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Why it’s all right to love Gone with the Wind

23rd May 2016

A foreword for the worried reader

The cover of Macmillan's 2015 hardback edition, featuring a shorter version of the foreword –

Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell’s debut – and only – novel, has maintained an extraordinary popularity since its first publication in 1936. To date, more than 30 million copies have been sold worldwide. This is an extraordinary achievement. Popular appeal very rarely lasts this long; to maintain a readership a novel must offer something more than an intriguing story, more than vivid characters. It has to say something that speaks to millions of people in very different societies.

This novel has a message that is deeper than a love story or a coming-of-age-fable, and perhaps the greatest difficulty that I and many other readers have with it is that, although we may love the novel, we choke on its message. But the redeeming factor – the reason I can love Gone with the Wind without guilt – is that I believe the author herself did not agree with her intended message: she undermines it even as she declares it.

All historical fictions are a combination of two forms of writing: history and the novel; and this troubles critics, readers and even authors. As with other hybrid forms of fiction, the content is described by name, but the style is always clearly that of a novel. ‘Science fiction’ may discuss as much real science as a research thesis, but it is written as a fictional narrative with imaginary characters and dialogue. ‘Crime fiction’ can contain all the facts of a real-life crime, just like a forensic report; but the style of the writing, with characters whose description is supplemented by fictitious detail and who speak invented dialogue, is that of the conventional novel. So too with ‘historical fiction’ – it is based on historical facts but written in novel form. There is no rule with any of these hybrid fictions as to how much factual material must be present. The science fiction novel does not succeed by a measure of how ‘scientific’ the story is, nor how accurate the science. This is not the gauge by which the merit of the novel is judged. These hybrid forms of writing are considered not as scientific papers, forensic reports or history; they are judged on literary criteria. The best history is written without any invention at all, and with necessary speculation and authorial embroidery clearly labelled.

All historians know that in order to describe a historical event they have to select the facts – and so exclude the events that do not contribute to their story. At once, they are creating a narrative. Then, they write creatively, linking one thing to another, describing motive, sometimes even explaining the psychology of the characters, sometimes speculating about scenes and events that are not recorded. In this they are doing something very like writing fiction; but all good historians draw the line before extended invention, and all good historians warn the readers when they have left the ascertainable facts (and there are surprisingly few of these!) and gone into imagination and speculation. As novelist turned historian Shelby Foote remarked:

No good novelist would be false to his facts, and certainly no historian is allowed to be false to his facts under any circumstances. I've never known, at least a modern historical instance, where the truth wasn't superior to distortion in every way.[1]

The literary value of a novel is not destroyed if the historical facts are mistaken, or – as is almost bound to happen – become outdated due to new discoveries. If it was a good novel on publication – a good work of fiction – it will still be a good novel even if our historical knowledge changes, and makes it inaccurate. It will still be a good novel even if the history is factually incorrect. Indeed, a successful novel could be one in which all the history is deliberately ‘wrong’ or counter-factual: like Len Deighton’s SS-GB, set in an imaginary London occupied by Nazis.

The facts of history (like the facts of science) are best conveyed without invention. So when we read a historical novel we are not looking at a work of history, we are looking at a work of fiction and we have to judge it on that basis. The hybrid form of a historical novel should never be an excuse for writing half-history, with the yawning gaps in the research plugged by pretence; rather, the author should use historical research to provide setting, action or significance for an imagined story. Some writers (me among them) take great pleasure in trying to show the important movements of history through their impact on an individual fictionalized life, which might be that of a real or an imaginary person but which will be told with all the techniques of fiction. This is not easy. Actually, I would argue that the hybrid form of historical fiction is harder to write than either history or fiction – it means working in two forms simultaneously: researching like a historian, writing like a novelist.

There is also a dualism with dates. All historical fictions have two time periods. One is the novel’s historical setting – for Gone with the Wind this ‘conscious’ period is the 1860s – the other is the time of writing; the source period unconsciously referenced by the author – for Gone with the Wind, a ten-year writing period, from 1926 to 1936.

The simultaneous yet differing periods contained in a historical novel are inescapable, given that an author living in one time period is trying to imagine him or herself into another. An author can neither escape his or her own consciousness, nor fully inhabit another. Some historical novels knowingly play with this dualism: A. S. Byatt’s Possession tells a modern story alongside a historical one in which modern characters discover the past. In The French Lieutenant’s Woman, John Fowles writes a historical story interrupted and footnoted by modern opinion and scholarship. The author even describes himself entering a Victorian train carriage to watch his own fictional characters.

The ‘unconscious’ period of 1926–36, when Gone with the Wind was written, was particularly resonant for a story about a woman coming of age. American women won the right to vote in 1920, Mitchell’s mother was a campaigning suffragist[2] and Mitchell was among the first generation of women at the ballot box. Her life seems to oscillate between one style of female behaviour and another: she was a dutiful daughter but a ‘flapper’; a prolific, detailed writer who failed to finish college; an ambitious journalist who retired to invalidism and writing fiction at home. The nature of her love life, first with a young man who died in the First World War, then with a reportedly sexually violent alcoholic in a marriage that lasted only months, and finally with a frail second husband, also shows a woman experiencing different forms of personal power, loving different sorts of men, idolizing and fearing them, fantasizing, fighting and emasculating them. There are suggestive parallels between Mitchell’s twentieth-century experience and that of her 1860s heroine.

