Scarlett O’Hara. Scarlett is the protagonist of the novel and the events and characters are seen mostly through her eyes. Born into a wealthy plantation family, Scarlett longs to be a “great lady” like her aristocratic and saintly mother, Ellen, but in fact takes more after her father, Gerald, a willful, self-made man of practical Irish peasant stock. Scarlett is headstrong, selfish and ruthless. Before the war, she takes care to hide these qualities under a veneer of ladylike charm and her efforts are mainly directed to attracting men away from other women. When the war leads the O’Haras to lose their wealth, Scarlett has to find a new role. She gives up pretending to be the demure Southern belle and allows the calculating and domineering aspects of her character free rein, utilizing whatever means are necessary to become a wealthy and successful businesswoman. Determined not to lose her family plantation, Tara, the one constant love of her life, she triumphs over huge adversity to save it and turn it into a viable farm. During the difficult period of the war and subsequent Reconstruction, Scarlett financially supports her family and household, including the Wilkes family.
Scarlett first marries Charles Hamilton to wreak revenge on Ashley Wilkes, whom she has loved from childhood but who has infuriated Scarlett by marrying Melanie Hamilton. Scarlett has a son, Wade Hampton, by Charles before Charles dies in the war. Subsequently, Scarlett marries Frank Kennedy, another man whom she does not love, in order to pay the taxes on Tara. She and Frank have a daughter, Ella. Scarlett scandalizes Frank by her insistence on running her own businesses, but he is too weak to stand in her way.
Scarlett alienates much of Southern society with her “unwomanly” behavior and unscrupulous business practices but does not care for the opinions of others. The only person who both sees her for what she is and loves her is Rhett Butler, who becomes her third husband. Scarlett and Rhett have a daughter, Bonnie, who becomes their favorite child.
Scarlett is so self-absorbed that she has little insight into other people. She spends most of the novel in love with Ashley Wilkes, a man who is both completely different from and utterly unsuited to her, and thus fails to notice that Rhett Butler is similar to her, is a perfect match for her, and loves her intensely. Though Melanie Wilkes believes that Scarlett supports her and her family out of altruistic motives, in fact, Scarlett only does it for Ashley. Scarlett’s fixation with Ashley drives much of the plot. It fatally undermines her marriage with Rhett and she only comes to see Ashley’s faults and Rhett’s strength when she has already lost Rhett’s love. Scarlett is also blind to Melanie’s true nature for most of the novel, feeling contempt for Melanie’s outward frailty and timidity and failing to recognize her great inner strength. Scarlett only realizes how much strength she draws from Melanie and how much she relies upon her when Melanie is dying. Melanie only sees the good in people, and she remains Scarlett’s staunch defender in the face of much criticism and resentment from other people.
Scarlett symbolizes both the Old and New South, and her fate parallels that of the South during the war and Reconstruction period. Her clinging to Ashley represents the Old Southern part of her, whereas her attraction to Rhett represents the New Southern part. Both Scarlett and the South have to overcome terrible hardships and adapt to the changing times in order to survive. They must set aside the Old Southern values of chivalry, the importance of ‘good’ breeding, integrity and kindness in favor of the New Southern (influenced by the North) values of entrepreneurship, ruthless opportunism and financial success. Scarlett adapts extraordinarily well because her hard, ruthless character finds a match in the nature of the times; it could be said that she was designed for this age.
Rhett Butler. Rhett is the dark, dashing and disreputable son of a wealthy old Charleston family. Disowned by his family and expelled from West Point for dishonorable behavior, Rhett is something of an outsider in genteel Southern society. Cynical and brutally honest, he delights in puncturing pomposity and hypocrisy by telling the truth as he sees it, caring little about what others think of him. When the war breaks out, he does not immediately follow the patriotic young men into the army, but becomes a blockade-runner and later, a speculator, in line with his opportunistic conviction that there is as much money to be made in the destruction of a civilization as in its rise. By the end of the war, Rhett is one of the few wealthy people in the South.
