The novel Gone with the Wind by the American writer Margaret Mitchell and especially the film of the same name are world-famous. The book was published in 1936 and Margaret Mitchell was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction a year later. The book is a perennial bestseller with thousands of copies sold every year, making it one of the most successful novels of all time, even though critics are ambivalent about the literary merits of Margaret Mitchell's historical saga.1
The film Gone with the Wind was released in 1939, starring Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Leslie Howard and Olivia de Havilland, and it won ten Academy Rewards. The ending phrase “Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn” is very well known to cinemagoers all over the world.
The book Gone with the Wind is primarily regarded as a romantic story focusing on the love between the two main characters, Scarlet O'Hara and Rhett Butler, taking place during the American Civil War and Reconstruction. The American Civil War and its consequences echo in the background of the doomed love affair. However, it can be claimed that alongside the great love story, Mitchell in her historical saga provides a very detail description of life in the South covering the years 1861 to 1874, depicts the character of the “aristocratic” society and above all carefully portrays the main characters.
As stated above, the novel constantly draws people's attention and for many readers it is an excellent romantic story. Nevertheless, according to Margaret Mitchell, her novel is not about love but about survival. “Margaret Mitchell admired people who had gumption, people who fought their way through hard times triumphantly and came out survivors. She said that if her novel, Gone with the Wind, had a theme it was survival, 'I wrote about the people who had gumption and the people who didn't'.” (Lewis). Therefore, Mitchell compares Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler with Melanie and Ashley Wilkes. Scarlett and Rhett represent people who are not afraid of breaking conventions, people being capable to survive due to their nature. On the contrary, Melanie and Ashley are representatives of the traditional society unable to adapt to the changing conditions being attached to the old times and therefore not able to survive.
Furthermore, the novel is regarded as feminist, because it is written from women's point of view and portrays lives of women focusing on white women from the rich planter class. The author also expresses criticism of the patriarchal society of the Antebellum South and shows how a historical event affects women's lives and how women perceive it.
It is indisputable that any war brings drastic changes in a society, for both men and women of all social positions. In my diploma thesis, I focus on the way the American Civil War changed the patriarchal society of the Antebellum South paying my attention to white women in high society, because the women characters in Margaret Mitchell's novel are in their ranks. The narrowing of the focus is also necessary because of the length of the thesis. Another reason for concentrating on the above-mentioned group is that there are many works dealing with the stated group of women of the particular period. Plantation mistresses had education and time to keep diaries, personal records, memories, and letters. Works based on the above-mentioned materials are used as secondary sources. The most famous diary is that of Mary Boykin Chesnut. She was born in 1823 near Camden in South Carolina in a prominent family. She was very intelligent and well educated. She attended Madame Talvande's French school for Young Ladies in Charleston. Her husband James Chesnut, Jr. was a lawyer and helped found the new Confederate government. Owing to the fact, Mary met a lot of important southerners, such as General Lee or President Davis and his wife. She also spent some time running a plantation. She kept an extensive diary intermittently during the years of the Confederacy.
The aim of this thesis is to discuss how Margaret Mitchell presents life, status and roles of southern women of high society before the American Civil War and in subsequent years in her novel Gone with the Wind;and compare her view with facts gained from historical sources to prove that her novel portrays the life truthfully. I will also present the impact that the American Civil War had on the lives of these women and how women perceived the War and its consequences focussing on the characters of Melanie and Scarlett and analysing their different attitudes and therefore their abilities to survive.
My work is divided into several chapters. In Chapter 2, I provide a brief autobiography of Margaret Mitchell, concentrating on the factors that directly influenced her writing, choice of the topic and point of view.
Chapter 3 presents an analysis of the Antebellum South. I focus on important issues having impact on women highlighting the differences between the North and the South, because the differences led into the Civil War, which dramatically changed life in the South. Firstly, I characterise the southern society. Secondly, I concentrate on the economy. Then I provide some facts about education, which certainly played its role in women's lives. The greatest part of the chapter is devoted to a discussion of aspects of a typical plantation mistress' life. It is important to understand the specific conditions of the South. It will help us to comprehend how difficult the Civil War was for southern women and how it altered the society.
