I argue in my essay that Gone with the Wind is an ironic novel that sharply critiques both slavery and patriarchy While I do not mention Jane Austen in the paper and while Austen is not in any way a direct source for GWTW, Mitchell, I believe, followed in Austen's ironic tradition of the "polite lady" talking out of both sides of her mouth. Mitchell disavowed liking Jane Austen, but she read her novels as a child and wrote juvenilia that was ironic in the same vein as Austen's juvenilia. (I don't imagine Mitchell read the juvenilia but I place importance on the early "voice" of both authors). For a time in the 1920s, Mitchell wrote an advice column, albeit one that she inherited, called "Ask Elizabeth Bennet," named for the lead character in Pride and Prejudice. Mitchell also stated explicitly that she wrote GWTW to critique the romantic ideology of "The Old South" still current in the 1920s when she began the book.
We often read the novel through the lens of the movie, which misses much of the book's wit and irony. Also, as my friend Ellen Moody points out, because Mitchell was a woman writing in a woman's genre it has been easy to dismiss her.
I am more "circumspect" in this polite, scholarly article than I would like to be. I would like to scream: Scarlett is an idiot! Whites in the novel are idiots! Blacks in this novel (witht he possible exception of Prissy and I wouldn't even be entirely sure of that) are smarter than whites!
What does this have to do with Quakerism? Not much, except that Quakers too critiqued slavery and patriarchy.
The article is below:
Civil War and “civil” war: Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind: Interrogating
The dramatic intensity of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind has captured
the imagination of millions. Readers and critics alike have understood this book
about war’s devastating destruction as serious, dramatic fiction. Critic Amanda
Adams writes that the novel displays “gritty realism:” Mitchell, the “journalist” was
“ever straightforward” (66). John Crowe Ransom attacks Mitchell’s seeming
earnestness and lack of Southern wit, attributing this to Mitchell having, in his
words, “deeply committed herself to the mentality of her Scarlett” (Adams 73). Not
surprisingly, the black community, fearing violence, immediately condemned the
novel and was even more scathing in its reception of the movie (Burks eg. 62). More
recently, Carolyn See writes of Gone With the Wind’s “creepy racism” (Ryan 267).
While its dominant chord is blatantly racist, and while the novel does
promulgate—however inadvertently‐‐ the myth of the happy plantation, a strong
minor chord also runs through the narrative that interrogates this reading. Mitchell
employs irony in this novel, an irony that functions to distance the reader from her
highly flawed white protagonists and their worldviews. Along with irony, Mitchell
uses her slave’s histories to undercut the false ideology her white characters spout,
be it white male supremacy, romantic nostalgia for the Old South or dog‐eat‐dog
postwar Social Darwinism. As her biographer, Darden Asbury. Pyron wrote, in her
personal life, Mitchell, despite the reception of her novel, “mocked, ridiculed and
scorned the myths and pretensions of the Old South” (243).
Mitchell’s opening is littered with back stories of characters which problematize
from the outset a romantic view of the Old South. Mitchell wrote the first chapter of
the novel last, months after the manuscript had been accepted for publication. As
Pyron describes it, Mitchell “fought the first chapter battle as fiercely as any
skirmish she ever launched. … She wrote version after version after version. …"
(291). Because this beginning chapter clearly mattered to her, we can assume
nothing entered into it without her careful consideration, as it set the tone for a
novel that she hoped, wrote Pyron, would critique antebellum ideology (577).
In this opening, 16‐year‐old belle Scarlett O’Hara entertains her neighbors and
beaux, the Tarleton twins, on the front porch of her family plantation, Tara. It’s a
beautiful evening, the dogwood and peach blossom in bloom, and wealth, beauty,
ease and plenty abound. The twins, like Scarlett, “waited on hand and foot since
infancy, ” “lounge” idly. War, however, is in the air, which bores Scarlett. Trying to
please her, the Tarletons share the “secret” (ironically known to everybody but
Scarlett) that Ashley Wilkes’s engagement to Melanie Hamilton will be announced at
the Wilkes’s barbeque the next day. For reasons inexplicable to the doltish twins,
though shared with reader through Scarlett’s thoughts, the mood sours, and after
lingering in hopes of a dinner invitation, the disappointed males finally move to
At this point, readers experience two surprises or revelations —first, the
twins have brought with them their slave, Jeems, who has been eavesdropping on
their conversation with Scarlett. Then a second surprise emerges, one that
undermines immediately the assumption of white superiority on which the
Southern slave economy is built— we learn that Jeems  is more intelligent than
Though they insult him with the ease of those who have the uncontested right
to bully, it is Jeems who supplies the explanation for Scarlett’s mood:
Look ter me lak she sho glad ter see you an' sho had missed you, an' she cheep
along happy as a bird, tell 'bout de time y'all got ter talkin' 'bout Mist' Ashley
an' Miss Melly Hamilton gittin' mah'ied. Den she quiet down lak a bird w'en de
hawk fly ober.