Rhett recognizes a kindred spirit in Scarlett and quickly falls for her. Alone among her acquaintances, he sees through her every trick and deception, but loves her anyway. One of the tragedies of their relationship is that he is unable to tell her of his feelings. Instead, he hides behind a veneer of sardonic humor and bland indifference that Scarlett is too insensitive to penetrate. At the end of the novel, he reveals how much he has loved her and explains his reticence: “You’re so brutal to those who love you, Scarlett. You take their love and hold it over their heads like a whip.” Another reason why he keeps his emotions under wraps is Scarlett’s obsession with Ashley. This finally wears out his love for Scarlett and at the end of the novel, he leaves her.
That Rhett has a good heart under his cynical shell is clear from his many selfless acts. He risks his own life to save Ashley and other Atlanta men during a Ku Klux Klan raid, and his devotion to his daughter by Scarlett, Bonnie, becomes legendary among the people of Atlanta. Most importantly, he supports and helps Scarlett in many ways. Rhett lends her money to buy the sawmill, and when the rest of Atlanta is condemning her for her unwomanly behavior in running her businesses, he is the only person who encourages her. She comes to rely on him as the only person to whom she can talk with total honesty, though typically, she fails to understand that his unflagging support and understanding are signs of his love for her. She also spends most of the novel only seeing Rhett’s disreputable aspects, dismissing him as a “scoundrel” and “not a gentleman.” This also becomes Atlanta society’s view of him when he is engaging in speculation, profiteering, and trading with the Yankees at the expense of the South. Only Melanie is his constant champion, maintaining that he is much misunderstood and better than people think him.
In many ways, Rhett has feminist instincts. He helps three women start or expand their businesses – Scarlett, Belle Watling, and Mrs Merriwether – at a time when ‘decent’ women were not supposed to engage in trade. Also, he finds it incomprehensible that women are supposed to disappear from society when they are pregnant.
Rhett symbolizes the New South, the values of entrepreneurship and ruthless opportunism that the South is forced to adopt under the influence of the North in order to survive the war. Most of the time, he refuses to conform to Southern patriotic expectations and is openly contemptuous of them. However, on two occasions, Rhett reveals that he has more of the Old Southern gentleman in him than he cares to admit. The first occasion is after the Yankee bombardment of Atlanta, when he leaves Scarlett to make her own way back to Tara and goes to join the Confederate army at a time when defeat seems imminent. The second occasion is at the end of the novel, when he again leaves Scarlett, this time to make peace with his prominent Old Southern family and to recapture something of the refined life of a Southern gentleman. Rhett’s unexpected patriotism symbolically suggests that however much the South adapts to the values of the changing times, at its heart, it maintains the dream of graceful living that characterized the Old South.
Ashley Wilkes. Ashley is a Southern gentleman born into the wealthy family that owns Twelve Oaks plantation. Though he is attracted to Scarlett, he recognizes that she is very different from him, and marries Melanie Hamilton, who is very like him. Ashley stands in contrast to Rhett for most of the novel. He is honorable, courteous and skilled in the gentlemanly pursuits of the arts, poetry, and riding. After the war, unlike Rhett and Scarlett, he fails to adapt to the changing times and his weaknesses become more obvious. He dreams of the old days, when life had a beauty and grace that has been swept away by the war. Scarlett supports him and his family at Tara, but he proves a poor farmer. Then she sets him up in business as manager of her mill in Atlanta, but he fails to make a profit. He sacrifices his honor by accepting Scarlett’s charity, and never recovers his self-esteem.
Ashley further compromises his honor by admitting to Scarlett that he loves her and kissing her. He later says that he regrets not marrying her. Ashley’s actions in marrying Melanie rather than Scarlett and continuing to foster Scarlett’s love for him seem both lacking in courage and disrespectful to both women. Only Rhett sees this clearly throughout, though after the scandal breaks about Ashley and Scarlett’s embrace at the lumber yard and Ashley simply hides behind Melanie’s honor, Scarlett too begins to wonder whether Ashley has played the “manly” part.
