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.