Sometimes we hear Mitchell’s wry modernity when her novel announces that ‘you can’t be a lady without money’ (p. 586), or notes ‘the usual masculine disillusionment in discovering that a woman has a brain’ (p. 593).The woman who was banned from Atlanta’s strict social club for performing an ‘Apache’ dance in a slit satin skirt and black stockings[3] remarks of Scarlett’s crinoline, winched so alluringly tight that she could not breathe: ‘at no time, before or since, had so low a premium been placed on feminine naturalness’ (p. 80).

Mitchell was an heir to the period she describes, hearing the stories of the fall of Atlanta from survivors who had experienced it first-hand. She wanted to anchor her fictional story in the past and add lustre to it with meticulous research and a wealth of detail. She wanted to share the prestige of authors who claimed to be writing serious history – not light romance. She wanted to be identified with the defenders of the plantocracy: the cultured elite of the ante-bellum South. She wanted to write the history of her homeland with sympathy, drawing on selective fact and myth. She knowingly worked in the school of thought identified, as early as 1866, as the ‘Lost Cause of the Confederacy’.

The concept of a nostalgic and doomed cause is not unique to the American South; it occurs in many accounts of previous times. Indeed, the cultural historian Raymond Williams wrote of ‘a perpetual recession’ backwards and backwards into a golden remembered past. Nostalgia is a uniquely congruent tone for the historical novel written to celebrate the past: particularly emotionally powerful when it is a record of loss. A tragic defeat and a lost cause suit historical fiction – just as they suit folk songs, the musical equivalent. Herein lies historical fiction’s powerful threat to truth and accuracy: it can easily become sentimental; defending a past that has rightly gone, causes that should have been lost, attitudes we are well rid of; encouraging readers’ wistfulness and complacency when they should be radical and progressive. An interest in history does not dictate conservatism; there is another tone besides lament. It is perfectly possible to lovingly research and write history and yet believe that the future should be better. As William Dean Howells said:

What is despicable, what is lamentable is to have hit the popular fancy and not have done anything to change it, but everything to fix it; to flatter it with false dreams of splendor in the past.[4]

The ‘Lost Cause’ theory was adopted by historians of the Confederate South from a position of generalized nostalgia for the world that had gone, and grafted on to theories about white supremacy and racism, which argue that slavery is the destiny of inferior peoples. Aristotle believed this – but Aristotle was a slave owner:

The lower sort are by nature slaves, and it is better for them as for all inferiors that they should be under the rule of a master. For he who can be, and therefore is, another’s, and he who participates in rational principle enough to apprehend, but not to have, such a principle, is a slave by nature.[5]

‘Lost Cause’ defenders like William Harper linked plantation slavery to alleged black inferiority:

The negro race, from their temperament and capacity, are peculiarly suited to the situation which they occupy.[6]

The ‘Lost Cause’ description emphasizes rural beauty and idyllic plantations set in a stable, cultured, peaceful, civilized society dominated by a race of white masters who provided the best working environment possible for innately inferior black peoples. It also identifies the South as ‘liberal’: committed to freedom and federalism (for whites) and ‘rebellious’: opposed to centralized authority. It describes the Northern states as tyrannical, trying to force black people to rule their white superiors. Mitchell writes in Gone with the Wind:

Here was the astonishing spectacle of half a nation attempting, at the point of a bayonet, to force upon the other half the rule of negroes, many of them scarcely one generation out of the African jungles. (p. 631)

Mitchell was raised on such stories and educated in this false history. As a child she dramatized Thomas F. Dixon, Jr’s novel The Traitor, which celebrates the rise of the Ku Klux Klan.[7] Dixon’s later novel The Clansman was adapted for film by D. W. Griffith in 1915. Re-titled The Birth of a Nation, it was probably the most famous dramatization of the ‘Lost Cause’ prior to the film of Gone with the Wind (1939).

Mitchell intended her novel as a triumphant defence of the ‘Lost Cause’, and was contemptuous of critics who argued against it. She was proud that the ‘Lost Cause’ view had come to dominate the understanding of American history. As Helen Taylor says:

[The novel] has sealed in popular imagination a fascinated nostalgia for the glamorous southern plantation house and an ordered hierarchical society in which slaves are ‘family,’ and there is a mystical bond between landowner and the rich soil those slaves work for him.[8]

Gone with the Wind has widely and effectively promoted the racist planter view of the history of the South and been accepted not only as fiction but also as reliable history. It has, according to Barbara Melosh, ‘probably done more to shape the popular view of the Civil War and Reconstruction than all of the scholarly works.’[9]

‘Lost Cause’ authors are naturally defensive – after all, they are celebrating a defeat. Like many ‘Lost Cause’ writers, Mitchell defended her vision of the South by claiming extensive research and accuracy for her work. Critics nit-picked over the smallest of details, such as the exact time of day that news of the defeat at Gettysburg reached Atlanta (Mitchell was correct), or how quickly stored cotton bales burn (Mitchell was incorrect). But arguing over the accuracy of minor facts is not really the main point of a critique of Gone with the Wind, or of any historical fiction. It is an enjoyable hobby for students of detail and a touchy point for authors; but factual errors in themselves do not present a serious challenge to the enjoyment of the novel – they only create a problem when they damage the novel as a convincing work of fiction. Only if it breaks the spell does historical inaccuracy become an issue for the reader: what is essential to a novel is verisimilitude.

A historical novel becomes severely harmed if factual errors accumulate to create a picture of a past society that is so ‘wrong’ the novel cannot be ‘right’. Some facts are not specific (like the time it takes for baled cotton to burn); some are not specific history (the workings of the Atlanta telegraph office in July 1863); some facts are universal, and to state the contrary destroys the novel. Readers are notoriously difficult to fool. If a novel, even a stimulating, haunting, deeply enjoyable novel, is saying something that is an offence against the past; denying the lived reality; denying something that we know in our hearts, something that is still on our consciences today, the reader cannot go through the usual process of suspending disbelief and enjoying the fiction, entranced by the story and not worrying too much about the details. The wrongness of the ideology breaks the spell.

