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I am struggling with a use of the word "received" that I have never seen before, in conjunction with a social status in 19th century America. Specifically, in Margaret Mitchell's Gone With The Wind, Chapter VI, Cathleen gossips to Scarlett that Rhett Butler is attending the barbecue because he is "Not received." I am writing a piece that spans this period and would like to know the scope and meaning of that cultural idiom.

Scene summary

  • Scarlett O'Hara has been playing the field of beaus at the party and spots Rhett who looks out of place. She's drawn to his "bad boy" vibe and seeks out gossip on him from Cathleen. Cathleen tells Scarlett that he is "not received," which excites Scarlett and she prompts Cathleen for an explanation.
  • Cathleen explains Rhett's terrible reputation, that he took a girl out on a date, brought her home late with no chaperone, and the next day refused to marry her. The girl's brother called him out (for a shotgun wedding), Rhett claimed nothing happened but was challenged just the same. Rhett won the duel and killed the brother, and had to leave town "and now nobody receives him."
  • The result was that the girl did not get pregnant but was "ruined just the same." I don't know if that ties in to the condition.

I would like to know what the idiom means, and if it would be understood to an 1860's British society as well because my story spans those two cultures. (If there was a different equivalent in England that would be helpful)

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    I think English SE might be better at answering this. My guess would be that he's not invited to social gatherings and party crashes (rather than being received as guest).
    – user54131
    Aug 11, 2022 at 19:55

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It's a joke

I think Margaret Mitchell is allowing us to laugh at a couple of 17yo girls salivating over a sex scandal.

"What is the matter with him?"

"My dear, he isn't received!"

"Not really!"

"No."

Scarlett digested this in silence for she had never before been under the same roof with someone who is not received. It was very exciting.

As Scarlett hears the rest of the gossip about Rhett Butler, she's disappointed it wasn't nearly as terrible as she'd hoped.

Being 'received' has a gendered connotation. Women made social calls on other women in their homes. 'Not being received' means the lady of the house would pretend not to be at home when you drop by. The girls consider being rebuffed by good society to be a scandal unto itself. They don't know what real (male) society looks like so they are extrapolating from what they have seen.

A modern version of the joke might be that Rhett has been 'cancelled' on social media – for 17yo girls this is a big deal but for a grown man it's laughable and inconsequential.

The exchange reveals how sheltered and biased the teenagers are. Scarlett has a false opinion of her own family's propriety (which the novel contradicts).

Unreliable narrators

Take Gone With the Wind's historic accuracy with a grain of salt, it is filtered through Scarlett who is generally on the wrong side of every moral issue. She leaps to extremes, and uses conflicting rationalizations to justify her hot-and-cold emotions.

Rhett is contradictingly a guest at Twelve Oaks (Scarlett's ideal Southern home) when the gossip is exchanged saying Rhett can't be received in good homes. The girls don't recall details of the alleged scandal and don't know who was involved – clues they are unreliable narrators.

They rationalize that Rhett must have imposed himself as a party crasher, but shortly Rhett says he has been 'forced' to wait for a meeting – presumably they need to hire Rhett as a smuggler, something Scarlett doesn't know.

The final twist is that Rhett doesn't want to be there, and has a cynical opinion of 'Southern society'. This undermines Scarlett's narrative, as she has never encountered anyone who doesn't believe in The Old South and follow society's 'rules'.

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