Only when Melanie dies does Ashley realize how much he loved her and depended upon her strength. Now that Ashley is deprived of the prop of Melanie, Scarlett finally sees him as he is, a weak man, even a child who needs to be looked after. She sees that it is not Ashley whom she has loved all these years but a creation of her imagination.
Ashley represents the Old South and those Southerners who yearn for the days before the war. He is unwilling or unable to change with the times and thus is one of those who are “winnowed out” by the war. Scarlett’s fixation with him represents that part of her that clings to the past. Finally, she realizes that pining for the lost world of the Old South makes people weak and unable to act, and is able to let go of Ashley.
Melanie Wilkes (previously Melanie Hamilton). Melanie marries Ashley Wilkes, an action that makes her the target of Scarlett’s jealous hatred. Melanie is a woman of great integrity, inner strength and generosity. She is loved for these qualities by almost everybody except Scarlett, who only sees Melanie’s timidity and physical frailty and feels contempt for her. During and after the war, Scarlett looks after and supports Melanie because she has promised Ashley that she will do so. Melanie only sees the good in people, and, blind to Scarlett’s ulterior motives, chooses to see her actions as altruistic and heroic. Melanie stands beside Scarlett at all times and becomes her staunchest defender and ally, even when the rest of Atlanta is criticizing Scarlett. Melanie’s courage and loyalty during the hard times of the war and Reconstruction eventually make Scarlett realize that Melanie has been a great source of strength to her. Rhett too relies on Melanie’s support when Scarlett lies close to death after her miscarriage, admitting truths about his feelings for Scarlett that he cannot reveal to Scarlett herself. He calls Melanie “a very great lady.”
During and after the war, Melanie becomes the kingpin of various patriotic and charitable causes and the center of genteel Atlanta society. As Scarlett and Rhett become more unpopular because of their association with Yankees, Scalawags and carpetbaggers, Melanie acts as a buffer between them and social disgrace. When Scarlett is discovered embracing Ashley at the lumber yard, Melanie single-handedly saves Scarlett from social ostracism by publicly standing by her and insisting that any household that welcomes Melanie must also welcome Scarlett.
Melanie symbolizes the Old South, but in a different way from Ashley. Whereas Ashley is lost in dreams of the old days, Melanie is intensely practical and faces danger head-on. Examples are when she emerges from her sick-room with Charles’s sword, determined to defend Scarlett and Tara from the Yankee soldier; and when her quick-thinking responses to Rhett’s cues help save Ashley and other Atlanta men from hanging after their participation in the Ku Klux Klan raid. Melanie acknowledges that Ashley lacks her practical side when, on her death-bed, she asks Scarlett to look after him.
Gerald O’Hara. Gerald is Scarlett’s father and the patriarch of the plantation of Tara. He immigrated to America from Ireland after killing an English government agent. He won Tara in a card game and built it up into a successful cotton plantation. Gerald is shrewd, charming and kind-hearted, but he is also headstrong, selfish and refuses to listen to the voices of caution – qualities that Scarlett inherits from him. He is devoted to his wife, Ellen, and never recovers after her death during the war, descending into a state of senility. A staunch Confederate, he dies after discovering that his daughter, Suellen, has tried to trick him into signing an oath of allegiance to the victorious Yankees. He is so upset that he gets drunk and, like Bonnie, is thrown to his death while jumping his horse over a fence with the cry, “Watch me take this one!”
