Study Guide

Gone With the Wind Themes

  • Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    Gone With the Wind loves to watch its characters' plans and hopes fail and turn to dust and ashes and general unhappiness. Or, alternately, it loves to have its characters hopes come true and turn to dust and ashes and unhappiness. Scarlett is miserable when her dreams don't work out (as when she can't have Ashley) and miserable when they do work out (as when she can have Ashley). Basically, your best bet if you're a character in Gone With the Wind is just not to dream or hope at all. If you do, they will get you somehow.

    Questions About Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    1. Are Melanie's hopes fulfilled? Do they make her unhappy? Why or why not?
    2. Does Scarlett ever fail to get what she wants? What does that say for her chances of getting Rhett eventually?
    3. Do any black characters in the novel have dreams or hopes? Why or why not? What impact does this have on the characterization of black people in the book in general?

    Chew on This

    Scarlett is successful because she is practical and not a dreamer.

    Scarlett is successful because she is a dreamer.

  • Love

    Gone With the Wind is often thought of as one of the greatest love stories of all time. Which is kind of odd, since mostly love crashes and burns in the novel, or just crawls off into a corner to smother pitifully. Everybody loves the wrong person, and then, when they love the right person, the right person stops loving them, suddenly making them the wrong person instead.

    Scarlett marries someone she doesn't love not once, not twice, but three times, and the more we think about it, the more we aren't sure that there's a single marriage in the book that is a love match—remember, Ellen doesn't even love Gerald and dies with another man's name on her lips. Love in Gone With the Wind is always at least a little bit tragic. Maybe that's what folks want in a great novel about love, though.

    Questions About Love

    1. Does Scarlett's love for Ashley sustain her through the novel? Why or why not?
    2. Does non-romantic love—love of parent for children, for example—work out better than romantic love in the novel? Why or why not?
    3. Is Melly happy in her love for Ashley? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Scarlett's love life is messed up because the Civil War uproots Southern society.

    Scarlett is right to blame Ashley at the end of the novel; her failures in love are all his fault.

  • Memory and the Past

    As you'd expect from a historical novel called Gone With the Wind, this book is obsessed with the past. Everything before the war was better than everything after the war; once there was happiness and honor and racism as far as the eye could see, and afterward there is still racism, but you have to be ashamed of it.

    Yet at the same time as it slops about this misguided nostalgia, the book also presents nostalgia as misguided—or at least impractical. Scarlett is able to accomplish so much because she doesn't spend all her time mooning after the past. But the novel also suggests that she's a less worthy person because she is so strong and un-nostalgic. Memory is a source of weakness, but also of nobility in this book. Or, to put it differently, memory is a hot mess.

    Questions About Memory and the Past

    1. Is Scarlett's love for Ashley actually nostalgia for the time before the war?
    2. Does Rhett have any nostalgia for the world before the war? What evidence is there for your answer?
    3. What is the relationship between memory and the KKK?

    Chew on This

    Memory in Gone With the Wind is the source of all virtue.

    Memory in Gone With the Wind is fundamentally evil, inasmuch as it erases the experience of slavery.

  • Perseverance

    For this theme, we will step aside and hand you over to a world-renowned expert on Gone With the Wind: Margaret Mitchell. Here's what she said about the novel and perseverance in 1936:

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

    So yeah, insofar as gumption is perseverance, we've definitely got ourselves a theme for this book.

    Questions About Perseverance

    1. Is perseverance a virtue in Gone With the Wind? Is Scarlett seen as better than others because she survives and thrives, or as worse than others?
    2. Which people other than Scarlett in Gone With the Wind have gumption? Provide evidence of their gumptionfulness. (No, gumptionfulness isn't a word, but we're thinking it should be.)
    3. Which people other than Ashley in Gone With the Wind lack gumption? Provide evidence of their gumptionlessness.

    Chew on This

    Black people in Gone With the Wind neither have gumption nor lack gumption, because they are not considered human.

    Women in Gone With the Wind have more gumption than men.

  • Race

    Race and racism are mostly in the background in Gone With the Wind, just as black characters are decidedly secondary. But if you think about what it would mean to be black at the time Mitchell writes about, that background quickly becomes central, and even overwhelming. How can you tell the story of the Civil War without showing the difficulties faced by slaves? For that matter, how can you admire, or even like, people like Frank Kennedy and Ashley Wilkes who ride about with masks over their faces to terrorize black people? Ugh.