The twins looked at each other and nodded, but without comprehension.
Jeems’s story begins a series of scattered slave vignettes that call into
question the myth of the happy plantation. We learn that Jeems, although
clearly always enslaved, had first been the twins “playmate,” a term connoting
equality. Then, he “had been given to the twins for their own on their tenth
birthday,” the “for their own” emphasizing the twins’ now overt control over
him. One could skim over that change in status—or one could stop long
enough to feel a chill for what it might have been like for a boy to be handed
over as property to two lively 10‐year‐olds, who could do with him what they
pleased, including casual brutality. Not long after leaving Tara’s porch, for
example, Stuart threatens to “beat” Jeems’s “hide off” for insulting a poor white
man—a threat Jeems treats with unconcern but which focalizes the violence
that maintains the slave culture. Likewise, Mammy’s back story could give a
thoughtful reader pause:
She had been raised in the bedroom of Solange Robillard, Ellen O'Hara's mother,
a dainty, cold, high‐nosed French‐woman, who spared neither her children nor
her servants their just [!] punishment for any infringement of decorum.
Beginning as a child slave to a cold, exacting, punitive woman more than suggests
an unhappy childhood. And while Mammy harangues Scarlett, mostly by invoking
the power of Ellen, Mitchell from the start makes clear who is slave and who is
mistress: though weary, elderly Mammy must lumber up the steps to fetch teenaged
Scarlett’s shawl, while, having set her to the task, Scarlett runs off, shawl‐less, to find
A final vignette woven in early on, while demonstrating Gerald O’Hara’s
benevolence, also illustrates the slave’s plight. Pork, Gerald’s valet, “had deviled his
master night and day” to buy his wife Dilcey, and finally, “his resistance worn thin,”
(ch.2) Gerald complies, buying not only Dilcey, but her daughter Prissy. That this is
an act of extraordinary kindness is underscored both by Scarlett’s dismayed
exclamation that Gerald didn’t need to buy Prissy and by Dilcey’s words:
Mist' Gerald … I wanted to come here and thank you agin fo' buyin' me and my
chile. Lots of gentlemens might a' bought me but they wouldn't a' bought my
Prissy, too, jes' to keep me frum grievin' ….
Mitchell’s vignettes depict a system based on the almost unlimited power of
whites over blacks. The narrative illustrates the variety of cruelties (beatings, family
break‐ups, disregard of grieving) that easily could‐‐and did‐‐ befall slaves not
encased in the magical world of Tara and its environs, troubling white dreams of
Morever, the plantation system , as described by Elizabeth Fox Genovese in
Within the Plantation Household, “at all levels … reflected and reinforced a view of
the world in which women were subordinate to men” (195). It was supposed to be
an ordered world, in which contentment would reign as people adopted their
“natural” places—the white men, physically and intellectually superior, at the apex,
white women subordinate to them, and black slaves gladly accepting eternal
servitude to whites. Gone with the Wind exposes that social organization not only as
implicitly cruel, but also as a sham, revealing a comically upside down world, upheld
and enabled not by the “superior” white men, but by the intelligent and able house
slaves and by women who night and day deceive their so‐called masters.
For Jeems is not the only slave smarter than his owners. Mitchell continuously
reveals whites as less intelligent and capable than their supposed inferiors. Dilcey
doesn’t waste the opportunity afforded by her audience with the O’Hara family, in
which she thanks them for buying her and Prissy. Instead, she immediately and
assertively thrusts Prissy at Scarlett to save her child from becoming a field hand:
“Miss Scarlett, Poke done tole me how you ast Mist Gerald to buy me. [There’s no
other evidence in the text to confirm this and Scarlett’s own words deny it.] And so
I’m gwine give you my Prissy fo’ yo’ own maid.” When Scarlett demurs, stating that
Mammy is her maid, Dilcey persists—and as we find out later (ch. 8), gets her way.