In chapter 4, focusing on the era of the American Civil War and Reconstruction, I present how lives of wealthy southern women were transformed during the War and in the subsequent years, what new roles women had to adopt and how they coped with the changed situation. I analyse Melanie and Scarlett's abilities to survive.
The final chapter is devoted to a summary of the established facts.
2. Margaret Mitchell – her Life and Work
Margaret Munnerlyn Mitchell was born on 8 November 1900 in Atlanta, Georgia, as a second child in a family with aristocracy ancestry. From her father's side, she was the fourth generation living in Atlanta and she spent her whole life in the area. The relatives who experienced the Civil War (her grandfather Russell Mitchell was injured when fighting at Antietam) and Confederate veterans told little Margaret stories about the American Civil War, which really fascinated her. Her father, Eugene, who was a prominent lawyer and a historian (the president of the Atlanta Historical Society), attracted her interest in the history of the South and he taught her to love the South. Margaret and Stephen, her younger brother, spent a lot of time in their childhood in Clayton County, the part of Georgia where their ancestors settled and were part of wealthy planter elite. These are very probably the reasons why she set the story of her only published novel, Gone with the Wind, in the town of Atlanta and rural Clayton County in Georgia, during the Civil War and Reconstruction and why the story is presented from the point of view of the South.
Since the novel was published, critics have been ambivalent about its literary value. Some critics praise it for its historical accuracy, characterization of its protagonists and sense of dialogues. The book has often been compared to William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair and Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace. Both the novels were written before Gone with the Wind, therefore it is presumable that Mitchell, being fond of reading, was familiar with the books, but she denied reading any of them and being inspired by them. Paul Pickrel in his work Vanity Fair in America: the House of Mirth and Gone with the Wind analyses how the two novels, Vanity Fair and Gone with the Wind, are similar. I am not able to confirm similarities owing to the fact I have read neither Thackeray nor Tolstoy's novels and their comparison is not the aim of the thesis. One of the people who was impressed with the novel Gone with the Wind and saw similarities with War and Peace by Tolstoy was Edwin Phillips Granberry. He worked as a reviewer for the New York Sun and was Mitchell's close friend. Another reviewer who considered the novel to be one of the best works about the Civil War and Reconstruction was Herschell Brickell of the New York Post. On the other hand, according to many critics, the novel has no literary merit being too romantic and banal and even misrepresenting the truth. Bernard DeVoto, Saturday Review of Literature, shares this opinion, for instance (Gone with the Wind: Critical Overview).
Moreover, because of Mitchell's way of portraying Afro-Americans or sentimental view on plantation life, the novel is thought to be rather controversial and even racist. According to Encyclopaedia of World Biography on Margaret Mitchell, “It romanticises the slave-owning class, and, except perhaps for D.W.Griffith's classic Birth of a Nation2, no work has done more to misrepresent Reconstruction as a cruelty visited upon an innocent white South—whereas today historians generally agree that it was an honest, if flawed, attempt to bring real democracy to a region that had never known it” (Encyclopedia of World Biography on Margaret Mitchell). It is also claimed that “Racist it unquestionably is—almost inevitably so, given the time and place of its composition. Beyond that, it gives powerful support to damaging stereo-types that for long helped sustain racial segregation”(Encyclopedia of World Biography on Margaret Mitchell). According to Jennifer Word Dickey, opinions of the novel Gone with the Wind are directly related to how the Southern history is viewed. In 1936, when the book was published, white historians and critics assumed it to be “the greatest historical novel ever written by an American” (Dickey 9). Glenwood Clark claims that Mitchell's portrait of the South is based on historical facts. On the contrary, Afro-American scholars such as L. D. Reddick had opposite opinion. Civil Rights Movement in 1950's and 1960's brought more criticism (Dickey 9, 11). Mitchell herself resolutely refused being a racist referring to her charity and pointing out that using the terms “Nigger” and “darkey” had a historical basis.
