

Returning to Atlanta to try to raise the money she needs, Scarlett is reunited with Rhett, whose attraction to her continues, but he is unable to help her financially. Desperate for money, Scarlett tricks her sister’s fiance, Atlanta businessman Frank Kennedy, into marrying her instead.

Insisting on pursuing her business deals instead of staying home to raise their children, Scarlett finds herself accosted in a dangerous part of Atlanta.

Frank and Ashley seek to avenge her, but Frank dies in the attempt and it takes Rhett’s timely intervention to save the day.

Widowed again, but still in love with Ashley, Scarlett marries Rhett and they have a daughter. But after their daughter’s death—and Scarlett’s attempts to recreate pre-war southern society around her, with Rhett’s money—she realizes it’s not Ashley but Rhett she loves.

By then, however, it’s far too late. Rhett’s love for her has died.

Main Characters

  • Rhett Butler—Businessman and rogue who falls for Scarlett, admiring both her feminine and financial wiles.
  • Frank Kennedy—Atlanta storeowner, engaged to Scarlett’s sister for many years.
  • Sarah Jane “Pittypat” Hamilton—Melanie’s aunt in Atlanta.
  • Scarlett O’Hara—Gone with the Wind’s protagonist, the eldest of three sisters, who clings to her past life as a southern belle in the antebellum South; cunning, ambitious and deceitful even to herself.
  • Ashley Wilkes—Scarlett’s neighbor, and the man Scarlett thinks she loves; married to Scarlett’s sister-in-law.
  • Melanie Wilkes—the sister of Scarlett’s first husband and the wife of the man Scarlett believes she loves.

Controversy

Published in 1936, Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind has been banned on social grounds. The book has been called "offensive" and "vulgar" because of the language and characterizations. Words like "damn" and "whore" were scandalous at the time. Also, the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice disapproved of Scarlett's multiple marriages. The term used to describe slaves was also offensive to readers. In more recent times, the membership of lead characters in the Ku Klux Klan is also problematic.

The book joins the ranks of other books that controversially tackled issues of race, including Joseph Conrad'sThe Nigger of Narcissus, Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin and Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Pros

  • Bestselling American literary classic
  • Chronicled the time during (and after) the Civil War
  • Timeless love story

Cons

  • Melodramatic
  • Banned and censored for offensive language

Description

  • Title: Gone With the Wind
  • Author: Margaret Mitchell
  • Type of Work & Genre: bildungsroman; romance novel; historical fiction
  • Time & Place (Setting): 1861–1870s; Atlanta & Tara
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
  • Publication Date: 1936
  • Narrator: anonymous

Themes

Gone With the Wind is the famous and controversial American novel by American writer, Margaret Mitchell. Here, she draws us into the lives and experiences of myriad colorful characters during (and after) the Civil War.

Like William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, Mitchell paints a romantic tale of star-crossed lovers, torn apart and brought back together--through the tragedies and comedies of human existence.

Margaret Mitchell wrote, "If Gone With the Wind has a theme it is that of survival. What makes some people come through catastrophes and others, apparently just as able, strong, and brave, go under? It happens in every upheaval. Some people survive; others don't. What qualities are in those who fight their way through triumphantly that are lacking in those that go under? I only know that survivors used to call that quality 'gumption.' So I wrote about people who had gumption and people who didn't."

The title of the novel is taken from Ernest Dowson's poem, "Non Sum Qualis eram Bonae Sub Regno Cynarae." The poem includes the line: "I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind."