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Free Study Guide - Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

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Scarlett is the protagonist of the novel, but we are never sure whether we like her or not. We admire her spirit, her determination to survive, her creativity, and her loyalty to Tara. But she frustrates us with the foolish chances she takes, with the way she tries to manipulate the people who love her, with her poor ability to judge human nature. In the end, we want her to finally grow up and to return Rhett's love for a happy-ever-after resolution. When the ending is anything but happy, we are torn between thinking she got what was coming to her and feeling sorry for her. We despise her for her duplicity in marrying Charles for whom she has no use whatever and later for stealing her sister's fiancé so she can get the money for her taxes. It never occurs to her to try a direct approach first. If she had explained the tax situation to Frank and had asked him for a loan, he probably would have given her the money.

In Scarlett's defense, she does what she was raised to do, just in a different environment. We are told early in the novel that girls were expected to act like air-brained coquettes before they were married and afterward were expected to manage households that could have numbered a hundred people or more. She inherited her aptitude for math from her mother and her strong will from her father. When she bought her first mill, it was with honorable intentions; she wanted to put a new roof on Tara and have enough money so the imposition of taxes would never again be a threat. But her desire for money is never satisfied. The more she has, the more she wants, whether she really needs it or not.

As for Scarlett's love life, she has the good sense to show disdain for the artificial manners with which girls were expected to behave toward the opposite sex. They were taught such things as: a hearty appetite would never catch a man. Thus, when going to a party, they would stuff themselves with food at home. Then they would be able to eat only the daintiest morsels at the party. Also, women were taught to act ignorant, to hang on every word a man said as if she knew nothing herself, in order to make him feel superior. They were never to say what they actually thought. Scarlett has no use for all this play-acting, although she practices it when it will be to her benefit. She does, however, have a practical way of looking at southern customs, so it doesn't bother her a great deal when other ladies gossip about her for not acting like a lady.

Scarlett loves Ashley because, of all the young men she flirts with, he is the one who seems to have the strength of character she admires. The Tarleton boys are foolish and irresponsible and all too willing to hang around waiting for her favors. Some of the others gather around her like a flock of birds hoping for some teasing word or batted eyelash. She plays the game, but has no notions of love with any of them. They are just friends, and if she can use them to tease the other girls, she'll do it.

Ashley alone seems to have remained aloof from her although they have apparently had enough encounters to make her fall in love with him and to give her the impression that he cares for her. She is immature enough to think that flirting with other men will attract him, and she has never told him that she loves him. Instead, she thinks she is dangling him on the end of her string, making him anticipate the moment when she will accept him. Thus, she is caught completely off guard when he marries his own cousin Melanie that she doesn't even know he cared about.

The difference between Ashley and the other boys is that Ashley is well educated, intellectual, artistically and musically talented, and does not put himself at the mercy of every pretty face. He is also tall and handsome, and somewhat aloof. Scarlett doesn't understand anything he talks about, but she is drawn to his dignity and his old world charm. She says that she created a dream and put him into it, but don't we all try to find mates who fit what we think we want. He was her dream, and when the dream was destroyed, her love for him was destroyed with it.

Scarlett's greatest impatience is with weakness, but she judges by what she sees on the surface and thus misses the inner strength of several of the people in her life. Her initial hatred for Melanie is partly because Melanie marries Ashley, but also because she sees her as a weak, helpless, plain little fool. She takes advantage of Melanie's belief in her very early, but secretly scorns her for being so gullible. The friendship develops between her and Melanie because Melanie shows that while she may be quiet, she is anything but weak. She is able and willing to stand up for what she believes, even facing the most domineering of the Atlanta women. She is also able to manage Scarlett when she feels the need to do so. This is the strength that Scarlett respects.

Scarlett's best and worst characteristic could be called "procrastination." She thinks she can put off acting like a lady until she has money, but never realizes that money doesn't make one a lady. However, she is able to handle the worst tragedies by thinking about them "tomorrow." She perfected the concepts "tomorrow is another day," and "things always look better in the morning." In many ways, it's not so much that she puts things off, but that she deals with the problems she can resolve at the moment and puts the other problems aside until she can create a solution. She creates her own problems, but doesn't whine about them. If she can't fix the problem, she simply ignores it.

Rhett Butler

Rhett is from Charleston, South Carolina. He is totally independent because he had an un-detailed disagreement with his father and was disowned. There is a rumor that he ruined the reputation of a girl, and for that he is not "received" in his own home. Actually, he did nothing more than take the girl for a buggy ride. There was an accident in which the buggy was smashed and the horse ran away. Thus the two had to walk home and arrived late at night. The next day, he refused to marry her. According to his opinion, the girl was a silly, foolish sort who threw herself at him. He had no interest in her, had not harmed her in any way, and couldn't see any reason why he should marry her. Nevertheless, the girl was supposedly "ruined"; Rhett was challenged to a duel by her brother and won. Thereafter he was barred from Charleston society.

