Scarlett O’Hara, Racism, and a Damn Good Read

In ‘Gone with the Wind’ the heroine struggles in a world where her options are as narrow as her waist, and she’s the privileged one.

Mammy tightening the laces on Scarlett’s corset.

The epic backdrop of the Civil War and Reconstruction places “Gone with the Wind” by Margaret Mitchell at a pivotal period in U.S. history. The novel presents the cultural view of Southerners, particularly affluent Southerners, who wished to cast a rosy light upon race relations and portray the status quo as a social system accepted by all parties, except of course meddlesome Yankees.

Pondering the novel from this view cleared up some of my discomfort with how the novel handled racial issues. As historical fiction, it reveals the world through the eyes of the heroine, Scarlett O’Hara, and the plight of slaves and racism weren’t priorities for the her. She cared about being rich, and her selfish determination made her a literary legend.

Scarlett fascinates readers because she’s the ultimate anti-heroine. She’s selfish and fake. She’s not a good mother. She goes after her goals with relentless self-centered focus and eventually drives away the one man who genuinely liked her for who she was.

She’s unforgettable, and her struggles in a hostile world create an astonishing narrative that has been popular for decades on an epic scale.

Published in 1936, the novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1937, and a Publishers Weekly article in 2011 on its 75th anniversary documented its immense sales volume. The original 1936 release sold 176,000 copies. Two million copies had been sold by 1938. Simon & Schuster that now owns the original publisher reports that it sells almost 75,000 copies every year. Mass market editions between 1993 and 2007 sold 650,000 copies.

Scarlett’s plight as a Southern Belle ruined by the war drives the saga, and her supreme selfishness denies her the ability to care about other people’s problems, especially social justice issues. No one cared about her problems, and she was not going to waste time trying to solve the problems of the world. She was too busy making her own opportunities, such as they were.

Scarlett was the woman who put convicts to work in her mill during Reconstruction so she could make money. She hardly cared what color people were as long as their exploitation turned a profit. She was too busy manipulating men to get her way because society gave her no power to act on her own behalf. She blamed the foolish pride of men for causing the war and destroying her world.

She blamed the foolish pride of men for causing the war and destroying her world.

With such a character at the center of the narrative, the worldview presented within the novel naturally makes for uncomfortable reading for anyone sensitive to racism. I believe that the novel’s setting, however, demands that the racism be portrayed as the absolute status quo. Anything less would have undermined the historical legitimacy of the story.

Scarlett and her supporting cast give not a moment’s thought to racial equality. Mitchell shows this as their concept of the natural order of things. Throughout the novel, the slaves that served at Tara are always shown to be completely accepting of the notion that they are part of the O’Hara family. When Scarlett encounters the plantation’s former slave Big Sam in a shanty town after the war, he exclaims, “Mah Lawd, it sho is good ter see some of the fambly again!”

When Sam confesses to Scarlett that he’s hiding in the shantytown because he’s wanted for killing a Yankee soldier, she knows that she must help him escape to Tara where the authorities won’t find him. In this passage, Mitchell reveals Scarlett’s trademark selfishness. Scarlett wants to save him because “He was too valuable a darky to be hanged.”

The author then becomes objective in tone, perhaps even a bit disapproving of Scarlett’s ingrained sense of possession over the man. Mitchell writes, “It did not enter Scarlett’s mind that he was free. He still belonged to her, like Pork and Mammy and Peter and Cookie and Prissy. He was still ‘one of our family’ and, as such, must be protected.”

As a modern reader aware of the abuses of African American slavery, I always struggled with the notion that Big Sam would rush to save Scarlett when he sees her assaulted on the road. I wanted to take it as an example of human kindness despite the worst circumstances, but now I’ve come to see that the author presented how people at Scarlett’s social circle liked to imagine things.

Excuse the uncomfortable pun, but here’s where things get dark.

As much as I consider “Gone with the Wind” an astounding novel, Mammy always confused me. Even as a teenage reader, she did not set well with me.

I liked her character, but I wondered why she was so devoted to “Miss Scarlett” and the O’Hara family. Would a slave really have that level of affection and sense of duty?