The problem with the history in Gone with the Wind is not whether or not Gerald would wear a cravat – it is that the novel tells us, unequivocally, that African people are not of the same species as white people; that they are less able, indeed less human; that they are rendered incompetent by an innate laziness and driven by an irresistible lust to rape; that they are thus suited to slavery where they are ruled and directed. This is the lie that spoils the novel. This is the lie that anyone who has access to scholarship, journalism or simply life experience knows to be untrue. You don’t have to be a historian to know that people of African descent do not have an inherently slavish nature.

To regard slavery as a valid social structure that works well for owner and slave is to endorse the racism that justifies it. The two concepts go together. A novel that defends slavery – like Gone with the Wind – cannot escape its logical corollary: defending racism; and this is the stumbling block for modern readers. This is as significant a problem today as when the book was set and written. As I write in June 2015, nine black people have been killed while worshipping at their neighbourhood church in Charleston, South Carolina, by a white supremacist terrorist who earlier filmed himself with the Confederate flag. Recruitment leaflets from the Ku Klux Klan are praising his actions.[10] A novel that glamourizes and preaches white supremacy and racism is a novel aligned to a divisive and deadly creed; it cannot be included on a humanities reading list: its thesis is inhumane.

Other tenets of ‘Lost Cause’ writing would not necessarily destroy the merit of a novel. It can, for instance, be argued that the South was indeed a bastion of independence, localism and rebellion. The theme of rural beauty is undoubtedly true. Idyllic plantation life was certainly experienced by the white masters. But a novel that claims it was an agreeable society for all has to collapse under the weight of its own internal illogic. The reader knows that this is not true; can never have been true. Even the author knows it is not true. The novel is no longer a sustained work of fiction. The reader cannot enjoy it: it is a contradiction exposed.

I cannot think of a single well-regarded novel based on a serious outright lie. Austen’s Mansfield Park fails to oblige radical critics in that it does not investigate the causes of Sir Thomas Bertram’s wealth or forcefully remind the reader that the beautiful country estate is based on cruel slavery; but it never claims that Bertram’s sugar plantations in Antigua are benevolent employers. Nabokov’s Lolita is the first-person account of a paedophile, but the author makes it clear from the beginning that the unreliable narrator–hero is in prison and his actions are morally wrong and damaging. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is the sympathetically told account of tsarist aristocrats, but it does not deny the harshness of life for the peasants of pre-revolutionary Russia.

But what about verisimilitude? All the statements made in dialogue and in character can be defended as the work of a novelist describing what is said and thought inside a racist, white-supremacist society. There is no problem in Scarlett expressing her beliefs – such a young woman would certainly have been raised to be racist. Instead, the problem with racism in Gone with the Wind is that it is the authorial voice that assures the reader that black people are a different species to white people, and that this is a proven truth[11] that will stand the test of time. It is not the opinion of a silly girl in 1860s Georgia; it is the omniscient narrator who is authoritatively stating that black people throughout time are irredeemably, unchangeably different from and inferior to white people, and that this will be true forever.

Gone with the Wind is a continuous slander against black people, and a denial of the true nature of the Ku Klux Klan – the white organization set up to terrorize them – which was responsible for the murders of about 4,000 black people between 1877 and 1950.[12] In the novel, the Ku Klux Klan is said to be a defensive alliance of Southern gentlemen to protect their women, owing to the ‘large number of outrages on women and the ever-present fear for the safety of their wives and daughters’ (p. 631).

Mitchell’s sympathetic view of the KKK is inexcusable given the availability of information about the organization, from its creation in the South in 1865 to its peak. It had 4 million members in 1915, when Mitchell was a bright teenager observing that the Klan was experiencing a massive renaissance when it re-dedicated itself on Stone Mountain, just outside her hometown of Atlanta.[13] When Mitchell was an adult, the KKK headquarters – which preached racism, produced leaflets, sold their trademark white robes with concealing hoods, and organized lynchings – was on her own street, Peachtree: where she located Scarlett and Rhett’s fictional home. As Mitchell herself made clear in a letter, she did not research the readily available record of the KKK’s race-based murder, cruelty, and persecution:

As I had not written anything about the Klan which is not common knowledge to every Southerner, I had done no research on it.[14]

It is telling that Mitchell was eagerly defensive of her research on every other subject, writing reams of private letters; but here she says nothing. She is describing the re-telling of a myth, not the writing of history.

There has been some attempt to explain this attitude and language by suggesting that Mitchell was not able to study the history of slavery and the persecution of black people. But this is not true. Revisionist historians, for example, W. E. B. Du Bois in Black Reconstruction in America,[15] published a year before Gone with the Wind, in 1935, made it clear to all, as it had always been clear to some (especially those who had lived and worked on the plantations) that the slavery estates were not the setting of ‘affectionate relations between slaves and slave owners’ (p. 500). Mitchell must have known of the primary records of brutal slavery and the accounts that analysed them; but she chose either to ignore them or to dismiss them as lies.

