Slavery in Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone with the Wind”

By: Nikole Darnell

At first glance, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (1936) is incredibly daunting. At 1024 pages, people will often pass over it in favor of something shorter. However, those who decide to take on the challenge of reading the whole book are certainly in for an incredible story.

When I was young, I fell in love with the beautiful dresses the Southern belles wore and the parties they went to and their various dances. I fell in love with Scarlett O’Hara: men wanted her and women wanted to be her. Nothing stood in her way: not Yankees, not Carpetbaggers, and certainly not that “scallywag” Rhett Butler. As I grew older, I began to appreciate Margaret Mitchell’s writing style and the way that the book made me feel on an emotional level. My heart began to break for Scarlett because of all the challenges that she was forced to overcome at such a young age.

Saucy Scarlett (Image Source)

Saucy Scarlett (Image Source)

Yet, I also began to think beyond the character of Scarlett O’Hara and the people around her who weren’t given nearly as much of a voice: her slaves. The book clearly presents a romantic view of the Old South and also unfortunately glorifies slavery. One can hardly think about Gone with the Wind without thinking of the old south and all that goes with it—slavery included. Although the major plantation owners in the book all own slaves, the issue of slavery is hardly even addressed. Gone with the Wind follows the notoriously vain Scarlett O’Hara and her adventures in the south during the Civil War and Reconstruction eras. Slaves are present throughout the pages, but don’t play a major role in the story. In fact, even though the novel is well over a thousand pages, the word “slave(s)” only appears 82 times. It seems to me that a book that takes place in the Deep South during the 1860s would focus largely on slavery, but this isn’t the case. The purpose of Gone with the Wind is to follow the life of a young girl who grows up during this time period.

Scarlett O’Hara is more concerned with her romantic life and money than with the changing social and political environment around her. Even after Union soldiers had damaged Tara, her beloved plantation, Scarlett only worries about finding someone to marry so she can have access to his money. She stops at nothing to get what she wants and even goes as far as stealing her sister’s wealthy boyfriend. But something I find even stranger than Scarlett’s ignorance of the world around her is the way the slaves, particularly Mammy, regard the family.

While Mammy is not considered a main character in the novel, she plays a pivotal role in the progression of the story since she raised Scarlett and her sisters. We never learn Mammy’s real name; that is the title given to her when she was gifted to Mrs. O’Hara as a girl, and that is what she is called throughout the novel. Mammy serves as a nurse and caretaker to the O’Hara children, and this implies a faux-maternal relationship. The name “Mammy” is eerily close to the word “Mommy.” Scarlett and her sisters often regard Mammy as a second mother, and yet she is considered their property. Despite being owned by other humans and being stripped of her name, Mammy is as loyal to the O’Haras as can be. She even goes as far as to order the family around, as she commonly does with Scarlett: “It had always been a struggle to teach Scarlett that most of her natural impulses were unladylike. Mammy’s victories over Scarlett were hard-won and represented guile unknown to the white mind.” The other slaves in the book are not nearly as bold as Mammy and would never dream of standing up to the O’Haras. This difference is most likely due to the faux-maternal relationship Mammy has with the family, and Mitchell implies that Mammy can boss the family around and get away with it, even though she is considered to be an object. Mitchell also implies, in a racist manner, that African-American women have a kind of “guile” that allows them to manipulate those under their care. Adding to this racist fantasy, Mitchell further suggests that Mammy doesn’t find anything wrong with being owned by another human being. Ironically, neither do any of the other slave characters.

The novel also engages with the issue of slavery in other respects. At one point, Scarlett’s father can be heard complaining about how the Yankees want to take his “darkies” without compensation. Even Ashley Wilkes, arguably one of the more noble characters of the novel, has the following exchange with Scarlett:

“I can’t make money from the enforced labor and misery of others.”

“But you owned slaves!”

“They weren’t miserable. And besides, I’d have freed them all when Father died if the war hadn’t already freed them.”