According to contemporary moral rules, Gone with the Wind can be considered racist. Racism in the novel is connected not only with Afro-Americans, but also with negative attitudes and prejudices against people from the North and poor people. Melanie is very happy when Scarlett offers Ashley to work for her in Atlanta. In this case, they do not have to move to the North and “live with Yankees!” If they went to the North, they “couldn't let him [their son] go to school and associate with Yankee children and have pickaninnies in his class!” (Mitchell 712). However, the novel is considered racist mainly because of how Afro-Americans are portrayed. Firstly, it is the usage of words referring to them, such as niggers or darkies. Using them nowadays is unacceptable. One of the Tarleton twins says: “I swear, darkies are more trouble (Mitchell 23). Another example is Scarlett's thought: “How stupid negroes were! They never thought of anything unless they were told” (Mitchell 400). Especially Prissy, Scarlett's servant and Wade's nanny, is described as very incapable and Scarlett often shouts at her and threatens her with whipping and she sometimes even uses corporal punishment such as pinching. We can also find some racial references in the text: “Mammy's victories over Scarlett were hard-won and represented guile unknown to the white mind” (Mitchell 78). The most controversial part is that dealing with the era of Reconstruction, when former slaves are given freedom and the right to vote for them is under discussion:
Aided by the unscrupulous adventurers who operated the Freedmen's Bureau and urged on by a fervour of Northern hatred almost religious in its fanaticism, the former field hands found themselves suddenly elevated to the seats of the mighty. There they conducted themselves as creatures of small intelligence might naturally be expected to do. Like monkeys or small children turned loose among treasured objects whose value is beyond their comprehension, they ran wild--either from perverse pleasure in destruction or simply because of their ignorance. (Mitchell 638)
Foundation of the Ku Klux Klan and defence of its activity is also very controversial. The Ku Klux Klan is nowadays regarded to be one of the most racist organizations and is still active. In the novel, Mitchell justifies its existence by the necessity to defend white women against acts of violence committed by former slaves who were protected by the government in those days:
It was the large number of outrages on women and the ever-present fear for the safety of their wives and daughters that drove Southern men to cold and trembling fury and caused the Ku Klux Klan to spring up overnight. And it was against this nocturnal organization that the newspapers of the North cried out most loudly, never realizing the tragic necessity that brought it into being. (Mitchell 640)
The members of this secret organization were noble men including Ashley Wilkes and Frank Kennedy, Scarlett's second husband.
On the contrary, the relationship between masters and slaves is described as very friendly. Scarlett has a very nice relationship with Mummy and Dilcey, she appreciates their loyalty and help when working at destroyed Tara. When meeting slaves from Tara on their way to strengthen the fortifications of Atlanta, Scarlett recognises them, speaks to them politely and offers help:
“Oh, Captain Randall, don't scold them! They are our people. This is Big Sam our foreman, and Elijah and Apostle and Prophet from Tara. Of course, they had to speak to me. How are you, boys?” …
“Good-by, boys. Now, if you get sick or hurt or in trouble, let me know. I live right down Peachtree Street, down there in almost the last house at the end of town. Wait a minute—” She fumbled in her reticule. “Oh, dear, I haven't a cent. Rhett, give me a few shinplasters. Here, Big Sam, buy some tobacco for yourself and the boys.” (Mitchell 299, 231)
Mitchell emphasises loyalty of slaves to their masters very often. Mummy is “devoted to her last drop of blood to the O'Haras” (Mitchell 24). Another example is Uncle Peter, who is aunt Pittypat's coach driver. He is considered a member of the family.
White southerners during the Civil War and Reconstruction very often saw Afro-Americans as intellectually inferior, subordinate and not capable to make decisions on their own. Even Mary Boykin Chesnut, an intelligent woman regarding slavery as a great evil, did not appreciate Negroes very much:
Of Negroes in general, Mary had a very low opinion. In March 1862, she wrote: “The best way to take Negroes to your heart is to get as far away from them as possible. . . People can't love things dirty, ugly, repulsive simply because they ought.” More than once she referred to the blacks as animals; in August 1864, she wrote: “It takes but one moment for these creatures to go back to their naked savage, animal nature.” (Wiley 26)
Taking into consideration that Mitchell did vast research about life in the South and used information obtained from people living through the era, and if we assume that the author did not present her views on Afro-Americans and just wanted to portray the history as it was, the novel then does not provoke racism. Therefore, we can agree with the above-mentioned claim from Encyclopedia of World Biography on Margaret Mitchell that it is important to take into consideration the period when the novel was written and historical facts. In spite of the controversy, the novel is still very popular all around the world and I suppose that it is mainly because of the strongly defined personality of the heroine, Scarlett O'Hara.
