Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
As Gerald tells Scarlett in the opening scenes of the film, the land should be cherished because it can survive humanity’s recklessness. However, it is not until Scarlett escapes from Atlanta and returns to her destroyed home that she begins to believe her father. Though her entire way of life is gone, she fights to keep the land because it is all that remains of the world she lost. While she is in Atlanta making her fortune, Scarlett knows that the land will be there waiting for her. After Melanie, Bonnie, and Rhett are gone from her life, Scarlett uses the land as a starting point to help her rebuild. The South, too, lives through the horrors of war and remains unbroken, though it is forever changed. The Old South is gone, but as long as the land remains its people will always be able to start life over again.
Shying away from scenes of dramatic battles and military heroism, Gone With the Wind expresses the true horrors of war by showing the destructive effect it has on people caught in the crossfire. Rather than focusing on glinting sabers or dramatic cannon fire, the film instead concentrates on the pain-twisted faces of hundreds of mutilated and dying soldiers. The cynical Rhett is commended for his wartime “heroism,” but those few words of praise are quickly overshadowed by the mobs of people desperate to hear whether their loved ones are alive. Death is a frequent occurrence. Dr. Meade’s family gathers close as they mourn the loss of their oldest son and brother. When the younger boy swears vengeance against the Yankees, Melanie squelches the young man’s desire with a simple truth: it would do his parents no good to have both their sons dead.
The characters in Gone With the Wind are most successful when they depend on no one but themselves. Scarlett refuses to listen to other people’s opinions and builds a successful business relying only on her own judgment and skills. Her insistence that Ashley be by her side is only an impediment. Melanie, too, refuses to allow the opinions of others to influence her, and while some call her judgments foolish, she dies having lived a happier life than anyone she leaves behind. Rhett, rejected by his family, builds his fortune through his own confidence and abilities. Though he remains unbeaten by war and Yankee imprisonment, his need for Scarlett’s affection eventually drains him of his strength. Only at the end of the film, when he heads out on his own, does he find his feet again.
Though strong characters succeed through the Gone With the Wind, the film suggests that strength is often a person’s undoing. Scarlett, who has beaten poverty, the Yankees, and public opinion, loses the man she has come to love because she is too stubborn to see that she was wrong about Ashley. Melanie, who has enough emotional strength to carry every other character in the film on her shoulders, dies when her pregnancy proves to be too much. Gerald, whose bravery made him such a skilled horseman, dies taking a final, reckless jump. The determination that made Rhett a successful smuggler and social black sheep proves to be his undoing and causes him to stay with Scarlett long after he should have let her go.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
The opening title card of Gone With the Wind warns that the South the film portrays is no more than “a dream remembered.” Ashley, once a dignified, respectable landowner, finds it impossible to escape the dreams of the life he once lived. He is unable to accomplish anything with his life after the war and is passively dragged into a profession by the stronger, more clear-headed women in his life. This daydreaming damages other lives as well. Scarlett learns that it is Ashley’s romantic dreams, not his love for her, that cause him to string Scarlett along for so many years. Melanie, weighed down by his dreaming, asks Scarlett to take care of Ashley and Beau when she dies.
For the characters in Gone With the Wind, obsession is both a strength and an Achilles’ heel. It provides Scarlett with strength as she works to restore Tara and her personal status to their former glory. Her obsession enables her to endure backbreaking work, to kill, and to perform other acts she once thought herself incapable of doing. However, Scarlett’s obsession with Ashley puts her through years of pointless emotional turmoil and masks her feelings for Rhett. Melanie’s deep desire to have children gives her joy as she becomes pregnant a second time, but her obsessive need and the risks it inspires ultimately kill her. Rhett’s obsessive quest to win Scarlett brings him happiness at first but leaves him drained, his bravado and self-confidence entirely diminished by Scarlett’s emotional distance.
Many of the characters in the film go through drastically changing circumstances, often more than once. Scarlett, once wealthy, loses everything in the war only to win back an even greater wealth than that which she lost. Ashley, too, loses everything in the war, and though Scarlett helps him recover financially, emotionally he is never the same. Frank Kennedy, once so poor Scarlett scoffed at his wish to marry her sister Suellen, works until he becomes wealthy enough that Scarlett wants to marry him herself. Rhett, made even wealthier by his brave smuggling during the war, is also made poor by it, as his time in prison keeps him from accessing his money tied up in foreign banks. However, Rhett ultimately uses the promise of this money to quickly regain his freedom. Life is represented as a constant uncertainty in which only the foolish become complacent with their current position in life. The truly successful are always prepared for change.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
In addition to representing the land it was built on, Tara serves as a symbol of family and a sense of continuity for Scarlett, often more so than the living family she has left. After her mother dies and her father goes mad, Scarlett doesn’t allow her sisters to say anything bad about Tara, admonishing them that it would be like insulting their lost parents. Tara’s presence comforts Scarlett after Ashley’s rejections and offers a physical defense against Jonas Wilkerson when he tries to intimidate her. When Scarlett moves to Atlanta and becomes wealthy, she doesn’t forget about Tara, ensuring that it remains beautiful and well cared for. After Rhett leaves, Tara serves as the only place where Scarlett can recover from the blow and lick her wounds in peace.
Though it initially belongs to Rhett, the gun he gives Scarlett upon her escape from Atlanta symbolizes Scarlett’s own strength and ability to stand on her own. Rhett first gives Scarlett the gun before leaving her and the other women alone in enemy territory, confident that Scarlett will be able to take care of herself with the proper resources. Later, the gun and Scarlett’s courage to use it allow her to defend her home from the Yankee deserter. Scarlett’s abilities and independence develop until she can shoot well at close range. This talent mirrors her outlook on life, winning her no points for elegance but leaving her able to do what’s necessary in any situation.
Scarlett’s lovely, frivolous hats symbolize her young, girlish side, the part of her that wants nothing more than to be entertained and to be the object of all the boys’ admiration. After Charles dies she wants to defy her widow’s garb by wearing a fashionable hat, just as she wants to defy her mourning period by dancing and going to parties. While in Atlanta, Rhett woos Scarlett by ordering her a hat from Paris, its purchase symbolizing a much stronger acknowledgement of Scarlett’s beauty and charm than he is ever willing to offer out loud. Even near the end of the film, after Scarlett has become a shrewd, practical, and highly successful businesswoman, she still claims that putting on an attractive hat makes her forget about sensible things like bookkeeping. Scarlett still wants to be thought of as the prettiest girl at the ball.