Ashley states that his slaves weren’t miserable, as if there were nothing wrong with a human owning another human at all. Here, Ashley is insinuating that his slaves don’t mind being owned because “they weren’t miserable.” Incredibly racist passages such as these can be off-putting to readers. It is enough to make someone cringe by merely suggesting that it’s all right to own slaves as long as they aren’t unhappy. This idea is, of course, absolutely absurd. You can be kind to someone, but once you have ownership of them, every kind act you do to them is irrelevant. You cannot own someone and still believe that you have their best interests at heart.

Rhett Butler (Source Image)

Rhett Butler (Source Image)

In spite of all this, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind is by far my favorite novel. While it is true that its pages are filled with racial intolerance and ignorance, it is also a powerful coming of age story about a strong, yet incredibly self-centered, woman in the southern United States. Scarlett O’Hara is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, and while she manages to make quite a few enemies, she is also loved by many. I often feel guilty about claiming Gone with the Wind as my favorite novel because, at times, it can be appallingly racist. Because it provides us with a romantic view of the Old South in the 1860’s, it also, unfortunately, provides an interesting insight into racist depictions of slavery through its portrayal of African Americans. The film version of Gone with the Wind portrays the slaves as happy-go-lucky people with no drive or desires of their own who don’t mind being enslaved. In reality, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. When watching the movie or reading the book, one should definitely keep an eye out for the contrasts between reality and fiction. As a child, I enjoyed this story and loved it at face value—I saw only a story about a strong central female character and her challenges. As an adult, I am able to see that the novel is about so much more.

When reading the book through a lens that considers issues of racial prejudice, it becomes an entirely new story, one that forces us to confront the ugly realities of American history. However, the book still has plenty to offer and shouldn’t be dismissed just because it has unfavorable subject matter. It’s true that the story features slavery—something totally abhorrent—but it also has an impressive narrative structure and strong, developed characters. This juxtaposition of both excellent writing and horrific racism truly makes Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind a novel worth reading and thinking about for anybody interested in the interconnections between great literature/storytelling and the history of slavery.

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Works Cited

Margaret Mitchell. Gone with the Wind. Australia: 2002. Project Gutenburg Australia. Web. 24 Feb. 2015. N.p. http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks02/0200161.txt

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3 comments on “Slavery in Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone with the Wind”

  1. Alica Hall says:

    A Response to “Slavery in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind”

    Some people have claimed that Gone With the Wind has very little dealing with slavery, although it should considering when and where the novel is set. The author listed a minimal number of times when the word slave was used(82), however this does little to paint the full picture of the novel. The word slave is not the only term that can be used to describe the characters of African descent. Many times Scarlett and the other characters refer to the slaves by their names or titles, because they are more than just slaves to her. Pork is names 170 times, Mammy is named 446 times, Dilcey is named 70 times, Prissy is named 179, and there are many others that are named. Mitchell was not writing a treatise of slavery in the South during the Civil War. She was writing about the life of a character that lived at the time. Mitchell gave her black characters far more dignity than the author dares to give them. What we as an audience do need to remember is when the novel was written and the time in which it was set. Yes, it does depict some slaves are being happy, largely those are those in higher positions that were treated well. Many of the slaves leave as soon as they are given the opportunity.

    Additionally, the character of Mammy, although never given a proper name outside of her title is who I would easily label as the wisest and most shrewd character. Scarlett fooled many people, but Mammy could not be fooled. A friend and I have even considered the possibility that Mitchell dumbed down Mammy’s speech patterns to prevent being ridiculed from society when the novel was published, as Mammy is said to have grown up in the bedroom of Scarlett’s grandmother, although her speech patterns are more in line with someone raised in the fields. This isn’t true of the character, and her actions also easily show her raising. Her presence is the closest to omniscient of any character in the novel. When Scarlett goes to Rhett and fails, Mammy rallies Scarlett and helps her to woe Frank, aware that this might be the only way to save the family. Mammy does love these children, and I would like to add that a mother’s love needs no eyes, for mammy loves Scarlett regardless of her skin color. In fact there are times when Gone With the Wind paints the races as equals in intelligence, which was a rarity in the writing of the time.