And when the Civil War is over, and slavery is ended, why does Mammy stick around taking care of Scarlett for years and years? Wouldn’t a slave choose to leave the household if not required to stay?

It turns out Mammy is a literary and cultural construct meant to sanitize slavery and promote the notion of racial harmony based on contented black servants taking care of white families.

It turns out Mammy is a literary and cultural construct meant to sanitize slavery and promote the notion of racial harmony based on contented black servants taking care of white families.

According to research by Dr. David Pilgrim published online by the Jim Crow Museum of Ferris State University, the mammy caricature presented a desexualized and overweight maternal figure. She implied a lack of sexual appeal meant to negate the rapes and pseudo-consensual sex that took place between black female slaves and white male masters.

Mitchell conveys the disdain with which Southerners regarded Northerners’ critical view of slavery. During Reconstruction when Scarlett is interacting with the wives of Yankee officers administering the occupation, she derides the northern women’s acceptance of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” as a “revelation second only to the Bible” and laments the offensive questions posed to her by the foreign women.

They ask Scarlett about the bloodhounds that Southerners kept to hunt down runaway slaves, branding irons used to mark the faces of slaves, and cat-o’-nine-tails used to lash slaves to death. Scarlett says that none of them believed her when she said she had never seen such things. She is then further mortified by the ladies’ questions about “slave concubinage.” Scarlett considers them to be ignorant bigots whose base nature made them unaware of the insults that they inflicted upon her people and their morals.

In this exchange, Mitchell presents the view that the outrages and abuses of slave culture are merely the fabrications of hateful Northerners. This view could have very well been held by Southern women of the upper classes because they would have been insulated from the violence, and I suspect there would have been heaps of cultural denial about their Southern gentlemen indulging in carnal knowledge of those they held in bondage. Everyone apparently needed their mammy badly to soothe away these nightmares of suggested reality.

Fiction entrenched the mammy figure so deeply in American culture that it persists to this day. You can still buy Aunt Jemima pancake mix although her image has been updated for a modern audience and no longer projects the cheerful servant.

Margaret Mitchell would have been exposed to the mammy image at the height of its cultural penetration. Born 15 years before the release of D.W. Griffith’s film “Birth of a Nation,” Mitchell would have been well aware of this film that was a commercial success and recipient of critical acclaim. This film, based on the 1906 novel “The Clansman” by Thomas Dixon, would have reflected the cultural worldview that Mitchell grew up in. She enjoyed an affluent heritage, and her ancestors included slave owners and a Confederate captain.

Scene from D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation,” a film infamous for its hostility toward African Americans.

The mammy figure was apparently so instilled in Mitchell’s awareness that she called her character only “Mammy” and never designated an actual name for the woman. Even constrained by cultural puppetry dangling from a white-washed fantasy, Mammy presents a wonderful character. In the story, she poses frequently as the conscience Scarlett does not have, frowning at Scarlett’s schemes. On occasion Mammy even steps in and restrains Scarlett.

This fictional relationship projects the black servant as protective and devoted. Clearly, Mitchell’s grand novel was not meant to question the prevailing cultural views on race, but this does not detract from the quality of the literature. A historical novel should work within the context of its period and create characters that reflect the times. In this regard, “Gone with the Wind” is informative about how whites of that era wished for race relations to continue. And Scarlett herself represents how desperation and greed can make people utterly dismissive of other people’s humanity or liberty.

The novel has a sweeping scope that goes well beyond either its historical setting or modern interpretations. Its power derives from the intensity of its passions and Scarlett’s continual perseverance in the face of many challenges. She loathes the men of her culture who destroyed her world, and she despises the constraints placed upon her as a woman.

In this context, readers have related strongly to Scarlett because many of us know what it is to struggle in a world not of our making with rules meant to keep us in our places.

Thousands of readers around the world have been captivated by the novels of Tracy Falbe.

Rebels, racists, and terrible ambitions drive the plots of Tracy Falbe’s novels. Download a free ebook from her website or find her titles at Amazon and Google Play.

Gen X author of many novels, permaculture inspired gardener, and wine maker.

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