Intelligent slaves also include Mammy, whose “eyes were sharper than Ellen's …
Scarlett could never recall in all her life having fooled Mammy for long.” Uncle
Peter, Miss Pittypat’s slave, is, however, the most intelligent of them all, for he runs
the Hamilton household, raising the orphaned Melanie and Charles, and managing
the “grown‐up child,” Aunt Pitty. Peter makes the kinds of decisions usually the
province of white males, deciding to increase Charles’s allowance when he turns 15
and insisting he go to Harvard. (ch. 8)
Charles’ description of Peter, especially when he calls him “devoted,” may smack
of See’s “creepy racism,” but Peter’s overwhelming competency undermines any
notion of innate white supremacy. Further, while the narrator often refers to blacks
as childlike or animals, the same fate befalls the white characters, who are also
repeatedly referred to as children or likened to animals.
Women too are depicted in the novel as more competent than white men. For all
Gerald’s bluster, all of Tara knows Ellen runs the show: “everyone from Ellen down
to the stupidest field hand was in a tacit and kindly conspiracy to keep him [Gerald]
believing that his word was law.” Gerald, ostensibly the person at the top of the
plantation pyramid, is handled rather handler—and everybody knows it. Ellen was
“obeyed instantly at Tara;” Gerald “quietly disregarded.”
In her own realm, Scarlett fumes at having to play a fool:
"Why is it a girl has to be so silly to catch a husband?"” she asks Mammy.
"Ah specs it's kase gempmums doan know whut dey wants. Dey jes' knows
whut dey thinks dey wants. An' givin' dem whut dey thinks dey wants saves a
pile of mizry ..”
With perhaps unintentional irony Mammy goes on to explain that it’s good
that Scarlett isn’t a fool because men expect to marry fools and wake up with
competent wives. Everyone but the white men knows the feigned idiocy and
helplessness is a game—and everyone colludes in the deception.
While women and slaves manage the Old South’s world, we, the readers, see
that Southern women, as well as slaves, pay a heavy price. Although Scarlett adores
Ellen, who she doesn’t perceive as unhappy, and although Ellen epitomizes the
Southern “great lady,” the narrator describes her as an automaton or a ghost—
something uncanny—“She would have been a strikingly beautiful woman had there
been any glow in her eyes, any responsive warmth in her smile or any spontaneity
in her voice …” Having been forbidden to marry her true love before Gerald came
along, she is “a gentle shell.” (ch 3) Gerald, more interested in the shell—a lady from
one of Savannah’s first families‐‐ than its interior, is thrilled with the ghost‐girl he
has gained, guided the entire way to matrimony by Pork. (ch 3) The narrator, in
backhanded fashion, implies that Ellen believed her marriage a mistake: “If Ellen
had ever regretted her sudden decision to marry him, no one ever knew it, certainly
Eventually, the narrator cuts to the chase and explains that Ellen’s fate is the
southern woman’s fate:
Ellen's life was not easy, nor was it happy, but she did not expect life to be easy,
and, if it was not happy, that was woman's lot. It was a man's world, and she
accepted it as such. The man owned the property, and the woman managed it.
The man took the credit for the management, and the woman praised his
We do not get such insights into the private sorrows or thoughts of the slaves,
for Mitchell wrote this book as a story of the Civil War seen through the eyes of
white women (262) but as Charles Rowan Beve notes in his essay “Gone with the
Wind and Good Riddance,” a “central truth” of the novel is that ’life for women and
slaves alike was a vast prison in which these unfortunates were enslaved to free
white males.” While Beve may be questioned for equating white women—“ladies”—
and slaves, as slaves fared far worse, his insight aligns with what the novel tells us
—that Southern ladies led severely limited lives.
Beve, one of the few critics who notes the intelligence and agency of women and
blacks in the novel, resists, however, the idea that Mitchell is writing ironically. Yet
the persistent pattern in the text of the lower orders being smarter than the higher,
Mitchell’s own history of writing comedic juvenilia (Pyron, 58‐60, 322) and
Mitchell’s frustration with the reception of the novel as plantation mythology all
point to her deliberately using irony as a rhetorical device to reveal the hollow core
of ante‐bellum ideology.
