Margaret Mitchell toyed with various titles for her novel, including Tomorrow Is Another Day (the last line of the novel) and Bugles Sang True. Obviously, she eventually settled on Gone With the Wind.
The title appears in the novel itself when Scarlett muses, "Was Tara still standing? Or was Tara also gone with the wind which had swept through Georgia?" (24.37). Here, "gone with the wind" refers to the pre-war—or antebellum—South, and its culture, as well as to everything that's been destroyed by the Civil War. Think: brave men, elegant women, slavery, and oppression.
The title also refers to a poem by Ernest Dowson with a fancy Latin title "Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonae sub Regno Cynarae," which means, "I am not as I was under the reign of the good Cynara." The relevant bit is found in the third stanza:
I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind,
Flung roses, roses riotously with the throng,
Dancing, to put thy pale, lost lilies out of mind;
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, all the time, because the dance was long;
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.
This isn't about losing a society or a culture; it's about losing a love, or trying to lose the memory of a love. So the title Gone With the Wind is both about losing the South and losing love, and the two are mixed up together, so that Scarlett's romantic failure is glorified as part of the fall of the South, while the fall of the South is made romantic and lovely because of Scarlett's failed romance.
The book ends with Rhett leaving Scarlett, and Scarlett deciding to go back to her family home at Tara to get herself together. She decides she'll head back there, and then:
With the spirit of her people who would not know defeat, even when it stared them in the fact, she raised her chin. She could get Rhett back. She knew she could. There had never been a man she couldn't get, once she set her mind upon him.
"I'll think of it tomorrow, at Tara. I can stand it then. Tomorrow, I'll think of some way to get him back." (63.135-136)
So, how are we supposed to take this? Scarlett says to herself that she's always gotten the men she's wanted, and she's right, more or less (she didn't marry Ashley, but he was still hers, kind of). So will she get Rhett back? Or is she deluding herself, lost in a dream of love and a future with Rhett as she was lost in a dream of love and a future with Ashley for the previous thousand or so pages?
There's no way to know really. One thing that is clear, though, is that Scarlett's gumption and determination is linked, throughout the book, to her willingness to push aside unpleasant thoughts. She's always determining to think about something tomorrow, refusing to deal with the bad things in order to move forward and survive. This is the root of all her successes; she was able to protect Tara, to own mills, to build her life up again after the war because she refused to look backward. She sets her eyes on a goal and she fights her way there, time and again.
But this is also the root of all her failures. Her refusal to really think through what she's doing once she's set her mind on a goal means that she never stopped to recalibrate whether she wanted Ashley the way she did way back when she was sixteen, nor did she ever consider whether she actually hated Melanie. She just kept tromping forward after her goals, never realizing she didn't really want to get to those goals in the first place.
The ending here can be seen, then, as pointing to a happy ending (she'll get Rhett) or as a sad ending demonstrating Scarlett's self-delusion (she thinks she'll get Rhett, but she won't). If the novel were to continue in the same vein, though, the ending wouldn't be happy or sad, but ominous. Scarlett gets what she wants, usually, only to discover she doesn't want it, and that she's made everyone miserable. If she sets her sights on Rhett, she'll probably get him—but they'll both regret it.
There are two settings in Gone With the Wind: the South that is there, and the South that isn't. Both are important—and both are deceptive.
The South that is there in the book is the South on the eve of, in the middle of, and in the wake of the Civil War. Mitchell fills the book with period details about this South. You learn that women were supposed to eat before a barbecue so that in public they appeared to be dainty and without appetite; you see Atlanta grow up from a backwater to a thriving metropolis; you see the South ravaged and defeated. And you see Tara:
[…] the white house gleaming welcome […] through the reddening autumn leaves […] the quiet hush of the country twilight coming down […] like a benediction. (63.133)
But beside the South that is there, in the bustle and sweep of history, there's also a South you barely see; an idealized pre-War South, untouched by War, perfect and ideal. That South is glimpsed in the early chapters of the book, though it's already passing away as the war comes.
So the ideal South, which the characters in the book see as the real South, is basically never represented. It's a ghost setting that's only discussed in memory. That's what Ashley is referring to when he says, "I do not know what the future will bring, but it cannot be as beautiful or as satisfying as the past" (11.16). Or when Scarlett realizes:
The old days had gone but these people would go their ways as if the old days still existed, charming, leisurely, determined not to rush and scramble for pennies as the Yankees did, determined to part with none of their old ways. (35.177)
Like the title says, Gone With the Wind is about a setting that disappears, or that passes away.
To create that setting, to imagine an ideal past, though, requires the novel to erase a lot of things. Most importantly, it erases the brutality of slavery. There is no place for the harshness of slavery in the beautiful past, nor in the novel's sad present.
To this end, you never see slaves working in the fields; you never see slaves sold away from their families and loved ones; you never see slaves who are complex people with their own loves and concerns and dreams. Black people in this book only exist as happy family retainers or ungrateful savages, and are never presented as fully human. The setting of Gone With the Wind is built first on denying their labor and then on denying their freedom. If it acknowledged either, it would truly blow apart.