Another issue appearing in Gone with the Wind alongside the positive view of the South is feminism. According to Tel Asiado “It has been praised as the first novel to tell the story of the Civil War from a Southern woman's point of view”(Asiado). Mitchell's mother, Maybelle, who was of Irish Catholic origin and supported women's suffrage (she was the president of the South's militant suffrage groups), influenced her significantly. “Margaret's mother was a devout Catholic with proud Irish roots and she instilled that pride in her children. Mrs. Mitchell was one of the founders of the League of Women Voters in Georgia; she was very outspoken about women's rights and would often take Margaret to suffragette rallies. Her argument for women's rights was based on economic justice. Mrs. Stephens had inherited some property and she objected to paying taxes if she was not given the right to vote on how the money should be spent” (Lewis). Nevertheless, it is important to realise that when talking about women in connection with Gone with the Wind we mean white women from the planter society. The novel is written from their point of view and portrays primarily how the Civil War and Reconstruction project in their lives.
Mitchell drew inspiration not only from the stories, told her by people who remembered the Civil War and Reconstruction, stories which enraptured her as a child, but also from historical books, newspapers and other sources, from which she obtained encyclopaedic knowledge of the Civil War. Her own life was also her source of inspiration. Firstly, it is the setting of the novel - Atlanta, a town she really loved, and Clayton County, where she spent her childhood. Furthermore, Margaret Mitchell was employed as a feature writer for the Atlanta Journal for four years using a pseudonym Peggy Mitchell, a nickname from the college. She is regarded as the first female columnists working for the newspaper. She wrote articles, interviews, sketches and book reviews. It was a great experience for her acquiring more writing skills and learning about her hometown Atlanta and its history. She worked on a series of articles about eminent women in Georgia history and another series was devoted to portraits of Confederate generals. When working on the article about General Henry Benning3, she became interested in the life of his wife, who had to run the family plantation during the war and look after her family, and later Mitchell used the acquired knowledge in her novel.
Secondly, the main characters are based on people from her life. According to Elizabeth Evans, in the portrait of Scarlett we can see the author herself(Evans. “Chapter 2: A Young Woman, Alone and Ambivalent”). Scarlett as well as Margaret had to sacrifice her dreams and had to look after her father and the whole family. Mitchell left Smith College after a few months of studying medicine there (started in autumn 1918 and left in 1919) because her mother died of influenza in January 1919 and Mitchell went back to Atlanta to care of her father and older brother, Stephens. Mitchell's mother became ill when taking care of her diseased husband and did not want her daughter to come back home to prevent her from catching the influenza. Margaret therefore came home after her death. We can find the parallel in the novel where during the war Scarlett desires to go back home, to see her mother. She needs her help and support, but when she finally manages to get home, it is too late. Her mother has become infected with typhoid and has died before Scarlett's arrival.
Mitchell, likewise Scarlett, was forced to work to earn money after she married her first husband, Berrien Kinnard Upshow, in 1922. However, taking a job as a writer was a pleasure for her because writing had been Margaret's passion since her childhood. In the time she could not write, she used to dictate her stories to her mother. In addition, she used her friends, relatives and even herself as characters in her stories. Little Margaret directed her friends to perform in her own plays. Like Scarlett, Mitchell was free-spirited, provoked, and shocked the society in Atlanta, which she officially entered when she returned from Smith College in Massachusetts and spent the following year as a débutante without her mother's help, support, sensible guidance and careful control. “During the last charity ball of the season, Mitchell created a scandal by performing a sensuous dance [Apache dance] popular in the nightclubs of Paris, France”(Thomas). Christina Lewis claims: “Much like her heroine Scarlett O'Hara, Margaret enjoyed social events and being the center of attention. She was a lively and spirited girl with a great sense of humor. She was flirtatious and charming and always had a long string of beaux”(Lewis). Because of her behaviour she was ignored by the Junior League. Likewise Scarlett she was not approved by the society. The reasons for her alienation were very probably “jealousy over Margaret's prettiness and popularity among young men, her sharp evaluation of everything around her, her unwillingness to be controlled by others” (Evans. “Chapter 2: A Young Woman, Alone and Ambivalent”). Another thing was that Margaret made no secrets of her smoking and drinking. After she got married, she chose to keep her maiden name, for supposedly business reasons, an uncommon act for the time.