    Gone With the Wind does indeed center on Scarlett O’Hara, who in the beginning, is unarguably vain and narcissistic. However, Scarlett does mature and grow over the twelve years covered in Mitchell’s prize winning novel. An intriguing quote from the article states that “Scarlett O’Hara is more concerned with her romantic life and money than with the changing social and political environment around her. Even after Union soldiers have burnt down Tara, her beloved plantation, Scarlett only worries about finding someone to marry so she can have access to his money. She stops at nothing to get what she wants and even goes as far as stealing her sister’s wealthy boyfriend.” This statement is far off-base from the truth of the story. Scarlett is not worried about finding a wealthy husband, she is desperate to find any way to save her family’s plantation and keep a roof over her head, as well as those dependant on her. With her mother’s passing and her father’s poor mental condition, the weight of providing for her family is squarely on her shoulders. Scarlett is the eldest child to two sisters. There is no one left in the family to take care of the matters, even the servants who stayed after the army went through, look to Scarlett to take care of things. Scarlett went to Atlanta to find Rhett, aware that he should have the money needed to pay the taxes on Tara. When she arrived in Atlanta, she found that he was in jail and unable to help her. Even as she is planning, she recalls that he has stated that he is not a marrying man “And, if he would not marry her but still wanted her, there was a way to get the money. After all, he had once asked her to be his mistress.” This was not an attempt on her part to find a wealthy husband, but instead she was trying to save her family. “But all these things went down before the merciless coldness of her mind and the goad of desperation.” Latter this thought continues “Only hunger and her nightmare dream of hunger could make her afraid.” That is not the mark of a person trying to find a wealthy husband to find a wealthy husband, but instead a terrified woman looking for a way to survive. In fact this analysis makes me question how well the author of this article has read the novel. This is a description of Scarlett looking in the mirror before going to visit Rhett to try to get the tax money, “It was as if she were really seeing herself for the first time in a year. She had glanced in the mirror every morning to see that her face was clean and her hair tidy but she had always been too pressed by other things to really see herself. But this stranger! Surely this thin hollow-cheeked woman couldn’t be Scarlett O’Hara! Scarlett O’Hara had a pretty, coquettish, high- spirited face. This face at which she stared was not pretty at all and had none of the charm she remembered so well. It was white and strained and the black brows above slanting green eyes swooped up startlingly against the white skin like frightened bird’s wings. There was a hard and hunted look about this face.” Rhett sees through her deception, “”Rhett, don’t! I’ll tell you everything. I do need the money so badly. I–I lied about everything being all right. Everything’s as wrong as it could be. Father is–is–he’s not himself. He’s been queer ever since Mother died and he can’t help me any. He’s just like a child. And we haven’t a single field hand to work the cotton and there’s so many to feed, thirteen of us. And the taxes– they are so high. Rhett, I’ll tell you everything. For over a year we’ve been just this side of starvation. Oh, you don’t know! You can’t know! We’ve never had enough to eat and it’s terrible to wake up hungry and go to sleep hungry. And we haven’t any warm clothes and the children are always cold and sick and–“ Those are not the words of someone looking to be a social climber. These are the words of a person driven by fear and desperation.

    Later once Rhett fails her, Scarlett is more desperate than when she left Tara. She runs into Frank Kennedy and does eventually steal her sister’s beau, but again this is not an issue of finding a wealthy husband, for if that were the case then Scarlett would never have married Frank. Frank was not wealthy. He simply had a little more than enough to pay the taxes on Tara and save the plantation. “”I’m not a millionaire, Miss Scarlett, and considering the money I used to have, what I’ve got now sounds small. But I made a thousand dollars this year. Of course, five hundred of it went to paying for new stock and repairing the store and paying the rent. But I’ve made five hundred clear and as things are certainly picking up.” He was the only immediate ends that she could see to saving her family from starvation, even the sister who hated her for her crimes. Mitchell states from Scarlett’s perspective that “Rhett had failed her but the Lord had provided Frank.”

    Some have argued that Scarlett doesn’t mature and holds on to her infatuation with Ashley. I can offer an alternative explanation, Scarlett is not holding on to Ashley because he is anything special, but he is one of the few things remaining of her life before with the war. Scarlett shuts down during the war and aftermath, and doesn’t know how to let go, which can also be said of Ashley. Both were victims of war, and it took a while of being safe for them to both be able to move on.

