Gone With The Wind Summary

Margaret Mitchell

Gone With The Wind

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Gone With The Wind Summary

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It’s 1861 in Tara, Georgia, and Scarlett O’Hara—a charming 16-year-old Southern belle—lives on the plantation owned by her successful Irish immigrant father. Her mother hails from French aristocracy. The opening pages of the novel include background and descriptions of life as the Southern states secede from the Union, and young men are called to war after the first shots are fired at Fort Sumter.

Scarlett is heartbroken to learn that Ashley Wilkes, a man she loves, is soon to be engaged to Melanie Hamilton. At a barbecue at the Wilkes plantation, Scarlett confesses her feelings to Ashley. Ashley tells Scarlett that, although he has feelings for her, he will still marry Melanie because she’s so much like him. Scarlett is just too different. Scarlett blows up at him.

Observing this scene is the roguish Rhett Butler, who eventually reveals that he was eavesdropping. He compliments Scarlett on her “unladylike” behavior, and Scarlett insults him in return. Scarlett returns to the party and learns that war has been declared. She accepts a proposal from Melanie’s brother, Charles, and the two marry two weeks later.

Charles dies of pneumonia two months after the war begins, leaving Scarlett alone to raise the child she gives birth to afterwards. Customs for widows are strict—she must wear black and avoid conversations with young men—and Scarlett pines for her days as a single woman.

Scarlett heads to Atlanta to stay with Melanie and Melanie’s aunt, Pittypat. Scarlett enjoys life in the city, and she begins to see more and more of Rhett. He is blunt and rude, but encourages Scarlett to break with Southern traditions in a way that excites her. Rhett is profiting from the war by running the blockade. The characters all worry for Ashley’s safety as the war rages on. Ashley is captured at Gettysburg and sent to prison.

Scarlett would prefer to leave Atlanta for Tara, but Melanie is pregnant, so she stays. The Union army makes it to Atlanta and begins burning it down. As Atlanta burns, Melanie gives birth. Rhett escorts them through the burning streets of Atlanta to escape the Yankees, though he leaves them on the city’s outskirts so he can join the army of the Confederacy. After a harrowing trip through the forest, Scarlett arrives at Tara to learn that her mother is dead, her father has lost his mind, and the Yankees have looted their plantation. Scarlet vows that her family will survive and will never go hungry again.

Scarlett sets to working the fields under the constant threat of Yankee looting. At one point, a Union soldier arrives and implies that he would loot the house and rape Scarlet and Melanie. Scarlet shoots him with a pistol.

The war ends and a stream of beaten Confederate soldiers stop by Tara on their way home. Ashley returns, too, though his idealistic outlook on life has been shattered. A one-legged soldier, Will Benteen, stays at Tara and helps work the plantation. Jonas Wilkerson, a government official who once worked at Tara, raises the taxes on the property in the hope of driving the family away so he can buy it for himself. Scarlett heads to Atlanta to seduce Rhett and get him to pay the taxes. The war has made Rhett incredibly wealthy, but he’s in a Yankee jail and unable to help. Scarlett instead marries her sister’s boyfriend, Frank, a shop owner, who pays the taxes. Scarlett sets about making Frank’s store more profitable.

Rhett blackmails his way out of prison and loans Scarlett the money she needs to buy a sawmill. She runs the mill and her shrew business practices at Frank’s shop create a scandal in the city. Ashley and Melanie accept Scarlett’s offer to return to Atlanta, and they take a share of the mill business. Scarlett gives birth for the second time.

A black man and a white man attack Scarlett on her way to the sawmill one day. Frank and the Ku Klux Klan attempt to avenge Scarlett, and Frank is killed in the process. Rhett uses his storytelling ability to facilitate the avengers’ escape from Yankee authorities, and proposes to Scarlett. She accepts, and they have a luxurious honeymoon in New Orleans. In Atlanta, Scarlett builds a lavish mansion and scandalously hob nobs with rich Yankees. Scarlett gives birth to a daughter, Bonnie, whom Rhett dotes on. Rhett works to remain in the good graces of the Atlanta elite so his daughter won’t be an outcast like her mother.

Melanie and Scarlett plan a surprise party for Ashley. Scarlett goes to the mill to keep him there until the party is ready; they reminisce about their youth. Ashley hugs Scarlett, and a rumor spreads that the two are having an affair. After the party, Rhett returns home long after Scarlett, more drunk than ever before. He’s distraught over the rumors. They argue and discuss their relationship. The conversation ends with Rhett carrying Scarlett up the stairs to the bedroom; it’s unclear if they have consensual sex, or if he rapes her.

Rhett takes his daughter to New Orleans, and Scarlett learns she is pregnant with her fourth child. Rhett returns and the two argue again. Rhett is cruel upon hearing that Scarlett is pregnant, wondering aloud if the child is Ashley’s. From the top of the stairs, Scarlett lunges at Rhett but misses, falling. Scarlett breaks her ribs and suffers a miscarriage.

Later, Bonnie is killed in a horse riding accident, and Rhett is distraught. He spends his days drinking. Melanie dies a short time later, and this encourages Rhett to seek the genial South he once knew. He leaves Atlanta to find it. Scarlett stays at Tara, knowing that some day, she can win Rhett back because, as the novel’s last sentence states, “tomorrow is another day.”

Gone With The Wind is a bildungsroman, a coming of age story, that follows Scarlett’s maturation from a Southern belle to an accomplished businesswoman. Complicating her development are the horrors of war, which, quite literally, arrive on her doorstep.

As such, war, and its effects, is a major theme throughout the novel. Scarlett’s inner circle of friends and family are impacted by the war, usually through death or loss. Rhett is one of the few exceptions, as he makes a fortune off the war.

The novel also comments upon the caste system of the plantation-era American South. Characters are mainly either rich whites or poor black slaves. Of the slaves, characters are either the house servants—who are given more privileges and responsibilities—or the field hands. The novel has come under criticism for its romantic view of the plight of house slaves who are presented as loyal members of the family, in some cases, which ignores the roots of their servitude.

Gone With The Wind was an instant success, a bestseller during the time of the Depression. The novel was adapted into the famous film of the same name two years later, and both the book and film have become important mainstays in American popular culture.

The book won both the Pulitzer and the National Book Award.

Author Margaret Mitchell would not publish another book in her lifetime.