Anti-racism was sufficiently current in Hollywood in 1936 for the producers of the hugely popular film adaptation of Gone with the Wind to listen to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and make changes to the content: no white people use the ‘n’ word, Scarlett is far less violent to Prissy on film than in the book, and the man who rips open Scarlett’s gown is not black, but white. However, racism remained a powerful and unchallenged force influencing the film’s production and publicity. The segregation laws in the South banned the black actors from attending the Atlanta première, and although Hattie McDaniel won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1940 for her performance as Mammy, on the night of the Academy Awards she had to dine apart from her colleagues, at a segregated table for her and her escort.[16]

Other writers who experienced Southern childhoods like Mitchell’s managed to remember, research and write without supporting white supremacist beliefs. Shelby Foote consciously tried to avoid any ‘Lost Cause’ tone in his magisterial The Civil War: A Narrative.[17] William Faulkner’s work is determinedly anti-racist. A look at the novels published in the same year as Gone with the Wind suggests that, by 1936, many authors were working against racist stereotypes, not within them. E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India, published twelve years earlier in 1924, is the story of an inter-racial rape in which an Indian man is wrongly accused of assaulting a white woman. Dr Aziz comes under suspicion because of his colour, but the allegation is false and he is cleared. To Kill a Mockingbird is Harper Lee’s fictional account of a real prosecution in 1936, which she remembered from her childhood, during which a black man was falsely charged with the rape of a white woman. The hero of the story defends his client, the black suspect, from a lynch mob and in court. There is no suggestion from anyone in the novel but the ignorant and violent racists that black-on-white rape is more likely than a false accusation.

But Mitchell was determined to avoid engaging with anti-racist insights, revisionist history and abolitionist thinking. She took the myth of white supremacy and black inferiority, the lie of the happy plantocracy and the tarnished alibis of race-murderers and passed them off as genuine ‘historical’ background. This does, indeed, break the spell of the novel; only a white supremacist could read it at this level with unalloyed pleasure.

But then – wonderfully, surprisingly – Mitchell herself contradicts the myth and undermines her own message. By responding to her characters, following the story as she writes it, revealing the true history despite her stated intention to support the myth – and so working like a creative writer, not a propagandist – she fails to produce a consistent, glamourized argument for white supremacy. Instead, she constantly undermines the racism on which her message depends. Throughout the novel, just as one would hope from a living, changing piece of creative writing when the author is in dialogue with her own material, Mitchell is taken up by her story, forgets the vicious ideology, is persuaded by fact, draws on her knowledge and affection for her fellow human beings, and tells us things which contradict the stolid, stupid, heartless lie of racism.

We can see this powerfully in what is, perhaps, the most disagreeable sentence in the novel, in which Mitchell refers to the new, imposed rulers of the South as ‘nigger judges, nigger legislators—black apes out of the jungle’ (p. 622). This full-throttle racism undermines the case for white supremacy through overstatement; to such a ridiculous degree that the reader is freed from taking it seriously. In spite of her stated intention, Mitchell goes too far and, magnificently, reveals the risible illogic of white supremacy.

There are dozens of minor incidents in the novel in which Mitchell challenges and undermines the plantocracy myth. Tara plantation slaves are said never to be sold, but later in the novel Mitchell reveals that Melanie has witnessed slave auctions – showing that they took place in public, and even in front of ladies (p. 185). Although the novel states repeatedly that no cruelty took place at Tara, we learn that Gerald once struck a slave to punish him for failing to care for a horse (p. 51), and Mitchell exposes the inherent violence of slavery, showing Scarlett’s response to Prissy under pressure: striking Prissy (p. 351), pinching her (p. 372) and beating her with the branch she had used on the mule (p. 384). The abuse of Prissy is emphasized when Scarlett hopes that God will forgive her for mistreating the mule, but shows no remorse for her violence to Prissy. Mitchell shows Scarlett coherently following the racist myth that black people are more like animals than people, but then allows the reader to laugh at the comedy of Scarlett praying to God for forgiveness for cruelty to an animal. The comedy of the scene depends upon the reader knowing better than Scarlett, and that her prayer for forgiveness is mistaken. Scarlett does not know that it is morally more objectionable to mistreat Prissy than an animal, but this is shown as part of Scarlett’s foolishness, not the rightness of her thinking as a white supremacist.

Gerald’s background is another powerful subtext that undermines the argument for a slave-owning elite. As Mitchell makes clear, Gerald was a poor Irishman when his country was held by the imperial English power. The Irish peasants had no political rights and few economic opportunities and were ruled by hated masters. The native Irish were reviled by the invaders in racist terms. Gerald rescued himself through violence, like a slave in a revolt, and his history – which Mitchell cites several times – shows a man enslaved without losing his humanity, engaging in justifiable violent revolt against his masters, and becoming educated, civilized and holding power himself. This is the absolute contradiction of race-based slavery, which argues that all people in slavery are by their nature inferior – and yet in Gerald we see someone who can rise from slavery to become a master himself. Mitchell also shows us a valid revolt – she approves of the slave Gerald taking his freedom by force: he is right to do so.

One of the great myths of racism is that black men cannot control their sexual desire for white women. This is a central tenet of the ‘Lost Cause’ argument that the South was right to resist the North’s attempt to free slaves, since this would release dangerous black sexual energy. As a modern race-hate criminal writes:

Negroes have lower Iqs [sic], lower impulse control, and higher testosterone levels in generals[sic]. These three things alone are a recipe for violent behavior.[18]

Mitchell reproduces this myth of dangerous black sexuality throughout the novel, yet constantly undermines it. Extraordinarily, it is never evidenced – there is not one incident of black-on-white rape, though the reverse is shown by ‘many’ mulatto babies (p. 431). Scarlett, though her dress is torn open by a black man, is not the victim of attempted rape, but – as the text makes absolutely clear – an attempted theft, and she is rescued by a black man, Big Sam. Neither thieves nor rescuer have any sexual interest in Scarlett. Sam takes her home and – contrary to the myth – he is not unstoppably aroused by her gaping gown but anxious for her and embarrassed by her exposure (p. 760).