While Beve dismisses the idea of the novel as ironic because it is told from a
woman’s perspective (!), itself an astonishing claim, on some occasions, particularly
when men are courting Scarlett, we are allowed to overhear their interior
monologues—or are told their thoughts. The Tarleton twins mistake Scarlett’s
manipulative use of flattery and feigned fascination as genuine admiration. Charles
Hamilton, the first man Scarlett cynically marries, comically misinterprets Scarlett’s
self‐serving and calculated ploys, as well as her self‐centered distraction, through
the lens of “Southern lady” mythology. While she is regarding him
contemptuously—eg, “Here was this fool expecting her to be excited about Mr.
Lincoln” he gushes inwardly: “How fragile and tender women are, he thought, the
mere mention of war and harshness makes them faint.” The clashing interior
monologues are the stuff of high comedy—and of social critique. Scarlett will
likewise later coldly manipulate Frank Kennedy, deceiving him with astonishing—
and comic—ease into perceiving her as a delicate, empty‐headed flower in need of
From this male unawareness in the face what is obvious to women characters,
we can extrapolate that the interior monologues white characters—male and
female—have about blacks may be just as misinformed. Are the “darkies” as loyal,
devoted to their masters, simple, content with slavery and childlike as the white
characters think—or is this simply the product of another set of manipulations, with
the blacks playing subservient roles as blatantly as do women? Certainly, we are
given enough information about black intelligence, perceptiveness, competency and
networking—eg, “their negroes, who had been told nothing, knew everything too, by
that black grapevine telegraph system which defies white understanding” —that the
alert reader might call into question the self‐serving racist ideology of the ruling
class. We just may suspect that rather than loyal and devoted to white interests, the
black characters we meet, caught like the women in power‐less positions, are
primarily meeting their own interests.
Thus, in Gone with the Wind, the plantation ideology of male and white
superiority is exposed. Yet living this collective lie, as the novel shows, hastens the
collapse of the untenable system it means to preserve —and this may be the book’s
central irony. As anyone with the scantiest knowledge of the Civil War would know,
the bragging of the plantation class men at the beginning of the novel—"We could
lick them in a month‐‐" "Why, one Southerner can lick twenty Yankees‐‐" —
overflows with irony, for in a few years, the South will be shattered by the North’s
industrial war machine. The novel reveals to us that a system of oppression based
on lies will so inflate the sense of dominant class invincibility that tragedy becomes
Further, Adams’s contention that “if the novel is indeed propaganda, it is … for
the … marketplace, laissez‐faire ethic” (60) is also questionable. Mitchell skewers
this post‐war ethic as readily as the plantation ideology. In fact, what the novel
communicates, despite Mitchell’s overt straining against it, could be summed up as
The Who’s “hello to the new boss, same as the old boss.” Laissez‐faire capitalism is
little different from the slave economy in Mitchell’s view—both economies, as
Mitchell describes them, are openly built on the exploitation of the weak and
helpless. Scarlett uses convicts to man her lumber mills. Scarlett’s new cohort, after
she is rejected by the old guard, include people whose veneer Rhett loves to
skewer—"Ralph, if I'd had any sense I'd have made my money selling gold‐mine
stocks to widows and orphans, like you, instead of blockading. It's so much safer."
Whether the widows and orphans are white or black, exploitation remains the
foundation of both systems.
We can understand this novel as a celebration of capitalism only if we see
Scarlett as an admirable character—but Mitchell comically deflates Scarlett at
almost every turn (except for Scarlett’s true heroism when she returns to the
devastated Tara.) Scarlett is depicted from the start as dangerously unreflective, a
Bertie Wooster figure, a pampered personality ignorant about anything beyond her
narrow world—an ignorance she re‐embraces in more hardened form after Rhett
marries her after the war. Mitchell uses this ignorance to humorous effect. Early in
the novel, Scarlett astonishes even the besotted Charles by not knowing who the
Scarlett thought quickly but could remember no family in the County or Atlanta
or Savannah by that name [Borgia]. "I don't know them. Is he kin to them?
