No matter how old she gets or how many times she remarries, Scarlett remains a child at heart. As the film opens, she resents serious matters such as sickness or war, merely seeing them as impediments to having fun. Even when she grows more accepting of life’s practicalities, Scarlett insists on being the center of attention. She steals from other people whenever it suits her, taking Charles from India, Frank from Suellen, and all the servants from her sisters at Tara without any thought for the feelings of others. Even Scarlett’s long quest for Ashley, supposedly the great love of her life, is rooted in her desire to steal him away from another woman.
Scarlett’s appeal lies in her limitless internal resources. She throws herself into the backbreaking physical toil she despises in order to keep Tara going and sells goods to the Yankees she hates in order to make her business a success, always doing whatever she must to emerge victorious. Not even the loss of her loved ones holds her back. It is only after finding out about her mother’s death and her father’s madness that she resolves to save Tara, and after Bonnie’s death that she finally welcomes the idea of having more children. When Rhett walks out the door, leaving her without a shred of hope, she cries only for a moment before resolving to win him back, a necessary first step as she attempts to reconquer her world.
On the surface, Rhett Butler is a textbook example of the charming rogue. His dark, good looks and supposedly wild behavior are the source of considerable gossip among the ladies. His most common expression is one of cynical amusement, and his war heroics are illegal and leave him with a healthy profit. He views social niceties as ridiculous and says exactly what he thinks, no matter who is listening or what their reaction might be. Most important to Rhett’s charm is his sexuality. Unlike the proper, repressed gentlemen and ladies that surround him, Rhett believes that sex is an important part of life that should be explored and enjoyed at every opportunity.
At heart, though, Rhett desperately wants to be accepted, not in terms of social position—though Rhett is later willing to take that route for Bonnie’s sake—but in the sense that he wants to be with someone who no longer makes him feel so alone. His family’s complete rejection left Rhett emotionally isolated, making him hide his soft heart and readiness to help others. Rhett sees himself in Scarlett, and he is convinced that only someone who is also a rebellious outcast would allow him to be an important part of her life. When Scarlett treats Rhett as an inferior, he focuses his affection on Bonnie, who he sees as the only person he will ever love unconditionally. Melanie Hamilton is able to see the gentler, nobler side of Rhett, and he in turn genuinely respects and admires her as he does few other people. After Bonnie and Melanie die, he loses his strength.
A romantic who is crippled by his nostalgia for the Old South, Ashley spends most of the film listlessly adrift through the harsher realities of the Reconstruction Era. Unlike Scarlett, he has no ambition or goals for the future, needing to be pushed into his profession by the stronger women in his life and joining the Confederate army without feeling passionate about the war. All he can do is remember the elegance of his life as it once was and wish that he could return to those days.
To Ashley, Scarlett represents passion and strength, while Melanie’s gentleness and consistent devotion remind him of all the grace and beauty of the plantations that were destroyed by the war. He insists that his honor keeps him from resolving the love triangle between the three characters, but in reality he knows the situation is vital to his continued existence. At the end of the film, after Melanie has died and Scarlett’s adoration has disappeared, the viewer is left wondering whether Ashley himself will soon vanish.
At first, Melanie serves primarily as an example of everything Scarlett is not. Kind instead of cutting, quiet instead of bold, thoughtful instead of self-centered, naïve instead of wily, Melanie dies as Scarlett once again rises from the ashes. Throughout her life Melanie thinks the best of everyone, and though some consider her outlook foolish it allows her to see a side of Rhett and Belle that most are unable to. It also allows her to have a far more pleasant and affectionate relationship with Scarlett than any other character in the film.
As the film progresses, Melanie’s determined kindness and perpetual calm give strength to the characters in the film. Though Scarlett is the one who always forges ahead, it is Melanie who refuses to leave anyone behind, emotionally supporting Ashley even as she soothes Scarlett’s sisters and brings compassion into Rhett’s life. It is Melanie’s calm, cool wisdom rather than Scarlett’s assertiveness that soothes the characters after the raid on the shantytown, and it is Melanie’s name that Mammy calls in times of crisis. Even Scarlett realizes how much she has come to rely on the unfailing support of the woman whom she viewed as a rival for so long.