Scarlett was a feminist almost before "feminism" was a word. She was pretty and intelligent and every boy in the county wanted her and she knew it. But she was also selfish and entitled and arrogant and manipulative and racist. 900 pages and 12 years later, Scarlett is still all these things; but she is one more thing: she is a survivor. The Civil War, the invasion of Atlanta, the defeat of the Confederacy, the occupation of Georgia by Northerners and carpetbaggers, and the dismantling of the lifestyle enjoyed by Southern aristocracy broke many of her friends and neighbors. But Scarlett rose up and managed to rebuild a life for herself and her family. She saved her family home and became a successful businesswoman. She did so through intelligence and determination and sometimes through unethical behavior.
Scarlett grew up among the landed gentry of the antebellum South, surrounded by people who welcomed Civil War as an opportunity to prove their superiority over the invading Yankees. Of course, they were wrong. The war killed many of their young men, destroyed their homes and fortunes, freed their slaves, and dismantled their way of life. Their reaction to this upheaval is a major theme of this epic story. When the war ends, Scarlett's contemporaries are ill-equipped to handle the changing times. They cling to the old ways, despite the changing world. Scarlett is one of the few who adapts. No one questioned the institutions they had always known. Nor did they doubt these institutions would last forever.
The book's love triangle is well-known. As a teenager, Scarlett was in love with Ashley Wilkes, who married Melanie and was honor-bound to remain faithful. Meanwhile, the handsome but roguish Rhett Butler pursued Scarlett for years. Rhett assumes that he and Scarlett are destined for one another because they are so much alike, but their similarities lead to most of their conflicts.
When discussing this novel, one cannot ignore the topic of race. A caste system existed in the American South before and after the Civil War. Plantation owners, small farmers, white trash, house slaves, and field slaves each had their place in this society and that place was often enforced by the law and sometimes it was enforced with violence. When the North won the war and sought to punish the Confederacy, white southerners were resentful of the unfairness, but were unwilling to consider the generations of injustices they themselves had inflicted on people of color. And although the novel is full of racial stereotypes and the dialogue is rife with ethnic slurs, one must recognize that it was written by a white southerner over 80 years ago and covers a period in which ownership of non-white human beings was legal in this country. The plantation owners of Mitchell's novel do not chain their slave or physically abuse them (much); but they do look upon them as children incapable of fending for themselves; and they convince themselves that slavery is a better life for a negro than emancipation under Yankee rule; and they are surprised when most of their slaves escape as soon as the invading army provides the opportunity. Mitchell shows these sides of southern society; but she also points out the hypocrisy of northern women who looked down on black people; and she shows many example of the second-class treatment of women in nineteenth century society. Although Mitchell seems to paint the best negroes as those who are most loyal to their masters, she also provides us with strong and intelligent black characters like Mammy, Dilcey, Pork, and Uncle Peter. It is a complex topic in a complex novel filled with complex characters.
Scarlett is the most complex of them all. She lacks the kindness of Melanie and the intelligence of Mammy and the sensitivity of Ashley and the humor of Rhett; but her strength and her flaws make her one of the most fascinating heroines in literature. She rebels against the expectations that society has for a woman in her quest to become self-sufficient.
GWTW is a story of survival in the face of adversity and of doomed love and of retaining a culture that is no longer relevant. It is ab=n adventure story, a love story, a war story, and a coming-of-age story.
Margaret Mitchell wrote only one book in her life, but she made it count.