Ellen O’Hara. Ellen is Scarlett’s mother. A descendant of the aristocratic Robillard family, she marries Gerald after her father forbids her to marry the love of her life, her cousin Philippe. She proves to be a highly competent manager at Tara and effortlessly commands the respect and obedience of all the employees and slaves. Dignified, refined, and compassionate, Ellen represents an impossibly high standard for Scarlett to live up to. While Scarlett longs to be “a great lady” like Ellen, she finds herself going against her mother’s teachings in the face of the harsh reality of war. Scarlett never resolves this conflict between what she believes Ellen would do and what she herself wants to do, and generally puts off thinking about it.
Ellen dies during the war of typhoid, which she contracts while nursing the “white trash” Slatterys through the disease. Gerald never recovers from her loss.
Carreen O’Hara. Careen is Scarlett’s gentle and religious-minded youngest sister. She falls in love with Brent Tarleton, but when he is killed in the war, she enters a convent in Charleston.
Suellen O’Hara. Suellen is Scarlett’s selfish younger sister. She is courted by Frank Kennedy before Scarlett steals him from her. After the war, Suellen becomes dissatisfied with her relative poverty and tries to trick Gerald into signing the Iron-Clad Oath of allegiance to the Yankee government so that they can claim a large sum of money in compensation for damages to Tara. Gerald is so upset that he gets drunk and is thrown from his horse to his death. Many family members and neighbors blame Suellen for killing Gerald and betraying the Confederate cause. At Gerald’s funeral, Will shields Suellen from their resentment by announcing their engagement. Will and Suellen marry and run the farm at Tara.
Frank Kennedy. Described as an “old maid in pants,” Frank Kennedy is Scarlett’s second husband, whom she marries in order to pay the taxes on Tara. Scarlett steals Frank away from her sister, Suellen, whom he had been courting for years. Scarlett also buys a sawmill that Frank had planned to acquire, using his money. Frank is a kindly but weak man whom Scarlett is able to bully into submission to her will. He feels mortified by Scarlett’s insistence on running her own businesses during their marriage, but is unable to stand up to her. He is killed while taking part in a Ku Klux Klan retribution attack on two men who assaulted Scarlett.
India Wilkes. India is Ashley’s sister. India never forgives Scarlett for stealing Stuart Tarleton from her. She witnesses Scarlett and Ashley embracing at the lumber yard and gossips about the incident. This causes a split within the Wilkes family, dividing Ashley from India and Aunt Pittypat from Melanie, and in the wider Atlanta society.
Honey Wilkes. Honey is Ashley’s sister. She plans to marry Charles Hamilton before Scarlett steals him from her.
Charles Hamilton. Charles is Melanie’s brother and Scarlett’s first husband, whom she marries to wreak revenge on Ashley for marrying Melanie. In doing so, Scarlett upsets Honey Wilkes, whose beau Charles was. Charles is a timid and bland young man who makes little impression on Scarlett before dying of measles while in military service in the war.
Aunt Pittypat Hamilton. Aunt Pittypat is Melanie’s aunt. She is an old maid who is as helpless as a child and is prone to fainting at the slightest difficulty. Pittypat is so incapable that after the death of Charles and Melanie’s parents, the slave Uncle Peter moves into the void and brings up the children himself. Pittypat’s helpless character is reflected in her physique: she is overweight, always breathless from too-tight stays, and has tiny feet that are inadequate to support her weight, so that she is unable to walk more than a block.
Brent and Stuart Tarleton. The Tarleton twins are two young men, sons of Mrs Beatrice Tarleton, who are friends of Scarlett before the war. Scarlett flirts with them even though Brent is Carreen’s beau and Stuart is India Wilkes’s beau. Both sons are killed in the war.
Mrs Beatrice Tarleton. Mrs. Beatrice Tarleton is the mother of Brent and Stuart Tarleton. She is a keen horsewoman and enjoys talking about horses with Gerald.
Grandma Fontaine. Grandma Fontaine is the matriarch of the Fontaine family, who own a plantation near Tara. She is a wise but irascible old lady who gives Scarlett advice about surviving hard times.