  2. Angela White says:

    I hope you will find it revealing that Margaret Mitchell used a significant portion of the money she made publishing GWTW, the novel, and money from the residuals of the film version of her novel to endow scholarships for medical students at Morehouse College, a traditionally male, African American college in Atlanta. Additionally, Margaret Mitchell was instrumental in the development of the first black hospital for the care of African Americans in what was at that time, segregated Atlanta. Margaret Mitchell was a woman of her time who grew up in a time when the American Civil War was still fresh in the minds of all Americans. As a Southerner, her perspective is reflective of her sex, age, geographic location, and the times in which she lived. People seem to forget that it was not just the American South that was segregated at this time. Jim Crow Laws existed even in “enlightened” Hollywood. Initially, Hattie McDaniel was not permitted to live in the “white” neighborhood where she purchased a home. Later, McDaniel was not permitted by the hotel where the 1940 Academy Awards were held (which had a very strict no African American guests policy) to be seated with the other cast members at the ceremony where she won the first Oscar ever presented to an African American for her portrayal of “Mammy” in Gone With The Wind. I find it incredibly sad that this thoroughly engaging novel of historic fiction is being so widely criticized with little or no consideration of the historic time frame of the setting and plot, and being further critiqued with little or no sense of the historic perspective the author brought to the story. People should look beyond the current trend to consider GWTW solely as a story about slavery. Rather, it is a perfectly human story about life, what it throws at you, who survives, and what that survival costs those who manage to get through turbulent times. Nazi Germany banned the film version of Gone With The Wind because of it’s themes of individualism, and survival. Russia banned the book and movie for the same reasons. I think we should all reflect on those facts, as well as the positive impacts in education and health that the proceeds of the novel and movie brought to African Americans.

  3. Theresa Hall says:

    Nikole- When you say that Scarlett is not concerned about the social and political world around her……even when her beloved Tara is burned down she is still looking to marry…..for money, you have overlooked several points.
    1) Scarlett is 17 years old who has never had a higher education or been exposed to anything but the very best of Southern culture.
    2) She wants the money to, as she mumbles to herself – …that won’t be enough to pay the taxes on Tara….- to KEEP her beloved Tara- the only thing she has left of her dead mother and beloved demented and then dead father, plus a roof over her and her sisters’ heads.
    3). Her only exposure to slavery has been house slaves, primarily Mammy who she clearly has been raised by and heavily depends upon in many situations and most of all, know that Mammy clearly loves Scarlett despite Scarlett’s shortcomings- just as any mother would.
    Big Sam- who she clearly trusts to save her from shantytown attack not because she “owned” him, but because he is family to her- worthy of receiving her beloved father’s only possession- his gold watch- at a time when she is trying to raise money for Tara’s taxes
    4. She has been raised also by a mother and father who believe that slaves are more than property as her mother gladly goes down to the slave quarters to treat illness expressing no favoritism of white over black even tho Emma Slattery is white- “white trash” in black Mammy’s words and which Scarlett accepts without any disapproval by Scarlett for a “slave” criticizing a white person
    5) Her concern for keeping “everyone” at Tara fed and clothed makes no differentiation between black and white
    6) Nor do her neighbors, the Wilkes’ ever seem to think of their slaves differently (yes the slaves are “owned” which is horrendous but these people who are third and fourth generation slave owners who have never known anything else)
    7). The Shantytown slaves live in horrible “freed” conditions and this is not lost on “upper class” slave owners” who had a “different” mentality toward their slaves than the majority of southern slave owners.

    How many of today’s 17 year old rich girls do you know who are NOT self centered and could accomplish what Scarlett did while Sherman was burning “everything from Atlanta to the East Coast in a 60 mile swath of land.
    An entire culture Gone With The Wind because it was built on the shifting sands of slavery. That message of the evils of slavery was very clearly portrayed by Mitchell from the title of the book to the sad end of the former slave owners like Scarlett and Ashley who lost everything they loved as a consequence.

    I could go on but this is already longer than I intended.

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