Scarlett O’Hara is a 16-year-old debutante in Georgia on the cusp of the Civil War. When she finds out that the object of her desire, Ashley Wilkes, is going to marry someone else, she decides to make him jealous by getting married too. In the excitement of the start of the war, she lands a husband in one afternoon and marries Ashley’s finance, Melanie’s, brother Charles. It’s also at this time that she meets Rhett Butler for the first time.
Two months later Scarlett is a widow after Charles dies of pneumonia in training camp. Around the same time Scarlett finds out she’s pregnant with Charles’s child. She’s not a very happy mother and is bored at the plantation with all the men away at war, so she goes to stay with her sister-in-law and secret arch-nemesis, Melanie, in Atlanta.
Scarlett grudgingly works as a nurse in the Atlanta hospital treating wounded soldiers and fulfills all the standard obligations of well brought up women. She sees Rhett again and they become friends. Melanie becomes pregnant after Ashley visits for Christmas. Also during that visit, Ashley admits that he’s still in love with Scarlett, but that he’s too honorable to do much of anything about it.
As Sherman is about to march into Atlanta, Melanie goes into labor. It’s impossible to get the doctor or any midwife because of the mass exodus, so Scarlett has to deliver Melanie’s baby. Mere hours later Scarlett manages to track down Rhett, who steals a horse and wagon for them and drives them out of Atlanta, bound for Tara. Rhett abandons them outside of Atlanta to join up with the last ditch efforts of the Confederate army.
Scarlett gets herself, Melanie, her baby, and their black maid Prissy safely back to Tara. She discovers that her family managed to avoid having the house burned down, but that Scarlett’s mother had only just died of typhoid and her two younger sisters are recovering from it. Her father’s mind is broken by the stress of the war and the death of his wife. Scarlett essentially takes control of the family and is responsible for finding some way to keep them alive after the Yankees destroy all of their crops and steal their animals.
They manage to survive. A wounded soldier named Will comes to stay with them and ends up never leaving. He helps to manage the plantation. Ashley returns from a prisoner of war camp and stays at Tara with Melanie and his son because his plantation was burned.
Just as things are looking up, the ex-overseer of Tara shows back up trying to get Tara foreclosed on so he can buy it cheap. Scarlett takes down the curtains to make a new dress and go to Atlanta to try and get money from Rhett, who is loaded from speculating and smuggling during the war. It turns out that Rhett is in jail because the Yankees think he has hidden Confederate gold that they want for themselves. He can’t give her money while he’s in jail because then the Yankees would know where the money was. Dejected, Scarlett heads home only to run into her younger sister’s fiancé, Frank.
When Scarlett realizes that Frank has the money to save Tara and that Scarlett would never be able to get it out of him if her selfish sister married him, Scarlett steals him and gets married a second time. She does get the money from Frank, and Tara is saved. Rhett comes to see her after he gets out of jail only to find her already married. He ends up loaning her money to buy a saw mill. Atlanta had been razed during Sherman’s march so a LOT of rebuilding needed to be done and a lot of lumber would be needed.
Scarlett turns out to have a shark-like mind for business and turns one saw mill into two and makes a lot of money. She has another baby, this time a girl. She also insists on driving all over town and out to the mills by herself (after she alienates two male drivers). This leads to her being assaulted by two men outside a seedy, shanty town on her way home one night. A former Tara slave shows up to save her, but the incident incites the Klan, of which every nice Southern gentleman is a member. They head out to take care of the Shanty town, not knowing that the Yankees are lying in wait to kill or arrest them.
Rhett, who is good friends with the Yankees, comes to the Klan’s rescue in an unlikely turn of events. He saves them from being arrested, but two men were killed before he got there, including Scarlett’s husband.
Shortly thereafter, Rhett confesses that he’s been in love with Scarlett ever since they first met and he proposes. As soon as a decent period of mourning passes, they get married, even though Scarlett doesn’t really love him because her heart still belongs to Ashley.
Scarlett now has lots of money and things go well enough for a while. She has another daughter, Bonnie, the apple of Rhett’s eye. Rhett tries to reform his standing in society for Bonnie’s sake. Scarlett gets caught hugging Ashley, and there is near disaster. Melanie saves her because she is incapable of believing ill of anyone. Scarlett gets pregnant again but loses the baby after falling down the stairs during a fight with Rhett. Bonnie is killed trying to make her pony jump an obstacle when she’s four. Rhett nearly loses his mind.
Finally, while out of town, Scarlett gets word that Melanie is sick. She rushes home to find her dying of a miscarriage. At that moment Scarlett finally realizes that Melanie is the only true friend she’s ever had, that she’s been the silent strength in Scarlett’s life, and that Scarlett doesn’t hate Melanie, she loves her. She also realizes that her love for Ashley was just unrequited teenage nonsense and that she doesn’t love him at all. Then she realizes that after being generally horrible to him for all this time, she is actually in love with Rhett. She rushes home to confess her newfound love to Rhett only to discover that he’s done. He’s loved her for years with no reciprocation and too much hurt and it’s all over for him. And he leaves.
- I know that was a long synopsis, but it’s an 800 page book people. I was pretty unexcited about starting it because I’d just finished two Russian behemoths. It didn’t help that the first 50-ish pages describe just two days. The novel does pick up a good deal and spans probably close to 10 years. It turns into a pretty good page turner.
- Scarlett is a stupid, mostly horrible person. She is not someone I would ever want to know in real life. She’s definitely not role model material. I do like the fact that she doesn’t just give up the way a nice Southern girl should in the absence of a man. I do like that she’s not afraid to stand up for herself and her family. But she’s also incredibly shallow, ignorant, selfish, and unloving. She lies and uses sketchy business practices. She steals husbands (even from her own sister!). She harbors love for another woman’s husband and tries to steal him multiple times. She’s a terrible mother.
- There’s a very interesting perspective on slavery in the novel. The white people are incredibly racist. But at the same time, they mostly treat the slaves with kindness. They feel responsible for setting a good example and disciplining slaves. House slaves are treated like family and the feeling appears mutual. No one gets whipped. (Scarlett does smack Prissy around a fair amount. Prissy is amazingly, extra special stupid, which is no excuse.) The novel basically shows the Yankees to be completely ignorant of the actual life of a slave, and there is a lot of criticism heaped on them for creating a terrible situation after the war. It actually seems as though it’s the Reconstruction period, not the war, that sets up the hatred in race relations that carries through for the next century.
- Who lets four-year-olds ride horses unattended and try to jump things? It’s so terrible that the little girl Bonnie dies, but at the same time I am just astounded that even back then anyone thought that a four-year-old should be jumping horses.
- I hate some of the old-fashioned, medical stuff in the book, especially where it concerns women and pregnancy. Apparently it was completely scandalous to either acknowledge that woman was pregnant or to allow her out of the house once she started showing. Considering the lack of birth control it’s a wonder anything ever got done. And then they describe Scarlett as being so un-ladylike because she had an easy labor and recovery. Melanie on the other hand nearly dies in child birth for no described reason and literally NEVER recovers. The doctor proclaims she should never have had a baby and shouldn’t have any more. Sure enough when she does try to have another at the end of the novel, she miscarries and dies. Dies! I am well aware that there are circumstances that back then could cause you to die of a miscarriage, but it still pisses me off that Mitchell portrays women as so frail. Makes me grumpy.
Next up is a quick jaunt through the universe with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It’s so quick that I’ve actually already finished reading it, so that post should be coming pretty soon.