Elsewhere in the novel, the lynching by the KKK of a black man who reportedly rapes a white woman is said to take place to spare the victim having to bear witness against him – overthrowing the rule of law. Mitchell implies that for the black man to die to spare the girl embarrassment is unreasonable, and her attitude is so unsympathetic that the reader cannot think the KKK attack is justified. The lynching is even further undermined when Scarlett observes: ‘Probably the girl hadn’t been raped after all’ (p. 718). Interestingly, there is no plot reason for Scarlett’s denial of the black rape myth, or for her to speculate that the unknown woman was a liar and ‘probably’ not raped. Nor does it benefit the plot that the black shanty-town dweller rips Scarlett’s dress to find money and not to sexually assault her. It would have strengthened the ‘Lost Cause’ argument of the novel if Mitchell had supported the myth of black lust, and invented terrible experiences for Scarlett as proof. But instead, it is as if Mitchell cannot stop herself; common sense, her own experience, her own knowledge of history, her own humanity all force her to deny the racist lie that the book is supposed to illustrate.

The novel also claims that the Yankees who impose the emancipation of slaves and democracy on the South are ignorant, mistaken, and in practice more racist than the Southern slave-owners; but in the embarrassing scene with the Northern wives who insult the slave Peter, it is Scarlett who offends him most, and he refuses to drive her in future. He is clearly not a ‘happy slave’ in her employ. This suggests to us that we cannot trust Scarlett’s judgement on individual slaves or on slavery. We see Peter take his own freedom from her service, and we think he is right to do so. Here is another black manumission written with complete sympathy.

Most provocatively of all, Rhett Butler, the focus of desire in the love story, is constantly described as dark-skinned and exotic. There are repeated references to Rhett’s ‘darkness’ and ‘wildness’, and imagery of his animalism. Mitchell creates a mystery around his family connections, which overthrows a core tenet of the novel: pure breeding and white supremacy in unchanging categories of class and race. Some critics have even wondered if Mitchell is implying that Rhett has black blood in his family. If the beloved Bonnie – named for the iconic Confederate flag – is a mixed-race child, then the novel is truly upside-down.

These are rich contradictions in a book that sets out to celebrate the ‘Lost Cause’ and defend racism, and they indicate the depth and unpredictability of Mitchell’s imagination. Her adherence to the ‘Lost Cause’ school of writing meant that she intended to write a defence of white supremacy, to become a racist propagandist; but her own knowledge of people, of real history rather than the corrupting ‘Lost Cause’ view, and the entrancement of writing a novel, which, as all good authors know, so often seems to create its own life, subvert and challenge the deadening stereotypes of pseudo-science and prejudiced thinking. Propaganda speaks to only one level of thought and tells its story in insistent monochrome. Novels of racism are always written in black and white and cannot see beyond colour. Mitchell’s writing is denser and more complicated, more colourful, more contradictory, and much more fun than this. She intended to be an author of her time and place, reproducing the myths of her childhood without research or question, agreeing with her old-fashioned neighbours; but she is a genuinely creative writer, imagining characters and events as they might have been, in their full richness, not within the narrow margins of racism and sexism. A defining characteristic of light literature is its one-dimensional nature; but in Gone with the Wind we see genuine complexity. It is this that saves it from being a simple fictionalizing of a racist myth; it is this that undermines the lie that would otherwise destroy it as a novel, and instead raises it to be a work of literature, not of propaganda.

We can see the ambivalence of the novel by its reception in Nazi Germany. The book was highly regarded there for its white supremacy theme; but when the Nazis brought it to France as a propaganda tool, French readers took it up as a story of heroic resistance against an invading army,[19] bought it in its thousands, and read it with enthusiasm. The occupying regime, concerned that the book was fostering resistance, banned it; and subsequently pirate copies were traded on the black market. The Nazis read it as Mitchell had intended – a celebration of white supremacy – but the French understood it as it had turned out – a celebration of resistance and freedom.

Of course, the evolving nature of the story and its massive internal contradictions mean that it is hugely flawed. It has to be: it’s heading in two opposing directions at once. The author is in the grip of her story; she is not in control; she is not a master craftswoman. The reader follows her and is troubled by the claims of the novel and by its paradoxes. If nothing else, the reader will balk at the language. It is not a powerfully directed piece, controlled and controlling. But it is an erratic work of art, spontaneous, responsive, in which the love of people (of whatever race) shines through the dullness of racism and the white supremacy theory. It is as if Margaret Mitchell started the novel wanting to write something for supporters of the South, for ‘Lost Cause’ sympathizers, for KKK fellow travellers – and then simply found that the material and the characters were too much for such dreary theory and bilious company and sprang from the page in their vital power, so that she could not resist them. She does not write a smooth, unified text – she writes one that is wayward, contradictory, and responsive.

It is a novel of opposites. I have written elsewhere about the popular fiction trope of women in pairs exhibiting ‘good’ and ‘bad’ female characteristics. The flirtatious, needy, exhibitionist, greedy Scarlett is paired and contrasted almost from the very beginning with the loyal, modest, loving Melanie. But Mitchell indicates a powerful theme of race equality in the pairing of Scarlett with her reluctant slave Prissy. Prissy is as foolish and narcissistic as Scarlett. She too has a mother who wishes she were better behaved. She angers Scarlett so deeply because Scarlett (and the reader) recognizes their similarity, their sisterhood. It’s worth remembering that in the first draft of the novel, Scarlett’s name was to be ‘Pansy’. Pansy and Prissy are obviously a girl and her shadow-self.