The typical rumor mill has exaggerated Rhett's reputation. He is said to be "loose" with women, although none of the women can say exactly what that means. He first sees Scarlett at the barbecue at Twelve Oaks and instantly falls in love with her. He admires her spirit and her candor in saying exactly what she thinks. He also has a very practical mind and has refused to blind himself in the name of tradition or abstractions such as the "cause." He predicts the Confederate loss before the war even starts, sighting the southern lack of equipment and preparation. The south has been wholly agricultural and does not have the first ammunition plant or weapons factory. The leaders have apparently not given much thought to the practical needs of an army. Rhett points this out, immediately antagonizing the people at Twelve Oaks. He repeats his blunt comments in Atlanta, always at the moment when people are busy fantasizing about the glorious cause, and makes enemies for himself wherever he goes. In spite of that, by selling his cotton in England and running Yankee blockades with needed goods, he does more for the south than any of the slogan spouting leaders of Atlanta. Although he has the reputation of a rogue and an opportunist, he is honest with himself. If the south is going to fight a losing battle, he is not going to sit by and share the coming days of poverty and hardship. As he says, there is as much money to be made in destroying a civilization as there is in building one.

In spite of his reputation, Rhett is a noble and decent character who sees below the surface of things. Melanie is the first to recognize the innate goodness in him; her recognition restores his own lost faith in human nature. He desires her good will because he knows it is sincere. Later on, when he courts the good opinion of the town on behalf of his daughter, he does so, not because he cares for their artificial manners, but because he knows that the attitudes of his society have not changed. As a man, it doesn't bother him if he isn't "received," but if the other women do not accept his daughter, she will be forced into the same life style as Belle Watling.

That Rhett is in love with Scarlett early in the story is easy to see. He is waiting for her to grow up, to get over Ashley and to fall in love with him. However, he has a sarcastic manner himself that he uses at all the wrong times. At the very moment when Scarlett would be serious, he jests and criticizes and points out her flaws. The fact that he is there whenever she needs him is utterly lost on Scarlett.


Melanie is, as Rhett says, the one truly kind person in the book. She is unable to say anything cruel about a person even if she knows it to be true, and she defends those she loves with the fury of a tigress. She seems a flat character at first, too willing to believe in Scarlett, too much a part of the old world to be quite real. Yet she shows depth by standing up to the other women in the issue of flowers on the graves and in her defense of both Rhett and Scarlett. She is gentle and tender toward children, but would have killed the Yankee soldier herself if she could have. She is able to think quickly, thus helping Rhett protect the men who return from the KKK rendezvous. Because her graciousness is a characteristic from within and not merely part of formalized manners, she inspires and encourages those around her. While she hates those who caused the misery for Atlanta, she is also able to suspend judgment on an individual basis. Except for the fact that she is frail and considered rather plain in appearance, she would be too perfect to be realistic.


Ashley Wilkes is the symbol of a dying culture. Although he is an unchanging character himself, he is a pivotal figure about which Scarlett moves and who does a great deal to motivate the changes in her. He is also dishonest with himself and thus unfair to Scarlett. On at least three separate occasions, he admits to Scarlett that he loves her, but backs away under the guise of honor and dignity. Finally, he acknowledges that he adores his wife; if Scarlett had ever for a moment thought that he was in love with Melanie and not her, she would have given up her fantasy.

The one thing Ashley is honest about is his own weakness and fear. He sees his own world fading away and knows that he is pitifully ill equipped to function in the world that is being born before his eyes. He continuously looks backward to days that, to him, held a grace and a charm along with a slow paced life style. He admits to Melanie that he fights in the war because it is his duty to do so along with the rest of the able-bodied men, but he never believes they have a chance of winning from the very start. Ashley is a man who ultimately lacks the courage to take on the unknown, and so he is in limbo, always looking backward to what he has lost.


Mammy is at least one other truly decent person in the novel. She judges according to what she sees and hears, but is quick to forgive when her first impression is proven wrong. Her one fault is that she is so fiercely devoted to Scarlett that she actually helps her steal Frank Kennedy. Rhett says that she is the true head of the household, for she manages all the physical details of running a house but also speaks her mind regarding manners and appropriate behavior. She and Melanie are the two people whose good opinion Scarlett cares about.

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