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Major Themes- see detailed discussion in Overall Analyses section.
• Love of money
• Attitudes toward slavery
The mood is very sympathetic toward the south and the old customs, but avoids sentimentality. The narrator objectively acknowledges the changes brought by the war and the need to accept and live with change. Although she creates Scarlett as a rather unlovable character, a reader soon develops a love/hate sensation toward her. The historical passages are presented as objective and factual which makes them seem more accurate than they are at times.
Margaret Munnerlyn Mitchell was born in 1900 in Atlanta, Georgia and lived just 49 years. She attended Washington Seminary in Atlanta and Smith College in Massachusetts. She worked for the Atlanta Journal from 1922 to 1926, but took a retirement after injuring her ankle. She worked on her only novel, Gone with the Wind, for ten years, publishing it in 1936. The motion picture rights were sold for $50,000, and the film won the "Best Picture" Academy award in 1940. The novel was an overnight sensation, selling a million copies and requiring 31 printings in its first year of release.
Mitchell said of her novel, "If it has a theme, it is that of survival. What makes some people able to come through catastrophes and others, apparently just as able, go under?" She says that some called it "gumption." "So I wrote about people who had gumption and the people who didn't." In writing her story, Margaret drew on the history and experiences from her own family. Both of her parents were of Irish descent, and many of her ancestors had fought in the American Revolution, Irish uprisings, and the Civil War. Her grandparents had lived in Jonesboro, and Margaret herself rode about Atlanta on a pony while listening to stories told by Confederate veterans. Part of her childhood was spent in a stately home on Peachtree Street.
Mitchell had a "secret life" which is recognized today in the Margaret Mitchell Museum in Atlanta. She was a champion for African Americans in an age when segregation reigned in the south and the new KKK was an active organization. As a 19 year old, she chose to work in the city's black clinics and was accordingly expelled from the Junior League. In 1941, after being approached by Dr. Benjamin Mays, she gave a donation of $80.00 to Morehouse College, a historically black institution. When she was told of the impact of her gift, she decided to make the donation a yearly event, but asked that it be kept anonymous. Dr. Mays, president of the college, kept her secret for several years after her death. In all, she helped over 40 African Americans become medical students.
In the 1940s, Mitchell became a full-time volunteer, devoting her energies to numerous projects. She died in 1949 after being hit by a speeding taxi while crossing the street near her home.
Mitchell's novel resulted in the creation of a southern stereotype that is quite different from Mitchell's intention. The "Scarlett O'Hara syndrome" is a term that is used to describe any female, particularly of southern descent, whose primary goal is to marry money. It isn't accurate, because although Scarlett's goal was definitely the acquisition of money, she was fiercely independent and determined to get it for herself. She had little confidence in the ability of any man to provide it for her, especially after Rhett Butler turned her down. However, the term fits if it is used to indicate a female who is determined to have wealth and luxury at any price.
Beyond the individual character, the novel also gives some insight into the manners and traditions on the southern plantations, particularly among the women. The attitudes and expectations of the "high society" ladies persist to this day especially in the southern cities of Charleston and Savannah. There remains a culture of the elite, who, although they no longer acquire their wealth through the plantation system, still live according to a class system and try to keep their associations limited to other wealthy individuals perceived to be in their own class.
Mitchell's story is woven along a cord created by the Civil War and its aftermath, particularly in the city of Atlanta. Atlanta owes its existence to the railroads. In 1837, a spot now known as Five Points was selected for the southern end of a railroad to be built toward Chattanooga. The location was called Terminus, then Marthasville in honor of Governor Lumpkin's daughter. In 1845, it was renamed Atlanta for the western and Atlantic railroad.
During the Civil War, Atlanta was a supply depot for the Confederate army, and therefore a target for General Sherman. The city was captured in 1864; a large part of the city was burned and the rest was converted to a military camp. During Reconstruction, Atlanta was the center for federal activities in the south. Atlanta came to epitomize the spirit of the New South because the city was literally built on its own ashes. Supposedly, Atlanta was a leader in urging reconciliation with the north in order to restore commerce. However, many of the people who rebuilt Atlanta were actually northerners who moved into the area. Thus, by 1868 the population of the city was radically different from that before the war.
Mitchell uses the KKK as a complicated device in the story. The Ku Klux Klan was originally a social organization of Confederate veterans, but quickly evolved into a method for southern resistance to Radical Reconstruction. The federal government freed the slaves and set up an organization known as the Freedman's Bureau. The Bureau was supposed to supervise the feeding, protection and educating of the emancipated blacks. They made critical mistakes, however, in bribing blacks to leave their southern masters with promises of positions in government, ownership of property, the right to vote, wealth and, in short, equal rights with southern whites. The Bureau did not have the ability to deliver on these promises. The result was immediate conflict between blacks who were, in some cases, worse off than they had been before emancipation, and the now disenfranchised whites.
The newly created state governments of the southern states were political coalitions of blacks, carpetbaggers, (northerners who had gone into the south) and scalawags (southerners who collaborated with blacks and carpetbaggers). The southern states regarded these organizations as artificial creations imposed on the states from without. The resentment against this government combined with threats of violence from the emancipated blacks led to retaliation from groups such as the KKK. The Klan's purpose was to protect the interests of the south and restore white supremacy. While their early activities may have been defense or revenge for outrages permitted by the occupying force, they eventually resorted to intimidation and violence to discourage blacks from voting and to drive the Republicans out of the area.
The Klan reached its peak between 1868 and 1870 and was largely responsible for the restoration of white rule in North Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia. Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate Calvary general and the Klan's first grand wizard, ordered the Klan disbanded in 1869 because of excessive violence. Small groups remained active for several years, however.