And there are other shadow images. The gentlemanly blond Ashley pairs with the dark scalawag Rhett. There is even a pairing contained in slavery: the white master race can only survive if the black slaves serve under them. There is Gerald the enslaved man, and Gerald the slave-owner. There are two Taras: one in Ireland where the O’Haras were workers, almost slaves; one in Georgia where they are planters, owning slaves. Scarlett has two mothers: one a white, distant figure, the other a genuine carer – her black Mammy. Scarlett has two embodiments – as the damaged daughter of Tara and the adored little girl Bonnie that her father loves and hopes to raise to be a better woman than her mother. The sale of ladies’ favours at the bazaar is explicitly compared with a slave auction (p. 185), Scarlett’s starvation on Tara contrasts with her greedy consumption of everything when she is Mrs Butler. The Wilkes are notorious as a family who marry kin to a dangerous degree, but Ellen dies with her cousin’s name on her lips. Rhett is an outsider with a disreputable past like Gerald. Melanie is a lady like Ellen, and the fragile gentlewoman of Aunt Pitty serves as a warning to all the genteel young women of how they can choose to make themselves unfit for life by obeying the tenets of ladylike behaviour that seem to be endorsed by the novel but are denied by the unfolding of the story. The apparent importance of genteel behaviour is denied when Scarlett is one of the few female survivors.

The split of contrasting female qualities into two heroines is a traditional one, from Eve: Mary onwards, perhaps because the complexity and internal contradictions of repressed and socialized women are more easily explored by an author if they are teased apart. But sometimes the opposites form a partnership: when ‘good’ Melanie and ‘bad’ Scarlett work together they make a powerful, fulfilled single entity, and the reader enjoys their success. Together they kill and bury an enemy soldier, they regain Tara and save it from fire, they make Ashley stay in the South, (he explicitly says he cannot resist them both working together), and they jointly earn money and raise children – Melanie caring for Scarlett’s child from her first marriage, while Scarlett provides Ashley with a living. They live together on Tara, and in Atlanta they create a housing commune of two conjoined properties; they show a loving fidelity that few other couples demonstrate in the novel.

The pairing of Ashley and Rhett is a device that allows Scarlett in the narrative, and the reader vicariously, to work through an empty fantasy of a love affair, to genuine passion and desire. As a ‘coming of age’ novel with a young female heroine that appeals to young female readers, this is of particular value in the story. Scarlett’s love for Ashley is like a juvenile pre-sexual ‘crush’ on an idealized figure. Her relationship with Rhett is that of a mature woman with honesty and passion on both sides. Rhett and Ashley are continually compared. Ashley’s charm diminishes as he becomes less and less effectual in the new post-war world, and Rhett becomes more attractive. Ashley grows cold and dull like the embers that are evoked by his name, beside Rhett’s red-hot sexuality and powerful agency in the world. The sudden and unexpected death of Melanie transforms Ashley from being forbidden fruits to easy pickings. Melanie’s death has to take place to free Scarlett from her rivalry and dependency on the other woman, loving her but locked in opposition. Melanie’s death, like the death of Scarlett’s mother, means that Scarlett has to judge for herself. In Melanie’s absence, Scarlett is finally free from competing with her best friend, she is free to be an individual alone, making her own choices, not chasing after her rival’s husband but free to take an interest in her own.

Scarlett is a stereotype of female bad behaviour, demonstrating sexuality and ambition, an Eve of the medieval theologians, a young woman who uses her sexual allure to blind viewers to her lack of conventional beauty, to obtain attention, material goods, and status. She is described, as so many literary heroines are, as a woman who is not conventionally beautiful. This is, of course, a familiar trope of light women’s fiction popular with authors and readers alike to allow all of us who are not exceptional beauties some comfort. But it is also a signal to the reader of Scarlett’s powerful sexuality. She does not attract men because she is beautiful but because she is ‘hot’. She cannot be a beautiful lady, she can be a sexy woman, not a Melanie but a Belle.

From the very first pages we also understand that she is a character of psychological depths – this makes her a real person to us, not a stereotyped silhouette in a thin novel of manners. Scarlett leads a complicated life in a complex world. When we meet her on the first pages we see her refusing to receive information that she needs to know – Ashley’s betrothal – making us, the readers, better informed than the heroine. The novel is not a simple telling of her story, a reflection of her feelings and her attitudes. The novel shows us things and tells us things that she does not and will not know. We are required to weigh and measure Scarlett, not to simply follow her.

When Scarlett is overheard by Rhett trying to seduce Ashley, she instantly feels and denies her attraction to Rhett, but reveals herself to him as a very young woman capable of desire and honesty, unconstrained by ladylike behaviour. She reveals herself to us, the readers, as well. We feel that we know her, we feel that we know more than her, more than she knows. It says everything that Ashley is anguished by the scene, and pities Scarlett’s embarrassing boldness; but Rhett and Scarlett are both sexually aroused and her embarrassment comes later.