Who are they?" An odd look came over Charles' face, incredulity and shame
struggling with love. Love triumphed as he realized that it was enough for a girl
to be sweet and gentle and beautiful, without having an education to hamper
her charms, and he made swift answer: "The Borgias were Italians." "Oh," said
Scarlett, losing interest, "foreigners." She turned her prettiest smile on Ashley,
but for some reason he was not looking at her. He was looking at Charles, and
there was understanding in his face and a little pity. (ch 6)
She later on misses every allusion Rhett makes to Shakespeare. When she tries to
conjure the Gotterdammerung for Rhett, she can’t remember the word—“Some
funny foreign name that sounded like profanity”‐‐but he understands the allusion
immediately when she explains:
"Why, Ashley said‐‐" "Yes?" "Once at Tara he said something about the‐‐a‐‐dusk of
the gods and about the end of the world and some such foolishness." "Ah, the
Gotterdammerung!" Rhett's eyes were sharp with interest. (ch 49)
This is not a celebration of anti‐intellectualism, as Adams contends, but an
indictment of it. We are invited to laugh not with, but at, Scarlett. If Ashley is caught
in a dream world, Scarlett is just as destructively trapped in her self‐centered
ignorance, leading her to drive away everything that matters—the virtues of
kindness and honesty, the ability to see clearly, community, even Rhett. Capitalism is
not her salvation.
By examining more closely at the irony and back story of the novel, we can see
how Mitchell subverts and exposes racist and sexist ideologies. The novel is neither
endorsing the Old South nor the new Social Darwinism, but critiquing both. The
subtext creates a comic and inverted world—a carnival world—in which hierarchies
are skewered. Beneath the surface of a racist text bubbles a mirror world in which
blacks and women run the show. This world is largely erased from the movie
version, which has unfortunately conflated in the popular imagination with the
more subversive written text. The novel engages us in a battle where the chief strife
is not North against South but rhetoric against reality. Given Gone with the Wind’s
continuing place as a cultural artifact, it behooves us to read it in ways that
acknowledge its subtext and give credit to Mitchell’s intelligence, complexity and
Copyright Diane Reynolds
 Although she analyzes them in terms of psychology, not in terms of class, race
and sex, Blanche Gelfant, in “Gone With the Wind and the impossibilities of fiction,”
The Southern Literary Journal, vol 13, no 1, fall 1980, 3‐31, understands that “secrets
are Gone with the Wind’s explicit concern” (5).
 The name Jeems sounds like Jeeves, the all‐knowing butler who serves the
wealthy and clueless Bertie Wooster in P.G. Wodehouse’s comic novels. The popular
novels were appearing in the 1920s, and while we don’t know that Mitchell read
them, chances are she did, as she was a voracious reader who enjoyed popular
literature (Pyron 220). We do know that she chose character names carefully (Pyron
262), so if she had read Wodehouse, it’s plausible that she intended a connection
between Jeems and Jeeves.
 The references are almost overwhelming. A few—the Tarleton twins are
likened to horses and hounds, the Southern men to wild animals. At the end of the
book, Ashley is described as a “cold animal” and “a child.” Rhett has a voice “as silky
as a cat’s fur” and is—at least once‐‐apelike. Scarlett calls herself a “child” at the end
of the book, and Rhett likens her to a “kitten.” Melanie’s childlike figure and qualities
are referenced throughout the book.
Adams, Amanda. “’Painfully Southern: Gone with the Wind, the Agrarians and the
Battle for the New South.” ’Southern Literary Journal, volume xl, number 1, fall
Beye, Charles Rowan. “Gone with the Wind” and Good Riddance.” Southwest Review,
vol.1 , June 1993.
Burks, Ruth Elizabeth. “Gone with the Wind: black and white in Technicolor,”
Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 21:53–73, 2004.
Conde, Mary. “Some African American Fictional Responses to Gone with the Wind,”
The Yearbook of English Studies, vol 26, 1996. 208‐17.
Cronin, Jan. “’The Book Belongs to All of Us:’ GWTW as post‐cultural product.”
Literature Film Quarterly, 2007; 35 (1): 396‐403.
Fox Genovese, Elizabeth. Within the Plantation Household: Black and White women of
the Old South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.
Gelfant, Blanche. “Gone With the Wind and the impossibilities of fiction.” The
Southern Literary Journal, vol 13, no 1, fall 1980, 3‐31.
Pyron, Darden Asbury. Southern Daughter: The Life of Margaret Mitchell. New York,
Oxford University Press, 1991.
Ryan, Tim A. “Designs Against Tara: Frances Gaither's The Red Cock Crows and
Other Countemarratives to Gone with the Wind,” Mississippi Quarterly: The
Journal of Southern Cultures, Dec. 1 2005.
Vials, Chris. “Whose Dixie? Erskine Caldwell’s Challenge to Gone with the Wind and
Dialectical Realism.” Criticism: A Quarterly for Criticism and the Arts, Dec. 1,