Some researchers also claim that Mitchell's grandmother Annie Stephens, who lived in northern Georgia during the Civil War, was more like Scarlett than Mitchell herself was. “She [Annie Stephens] too was well known for her stubbornness, ruthlessness, and explosive temper. Annie became involved in business during the Reconstruction era, when such activities were not regarded as fashionable pursuit for a lady; these actions are also undertaken by Scarlett” (Overview: Gone with the Wind).
Although Margaret claimed that characters in her novel Gone with the Wind were fictitious, it has been proved that the main male characters share similarities with real people from her life. Rhett Butler is supposed to be based on her first husband Berrien Kinnard Upshow. This good-looking and romantic ex-football player had problems with alcohol and was fierce-tempered. Their marriage lasted only 3 months because he physically and sexually abused his wife; they divorced in 1924. It is also claimed that George Trenholm, a prominent politician in the Confederate States of America, may have servedas a prototype of Rhett Butler (Rosen). Apparently, real as well as historical people served Mitchell to portray not only Rhett Butler but also other characters in the novel.
Another male character, Ashley Wilkes, is probably based on a real person too. Before Margaret started studying at Smith College, she fell in love with Clifford Henry, a rich and important man from New York, a man similar to Ashley Wilkes. They were engaged but Clifford was killed during World War I in 1918.
After her marriage with Upshow was annulled, Margaret Mitchell married her second husband John Marsh in 1925 and her life became more peaceful. She abandoned her job to become a good wife for John. However, she sometimes contributed to the newspaper. They did not have any children. After Margaret had injured her ankle and left her job completely to recover, she, encouraged by her husband, started working on her novel Gone with the Wind, which was published in June 1936 by the Macmillan Publishing company. The book became soon very popular and it has not lost anything from its popularity until today. Jane Thomas in her article claims that “Approximately 250,000 copies are still sold each year”(Thomas). Mitchell was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in May 1937. Very soon after its publication, the novel was made into a very successful film starring Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable. Mitchell, however, refused to cooperate on the film script. The film, which won ten Academy Awards in 1940, had its première in Atlanta on 15 December 1939.
Mitchell was very strict with herself as far as her work is concerned. When studying at Smith she was not satisfied with her results. She was an average student and the only subject she excelled at was English composition. She maintained an opinion that if she could not be the first, it would be better to be nothing. Therefore leaving the college was actually a relief for her. She also kept her manuscript of Gone with the Wind a secret. Only her husband knew about it. At first, when Harold Latham, an editor for MacMillan, asked her to show him her work, she denied to have any. Only a sarcastic remark of one of her friends about her abilities to produce something valuable made her hand over many manila envelopes containing the novel. After publishing the novel, the original manuscript was destroyed on her request as well as her other works which she did not find satisfactory. She never published or wrote another book. One reason why she did not continue in her writing was presumably lack of time or a feeling that she would not be able to write anything good. She devoted most of her time to correspondence with her fans and to protection of the copyright of the book abroad.
Mitchell used the money she earned from the book and film to support medical scholarship for Afro-American students at Morehouse College and social service organizations in Atlanta during World War II. She also helped to obtain money to rebuild the U.S.S Atlanta, which sank during the battle in Guadalcanal.
Margaret Mitchell died on August 16, 1949, five days after she was hit by a car when going to the cinema with her husband. The apartment in Peachtree Street, she used to live in and where she wrote Gone with the Wind, housesthe Margaret Mitchell House and Museum.