Scarlett is deeply rooted in a landscape that Mitchell evokes so powerfully and intimately that we come to love it, too. She is a child of the plantation society and as the world changes she has to invent a new way of surviving in it, as the traditional, abusive forms of exploitation are denied her. Slowly, and unwillingly, Scarlett becomes a modern person, a fully-fledged citizen of the newly united States. She has the enormous and difficult task of being born a slave-owner who has to learn to live without slaves. She never changes her racist ideology in theory – actually she becomes more and more explicit and unreasonable. In dialogue, she becomes rabid; but in practice, Scarlett lives in direct contradiction to the myth. Her life does not prove white supremacy, but denies it. She learns to work alongside slaves, doing their work; she learns to ask for help, not to order obedience; she learns that slaves’ understanding is better than hers; she knows that their moral judgement is finer. Clearly, she does not truly think that they are ‘out of the jungle’. Her frustration when black people fail her (like Prissy), or refuse to take her side (like Mammy); will not endure abuse (like Peter), or choose to leave (like Big Sam) shows she understands that even enslaved black people are moral actors: people who will choose to do what they think is right. We can see that she respects, works alongside and accepts advice from black people. Scarlett will survive in a multi-racial society; she is so phenomenally selfish and self-absorbed that she is colour-blind.

Ashley, like the reverse image of Scarlett, claims that he would have freed his slaves; but he did not do so. When he loses them he cannot manage his lands, and he cannot work himself. Apparently opposed to the plantation system, he is actually bound to it like a true slave. He knows that he has lost his world and cannot live in the new one. He truly is a ‘Lost Cause’ and Mitchell treats him with slowly emerging contempt. He starts his fictional life as the hero of the book, the romantic lead and the man whose world is tragically ending; Mitchell shows him, with brutal simplicity, as a loser and suggests that his world is well lost.

But Scarlett witnesses the loss of her slaves and decides to keep Tara without them. It is significant that the famous scene in which she swears that she will survive takes place as she is digging for food planted by Ashley’s slaves in their gardens, outside their impoverished cabins. Mitchell remarks with conscious offensive racism on the ‘niggery’ smell of the cabins, which is apparently so bad as to make our heroine vomit, but does not prevent her raiding the slaves’ garden. Mitchell shows Scarlett rescued by the labour of the despised slaves: on her knees in their gardens, eating their food, breathing their air. Scarlett falls from being a slave-owner into slave conditions. She has to work as the slaves worked, harvest their crops, dependent on their enterprise and gardening skills. Scarlett has to learn how to farm without slaves in her employ and work alongside her black house slaves and white family in a state of equal misery.

Establishing a business, she hires another captive workforce for her lumber mills; but these ‘slaves’ are white. This is an outstanding denial of white supremacy. As Mitchell powerfully demonstrates, these white men’s supposedly innate racial superiority does not, in practice, save them from slavery. Despite the theory of white supremacy, they evidently do not have greater ability, bigger brains or stronger energy that will naturally set them free. By showing us Scarlett enslaving a white workforce and working them under slave conditions, Mitchell marks a significant distinction between slavery and race. Scarlett’s behaviour is not humane or generous, but it is absolutely not racist; indeed, it is counter-racist. Mitchell shows that white people can be enslaved, just as black people can be freed. In a book written to support white supremacy, Mitchell gives us a powerful instance of white inferiority.

Scarlett can adapt, and this trait tells us everything about Mitchell’s hidden ambivalence – even while she mourns for the beauty of the plantocracy that has been lost, she is looking to a future where the brightest and most energetic will survive. Whatever the intention of the novel, she has described a heroine who is not a lost cause; but who has hopes and plans for a prosperous life in the new post-war world.

The losses in Scarlett’s life: those that she is able to love truly, knowingly, and without exercising her innate sadism: her mother, her father, and Tara itself, leave Scarlett alone with those ambivalent loves that she must resolve or live her life in a state of constant frustration. Her love for Melanie only becomes clear and generous at Melanie’s death, when the paired woman is no longer a rival. Her love for Ashley melts away when she sees him without the glamour of belonging to someone else, and not locked in the imaginary past. Her denial of her desire for Rhett is resolved during a quarrel, when some sexual act takes place that Mitchell chooses to keep obscure. The film-makers referred to it as the ‘rape’ scene, but the novel shows Scarlett purring with sexual satisfaction the morning after, and believing herself to be holding ‘the whip hand’, after Rhett’s so-called shameful loss of control (p. 904). Whatever Mitchell imagined, and she gives us very few clues what that was, it was not in any way a real rape. It reads like some kind of violent and passionate intercourse in which Rhett lost control of himself and Scarlett experienced extreme pleasure. Whatever exactly happened, this is nothing like real-life rape – and Mitchell never suggests that it was.

It is another deep and significant contradiction in the novel that, although rape is so much feared, and is the greatest threat in the novel, this is the only violent sexual act that Mitchell describes. It is not rape, it occurs between a white married couple, and it is deeply distressing for the man, but hugely pleasurable for his wife who sees it as a sign of her triumph.

Scarlett grows from a protected girl, rarely denied, to a woman who loses everything, rises to heroism, is hammered by real experience, and finally understands herself. Spiritual and emotional maturity is – at last! – possible for her. Like Dorothea in Middlemarch, she acknowledges the folly of her earlier beliefs, recognizes the man that she loves, offends her society and her internalized code, and even understands that this is not a fairy-tale triumph – it is a decision with mixed consequences that she cannot predict.

Racism is the deep untruth of the novel but Scarlett’s journey is the deep truth that contradicts it, redeems it and transforms it from shallow propaganda into an absorbing, complex, convincing story. The message is clear: growth is possible, change can happen, love can win over the inner drive towards death, people are not defined by the colour of their skin, we may build a society in which people of all colours have opportunity. The description of the process is realistic – Scarlett can change herself, but it is not easy, it is not rapid, and there are terrible mistakes along the way. The novel that set out to speak in defence of the ‘Lost Cause’ and white supremacy shows in its ending that the cause is lost and the white are supreme no longer.