    Thinking about race tends to turn Gone With the Wind inside-out; the good guys are the bad guys, those Union soldiers look like liberators—and the black characters seem not like marginal players, but like the focal point, even if the novel is too filled with racism to really look at them.

    Questions About Race

    1. Why is it so important to the novel to argue that black people didn't want to be freed from slavery?
    2. The novel argues that slaves were treated well throughout the South. Even if you were treated well, would you want to be a slave? Why or why not?
    3. How does the novel attempt to justify the murder of black men? How does it try to justify preventing black people from voting?

    Chew on This

    Gone With the Wind attempts to justify its racism by putting some of its most racist sentiments in the mouths of black characters.

    The real tragedy of the novel is not Scarlett's failed marriage, but the fact that Southern Democrats are able to regain control of the government and prevent black people from voting.

  • Society and Class

    The biggest class divide in the Confederate South was race. White people had power, property, and money; black people for the most part weren't even able to own themselves. This sharp, absolute division helped to make some people (those who stole blacks' labor) very wealthy, contributing to a rigid class structure, in which poor whites (without slaves) were seen as almost subhuman, and even new, wealthy men (like Gerald) were viewed as less worthy than old money.

    Gone With the Wind presents the old South as a wonderful place… but it manages to do so by ignoring not only black people, but anyone not at the tippy top of the social world. And yes, being rich in the old South was probably enjoyable… but being rich is always fun. Ask the Slatterys if the Confederate South was so great, and we're pretty sure you'd get some choice opinions that didn't make it into Mitchell's book.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. How would Gone With the Wind be different if it were told from the Slatterys' perspective?
    2. The novel often criticizes the Yankees for trying to make money. Why don't planters like the Tarletons and Wilkes need to scramble for money? Who scrambles for them?
    3. What does the novel think about equality?

    Chew on This

    Scarlett's problem is that she's Gerald's daughter, and so doesn't really understand how to be a true Southerner.

    Rhett Butler and Scarlett both suggest that Gone With the Wind is fascinated and repulsed at the possibility of economic mobility and making money.

  • Warfare

    War and violence in Gone With the Wind are presented as awful, unnecessary—and noble. The Confederate deaths are seen as wasteful, the fight as unwinnable, but at the same time the Yankees are straightforwardly evil and bad, and shooting them is presented as a moral good.

    The confusion is perhaps due to the fact that the novel is never able to admit that the cause of the war was slavery. As a result, the war seems to be about nothing, a senseless waste of life, which destroys the beautiful Southern society for no reason. There's an old saying that history is written by the victors, but in this case, the defeated are writing the history—and as a result, the war that defeated them is seen as bad. Bummer for Mitchell, a few other books have been written about this time period that beg to differ with her assessment.

    Questions About Warfare

    1. What does the novel present as the cause of the war? Is there any cause?
    2. Is violence heroic in the novel? Explain your answer.
    3. What role do women play in the war in the novel?

    Chew on This

    Rhett needs to fight in the war or else the novel would not consider him a worthy romantic hero.

    The war continues after the end of formal hostilities, and the South and the KKK win.

  • Women and Femininity

    Margaret Mitchell was herself something of a pioneer for women's rights, working as a journalist at a time when few women did. In that spirit, Gone With the Wind admires Scarlett's gumption and her ability to be a successful businesswoman in defiance of the restricted role of women in her day.

    At the same time, though, the novel mourns the loss of the Confederate South—and part of that society was a pervasive sexism. Gone With the Wind, then, both revels in Scarlett's accomplishments and sees them as a problem: She's good at making money, but that doesn't make her happy; she protects her own, which is presented as cool and admirable, but doing so also (the novel says at various points) makes her unwomanly and unattractive.

    On the other hand, the icons of "good" femininity—Ellen and Melanie—both die nobly sacrificing themselves, Ellen through nursing the Slatterys, Melanie through trying to have a child. So that doesn't sound so great either.

    Questions About Women and Femininity

    1. Would you like to be a white woman in the pre-war South? Why or why not?
    2. Compare Melanie and Mammy. Whom does the novel treat as more feminine? Are black women seen as women in the novel?
    3. In Ellen and Melanie, is femininity in the novel seen as weakness? Explain your answer.

    Chew on This

    The novel admires Scarlett for not being feminine.

    The novel condemns Scarlett for not being feminine.