If Ashley Wilkes had written Gone With the Wind you can be sure he would have put in some sort of noble epigraph about the past and loss and duty and so forth. But he didn't, so it doesn't have one.
Look at it this way: Gone With the Wind is one of the most popular books ever, so it can't be that hard to get through. To this end, it's written clearly and its plot bounces along. On the other hand, it is very long, and has lots of characters and events to keep straight as you go. This places it up there at the tree line—a doable hike for sure, but not exactly a jog to the summit.
Before Scarlett goes off to the barbecue, she has to get her corset laced up. It's a painful process, requiring Mammy to help. Check it out:
"Hole onter sumpin' an' suck in yo' breaf," [Mammy] commanded.
Scarlett obeyed, bracing herself and catching firm hold of one of the bedposts. Mammy pulled and jerked vigorously and, as the tiny circumference of whalebone-girdled waist grew smaller, a proud, fond look came into her eyes. (5.33-34)
Scarlett is quite uncomfortable in the outfit—she says, "'Goodness but my stays are tight!'" (5.38)—but she, like Mammy, is also proud of her ability to fit herself into the constricted clothing. But symbolically, this is about way more than just a tiny waistline.
Femininity, and the place of women in Southern society, is, like the corset, very restricting. Scarlett chafes inside it, and yet at the same time, she is proud when she manages to strap herself into it. She doesn't like the way women have to be "helpless, clinging doe-eyed creatures" (5.55) strapped so tight into their enforced artificial femininity that they can barely move—but she also wonders whether there's "something in it" (5.55). This rigid femininity, after all, is culturally revered.
The corset, then, is both a burden and an aspiration. Being a Southern belle is really uncomfortable, and Scarlett can tell it's uncomfortable and doesn't like it—but neither she nor the novel is ever quite willing to just toss the corset aside and declare it unnecessary and oppressive. She may break the feminine mold in other ways (hey there, business savvy), but she also works within it, intrigued by what it can help her attain, particularly when it comes to using men to shore up her own future.
When Rhett first appears in the novel he's described as "dark of face, swarthy as a pirate" (6.16). Rhett is a white man, but he looks like he's black—and in a novel as racist as this one, that's an important detail.
Rhett's darkness directly links the novel's fascination with race to its fascination with sex. In the novel, most of the "good" black people—those who remain loyal and who (you're supposed to believe) enjoy being slaves—are asexual. Mammy and Uncle Peter appear to have no sexual interests at all; they happily spend their lives serving white folks, never once even thinking about the possibility of falling in love themselves, or raising their own families.
Even the flighty Prissy seems uninterested in flirtation. The sole exceptions to the whole good-black-people-don't-have-sex equation are Prissy's parents, Pork and Dilcey. Prissy's living proof they have had sex at least once, but we never see much of their relationship, and we certainly never see the two of them alone together.
But while "good" black people are desexualized, "bad" black people—you know, those who want freedom—are presented as uncontrollably hyper-sexualized. Eustis, the Fontaine's freed slave, just speaks to Sally Fontaine, and this is treated as a rape, requiring the murder not just of Eustis but of the white man who "had the gall" to say that black people "'had a right to—to—white women'" (37.20), at least according to the racist murderer Tony Fontaine. Interestingly, Eustis has been freed at the time of this incident—and when he dares to act as such, he gets killed.
Later in the novel, Scarlett undergoes a sexualized attack from a black man who fondles her breasts (in an effort to get at money), prompting Scarlett to feel "terror and revulsion such as she had never known" (44.108). When Scarlett works her sexuality to her advantage, though—often to get money for herself—instead of inspiring immense fear and disgust, she usually just lands herself a husband. Her sexuality, then, is a socially acceptable tool to some degree; the black man fondling her breasts, however, is a person wildly outside the confines of their station.
But back to Rhett and that initial description. By referencing pirates and a dark skin tone, Rhett is doubly introduced as an outlaw, a man who takes what he wants. And he does nothing to work against these stereotypes, even going so far as to (arguably) rape his wife.
Black sexuality is either completely denied or violently rejected as animalistic and repulsive. But… Rhett suggests that black sexuality is not just repulsive.
Rhett is dark, like the former slaves, and he's animalistic and dangerous, as they are supposed to be. But his dangerous, brutal sexuality is presented as exciting and stimulating. When Rhett, in a jealous rage, attacks Scarlett late in the novel, Scarlett finds she enjoys the violence, which she describes explicitly in terms of blackness:
She was darkness and he was darkness and there had never been anything before this time, only darkness and his lips upon her. (54.67)
Interracial sex, then, seems like it's horrifying in part because it's so desirable and forbidden and exciting. On the one hand, the novel suggests that black men who are not entirely asexual need to be systematically exterminated, while on the other, it thinks its romantic lead is exciting because he's "dark."