It is powerful also that there is no pretence that Scarlett can change Rhett. This is no simple romantic happy ending, there is a realistic, convincing, interesting uncertainty. The ending that so many readers have found frustrating and inconclusive is absolutely congruent with the struggle that Scarlett has undertaken to get there and with the story’s contradiction of the novel’s intent.

The conclusion of the novel has been a vexed question for readers since its original publication. Its open nature is for some a great disappointment, for others a joy. Mitchell herself insisted that readers must decide for themselves whether Scarlett and Rhett will be able to reconcile, whether Scarlett will be able to make the tomorrow she wants. Surely, it is significant that the final scene was the first to be written. The inordinately long, jumbled manuscript – chapter after chapter stored in envelopes around Mitchell’s home for ten years before being painstakingly assembled for publication – was written only to reach this final point: apparently the ending but, in fact, the beginning of Scarlett’s ante-bellum life. Perhaps this is the last and most telling aspect of the novel’s dualism: that there are two beginnings – the one Mitchell wrote first, knowing that it would be the last scene, showing Scarlett on the brink of a new life; and the one she wrote later, which appears chronologically earlier in the novel, showing Scarlett at the end of her world.

In the final scene, after Rhett has declared his indifference to Scarlett, she returns to Tara with the confidence that she will get him back, and that there will be ‘another day’ – her mantra of faith in a future that she can mould. Of course, despite readers’ complaints, this is not inconclusive at all. It does not tell us that Scarlett will succeed (although the previous thousand pages prove she has a pretty unbeatable record at getting what she wants), but it does depict a satisfactory place in Scarlett’s journey. She has recovered from her childhood delusions, she has moved from an immature ‘crush’ to a mature sexual love, she has loved a friend and a child, she has said farewell to both parents, and she is ready to become a woman with real responsibilities. She will internalize some of Melanie’s gifts and the two opposite women will, in a sense, become one – an improved Scarlett. Finally she acknowledges a woman’s desire for a genuine partner, not an ashy fantasy. She admits her lust and love for Rhett. She knows too that she loves and will keep her home. Although so much of the novel takes place in Atlanta, the dominant landscape of the novel is the home that Scarlett has worked so hard to keep, and where she returns. We leave her where she belongs: at Tara, confidently imagining her future. And that – for a woman who has lost her parents, shot a man, seduced, married, and accidentally caused the death of a husband, lost one child to death and forgotten a couple more in neglect, mislaid a second’s husband love, seduced him to the point of madness and spent his fortune – that is a triumph. It is not an ending for a romance, not an easy happy ending, it is not the ending of a biography which is always nothing more interesting than death, it is Scarlett on a plateau, in the foothills is wisdom. She has learned something, she has something more to do. It is a satisfactory ending for a novel of quality.

She understands, finally, that in order to recreate the successful family home of her childhood she will have to reunite with her husband and children and make a home for them. To do this, she will have not only to find a way to regain her family’s love, but also to restore Tara to prosperity. She will have to do this in an entirely new way – without slave labour – only then she will have made a new Tara and be ready to take her place in the post-war world. She is right to think that ‘tomorrow is another day’ – she must become another person, Tara must become another sort of business, the South must become a different sort of society. Tomorrow must be not only another day, but a different day. The novel ends not as a ‘Lost Cause’ story with a nostalgic look back at the past, but with optimistic hope for the future. The great contradiction of the ‘Lost Cause’ theme and the racism it is based on is that at the end Scarlett is not looking back: she is looking forwards.

Philippa Gregory, 2015

The cover of Pan Macmillan's 2014 paperback edition.

[1] Shelby Foote seminar excerpt, New York State Writers Institute, March 20, 1997

[2] Molly Haskell, Frankly My Dear: Gone with the Wind Revisited, Yale University Press, 2009

[3] Helen Taylor, Scarlett’s Women: Gone with the Wind and its female fans, Virago, 1989

[4] W. D. Howells, ‘The New Historical Romances’ The North American Review Vol. 171, No. 529 (Dec. 1900), pp. 935–948

[5] Aristotle’s Politics 1254b (Barker, 1948: 61 and Ross, 1927: 292) Anistoriton Journal, Vol. 9 (March 2005), section E0501

[6] William Harper, The Pro-Slavery Argument, as Maintained by the Most Distinguished Writers of the Southern States: Containing the Several Essays on the Subject, of Chancellor Harper, Governor Hammond, Dr. Simms, and Professor Dew, Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo, & Co., 1853, 5

[7] Scarlett’s Women

[8] Helen Taylor, ‘Gone with the Wind and Its Influence’ in The History of Southern Women’s Literature, edited by Carolyn Perry and Mary Louise Weaks, Louisiana State University Press, 2002

[9] Barbara Melosh, ‘Historical Memory in Fiction: The Civil Rights Movement in Three Novels’ Radical History Review 40 Winter 1988 p. 65 says: ‘probably done more to shape the popular view of the Civil War and Reconstruction than all of the scholarly works in that notably sophisticated and well-developed view’.


[11] The so-called ‘scientific’ racism of the 18th century argued this.

Systema Naturae, by Carl Linnaeus (1767)

Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development, by Francis Galton (1883)

Preface to The Origin of Species, by Clémence Royer (1862)

Crania Americana, by Samuel Morton (1839)


[13] Scarlett’s Women

[14] Letter to Mr Stanley F. Horn, March 20 1939, Scarlett’s Women




Shelby Foote, Conversations with Shelby Foote, edited by William C. Carter, University Press of Mississippi, 1989


[19] Jean Paul Sartre Cowley letters