Despite the Northerners’ efforts to crush Southern society through Reconstruction, the South slowly rebuilds itself. Many characters marry, often in matches that would have been unthinkable in the days before the war. Suellen’s marriage to the poor white man Will Benteen is such a match. In prewar times, a poor man like Will would not have dreamed of wooing a landed, high-class woman like Suellen. Atlanta’s aristocracy begins to reestablish its social network, using Melanie’s house as a meeting place. The physical rebuilding of Atlanta proceeds rapidly, as Scarlett’s success with the lumber mill illustrates. Postwar life is difficult, but it goes on—even matriarchs take on small business projects, and Confederate army veterans who were listless and despondent after the war begin working feverishly to rebuild their fortunes. Southerners remain almost defiant. Gerald’s death strikes a note of Southern pride and resolve, for he goes to his death hating the Yankees and defying them. The spirit of his defiance seems to echo throughout Georgia and the South during Reconstruction, as the Georgia legislature’s stubborn refusal to ratify the amendment granting citizenship to blacks demonstrates.
Will Benteen emerges as the only poor white character whom Mitchell develops fully. He is a real person, not simply a sketch or a symbol. Other non-aristocratic characters, such as Emmie Slattery, the “white trash” character, and Jonas Wilkerson, the evil Yankee, never develop into anything more than stereotypes. Will, however, becomes a part of the O’Hara family and Scarlett’s trusted advisor. As a “cracker” (a lower-class white), Will has only a few slaves and little property before the war, a serious handicap to one’s status in a society that measures worth and class by the amount of land and slaves a man possesses. Before the war, the O’Haras would never have dreamed of socializing with Will, let alone allowing him to marry into their family. But with Tara in ruins, the O’Haras welcome Will’s help. He arrives at just the right moment to earn their respect and favor. Once Will gets his foot in the door, his good Southern manners win over the entire family and he successfully jumps class boundaries. With so many men killed in the war, the South must make class boundaries more permeable in order to survive. Still, class boundaries do not collapse completely: though Will advances in the Atlanta social scene, he does so not by his own merits but by marrying into an aristocratic family. Additionally, both Scarlett and the narrator exhibit a contemptuous attitude toward Emmie. Emmie’s family has next to nothing, and the South rejects her. Desirous of moving up in the world, Emmie must leave the South and join Northern society in order to improve her social lot.
Scarlett’s decision to lease convicts illustrates the extent to which she has changed into a cutthroat businesswoman. Before the war, Scarlett would have been horrified, or at least would have feigned horror, at the mere mention of convicts. Now she hires them as workers. Everyone, even Archie, a convicted murderer, considers Scarlett’s decision inhumane. Convicts are not protected as free workers are, and they are treated badly by the people who lease them, sometimes dying from the abusive working conditions. Scarlett has never cared much about the consequences of her actions, thinking almost exclusively about how great a profit will result from them. She proceeds with the plan to hire convicts over the chorus of objections. Her ruthlessness reaches new heights during this difficult economic time, which suggests not only Scarlett’s inhumanity but also the general cruelty practiced by both Northerners and Southerners after the Civil War. Scarlett is predisposed to ruthlessness, but she is also a product of ruthless times.