Mammy. Mammy is an old slave who was nurse to Scarlett as a child and before her, to Ellen. She is intensely loyal to the O’Haras and chooses to stay with them after the abolition of slavery after the war. Mammy is a stern tutor to Scarlett on matters of etiquette and morals. Both Scarlett and Rhett are keen to keep her good opinion.
Pork is Gerald’s first slave. He is loyal to the O’Haras and chooses to stay with them after the abolition of slavery after the war.
Dilcey, a slave, is Pork’s wife and the mother of Prissy.
Prissy is the daughter of Pork and Dilcey. She is a young, lazy and foolish slave who is prone to lying. She falsely tells Scarlett that she is skilled in midwifery. When it becomes clear that she was lying, Scarlett has to deliver Melanie’s baby herself.
Uncle Peter. Uncle Peter is Aunt Pittypat’s loyal slave. After the death of Charles and Melanie’s parents, Uncle Peter brings up the children himself. He manages most of Aunt Pittypat’s affairs.
Big Sam is the foreman at Tara. He saves Scarlett from her attackers in Shantytown.
Emmie Slattery is a young woman whose poor family lives in the swamp bottom near Tara. The family is looked down upon by the richer neighbors, and even by the slaves, as “white trash.” Ellen contracts typhoid while nursing the family through the disease. After the war, Emmie marries Jonas Wilkerson and infuriates Scarlett by turning up at Tara in ostentatious style and offering to buy the place.
Jonas Wilkerson is the Yankee overseer at Tara. Gerald fires him after he gets Emmie Slattery pregnant. After the war, Jonas runs the Freedmen’s Bureau and marries Emmie Slattery. He raises the taxes on Tara to try to force Scarlett to sell the plantation to him. As a result of this, Scarlett marries Frank.
Belle Watling. Belle is the town prostitute. She has a long-standing relationship with Rhett, who supports her business financially, and when Scarlett bans him from the marital bed, Rhett seeks comfort with Belle. She provides Ashley Wilkes and other Atlanta men with an alibi for murder after a Ku Klux Klan raid. This prompts mixed feelings among some members of genteel society, who resent owing the lives of their men to a prostitute.
Will Benteen. Will is a one-legged Confederate soldier from a poor family whom the O’Haras nurse back to health. Scarlett quickly notices his competence and allows him to stay on at Tara and run the farm. He takes a liking to Carreen, but when she joins a convent, marries Suellen instead so that he can remain indefinitely at Tara without provoking gossip. With Tara safe under his management, Scarlett is free to move to Atlanta.
Archie is a one-eyed and one-legged former convict who was released from prison for agreeing to fight for the Confederate army. Melanie employs him to drive Scarlett around town and act as her bodyguard during the dangerous Reconstruction period. Archie does not like Yankees, black people, and women. He disapproves when Scarlett employs convicts in her mill and resigns from her employ.
Bonnie Blue Butler. Bonnie is Scarlett’s third child, by Rhett Butler, and the favorite of both parents. Like Scarlett, she is headstrong and spoiled, and like Rhett, she is charming. Rhett is devoted to Bonnie and when he is rejected by Scarlett, he pours all his love into the child. He even reinvents himself as a patriotic Democrat and pillar of the community in order to smooth Bonnie’s path in Atlanta society.
Bonnie’s strong will proves fatal, as she demands to be allowed to jump her pony over a dangerously high bar and is thrown to her death. Her death is reminiscent of Gerald’s, and they die with the same words on their lips – “Watch me take this one!” After Bonnie’s death, Rhett and Scarlett’s marriage collapses.
Wade Hampton Hamilton. Wade is Scarlett’s first child, by Charles Hamilton. Wade inherits his father’s timid disposition. He is traumatized by the Yankee bombardment of Atlanta.
Ella Lorena Kennedy. Ella is Scarlett’s second child, by Frank Kennedy. She takes after her father, being both ugly and silly.
Beau Wilkes. Beau is Ashley and Melanie’s only child, born during the burning of Atlanta by the Yankees.