It's not black people in the novel who lust after white people, but white people who indulge in sensationalistic sexual fantasies about black people. And to make up for those fantasies, the novel has to send white guys like Tony Fontaine to kill black people. Which doesn't really seem fair—but it's just one more reminder that a society built on slavery is not a very nice place.
At Tara, Scarlett shoots a lone Yankee raider, using the pistol her first husband Charles "had worn, but never fired" (26.18). Charles died of disease almost immediately upon getting into the army; he never fought in battle.
Charles is presented in the novel as a mooncalf-like, feminized drip. The pistol is a symbol of his masculinity, or lack thereof—it's a phallic symbol, which he never used, because he's not much of a man.
Scarlett, on the other hand, is quite man enough to use the pistol. She does so decisively, and though she's a little shocked at first, her most powerful reaction after killing the guy is to feel "vitally glad with a cool tigerish joy" (26.25). She's a warrior who has picked up her useless husband's gun, and taken his place better than he ever managed himself.
The Yankee has money, which allows Scarlett to keep Tara going; Rhett even tells her later that "murdering that Yankee […] really gave you your start" (57.127). Picking up the pistol allows Scarlett to become a success in a world where being a success is seen as, by nature, manly. She becomes her first husband… and she's better at the gig than he ever was.
When the green velvet curtains first show up, they're connected for Scarlett to her mother, Ellen, and to her comforting childhood. Check it out:
The moss-green velvet curtains felt prickly and soft beneath her cheek and she rubbed her face against them gratefully, like a cat. (32.61)
But then suddenly, Scarlett realizes that she can pull the curtains down and turn them into a new dress, so that she can go to Atlanta in splendor and convince Rhett to marry her and pay the taxes on Tara so she won't lose the land.
The curtains, then, are one of Ellen's last gifts to Scarlett; she wears her mother's curtains to save her mother's house. But at the same time, wearing the curtains in order to shamelessly attract a man—and not necessarily even for marriage— is a betrayal of her mother's ladylike code of behavior. She's not so much using her mother's memory as defacing it. So the curtains are a symbol both of Scarlett's ingenuity and of her betrayal, and also of how she has to betray the past in order to save it. The curtains are both her pride and shame.
At least she remembered to take the curtain rod out of the dress before she went to see Rhett though. There's embarrassing and then there's embarrassing.
Throughout Gone With the Wind, black characters' speech is written with phonetic misspellings. Here's an example:
Miss Melly, den Ah know he los' his mine. He drunk an' he need sleep an' sumptin' ter eat but dat ain' all. He plumb crazy. (59.86)
The effect is to make the black characters appear uneducated, inarticulate, and childlike. Imagine for a moment if all the white characters talked this way. Here's Melanie talking about Rhett and his agony over Bonnie's death:
"Oh! Poor, poor Captain Butler!" she cried. "I'll go to him now, right away." (59.95)
She's so sensitive and concerned, right? And when she says she's go to him, she comes across as rising to the occasion, perhaps even taking charge. Now let's take this same exact moment and use the spelling Mitchell employs for the speech of black characters:
"O! Po'r, po'r Cap'n Butler!" she cried. "Ah'll go ter him now, r'ght 'way." (59.95)
Suddenly it's Melanie who seems uneducated and unsophisticated, talking from behind a barrier of ignorance and otherness. Dialect makes black people seem less than human, and by contrast, it makes white people seem fully human; like they're people you can talk to and understand.
Mitchell uses dialect for various effects in the book. For instance, in the quote above, she has Mammy telling Melanie about how Rhett is reacting to the loss of his daughter. The result is intentionally precious or sentimental and moving; it's like having a child relate the story of a great tragedy, so that the innocence adds to the effect. Often, too, dialect is used for humor, as when Uncle Peter scolds Scarlett for not coming back to Aunt Pitty's house.
Ya'll nee'n try ter 'scuse yo'seffs. Ain' Miss Pitty writ you an' writ you ter come home? (30.24)
This is supposed to be funny because Peter, an ignorant servant, is upbraiding his superiors indignantly. The dialect emphasizes his silliness, and how incongruous it is for him to be yelling at them.
The scene is almost out of a blackface minstrel show, in which whites blackened their faces and then performed ridiculous skits based on the racist premise that black people were ridiculous. Such skits were still popular in the 1930s when Mitchell wrote her book, and Mitchell herself is writing in the voice of black people in order to make black people look ridiculous and inferior.
Uncle Peter's speech above, then, can be seen not just as influenced by blackface, but as actual blackface, with Mitchell pretending to be black, indulging in racist and dehumanizing stereotypes and "putting on" blackness, if you will, for her own amusement. She is in the vein of white people pretending to be black, using trivializing speech patterns taken straight out of minstrel shows.
The use of dialect to demonstrate black ignorance is especially painful because slaves were deliberately kept from obtaining an education, and there were even laws forbidding anyone from teaching slaves to read. So essentially, Mitchell is mocking Peter and Mammy for having been persecuted and oppressed. Stay classy, Mitchell.