The protagonist of Gone with the Wind, Scarlett is a dark-haired, green-eyed Georgia belle who struggles through the hardships of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Scarlett exhibits more of her father’s hard-headedness than her mother’s refined Southern manners. Although initially she tries to behave prettily, her instincts rise up against social restrictions. Determination defines Scarlett and drives her to achieve everything she desires by any means necessary. This determination first manifests itself in her narcissistic and sometimes backstabbing efforts to excite the admiration of every young man in the neighborhood. Later, under threat of starvation and even death, she is determined to survive and does so by picking cotton, running her entire plantation, forging a successful business, and even killing a man.
Scarlett also aims to win Ashley Wilkes, and her failure to do so guides the plot of the novel. Ashley’s marriage to Melanie Hamilton and rejection of Scarlett drive nearly all of Scarlett’s important subsequent decisions. Scarlett marries Charles Hamilton to hurt Ashley, stays by Melanie’s side through the war because she promises Ashley she will, and loses her true love, Rhett Butler, because of her persistent desire to win Ashley.
Scarlett possesses remarkable talent for business and leadership. She recovers her father’s plantation, Tara, after the war leaves it decimated, and she achieves great success with her sawmill in Atlanta. Despite her sharp intelligence, however, she has almost no ability to understand the motivations and feelings of herself or others. Scarlett lives her life rationally: she decides what constitutes success, finds the most effective means to succeed, and does not consider concepts like honor and kindness. She often professes to see no other choices than the ones she makes.
Scarlett’s development precisely mirrors the development of the South. She changes from spoiled teenager to hard-working widow to wealthy opportunist, reflecting the South’s change from leisure society to besieged nation to compromised survivor. Scarlett embodies both Old and New South. She clings to Ashley, who symbolizes the idealized lost world of chivalry and manners, but she adapts wonderfully to the harsh and opportunistic world of the New South, ultimately clinging to dangerous Rhett, who, like Scarlett, symbolizes the combination of old and new.
Dark, dashing, and scandalous, Rhett Butler brings excitement to Scarlett’s life and encourages her impulse to change and succeed. Thrown out of both West Point and his aristocratic Charleston family for dishonorable behavior, Rhett, like Scarlett, goes after what he wants and refuses to take ‘no’ for an answer. He earns his fortune through professional gambling, wartime blockade-running, and food speculation, behavior that earns him the contempt and even hatred of what he terms the Old Guard—the old Southern aristocracy. Rhett sees through hypocrisy and self-delusion, horrifying people by cutting down their egos and illusions with agility and pleasure.
Whereas Ashley cannot face reality and change, Rhett thrives on both. Because of his opportunism, Rhett symbolizes the New South. However, as the novel progresses, we see that Rhett does care about the Old South. At two critical points in the novel, Rhett abandons Scarlett to commit himself to the Old South. First, he leaves Scarlett in hostile territory and joins the Confederate army. Second, at the end of the novel he leaves Scarlett and goes in search of remnants of the Old South. This sentimentality complicates Rhett’s character and reveals that he is partially motivated by emotion. Ultimately, Rhett symbolizes pragmatism, the practical acceptance of the reality that the South must face in order to survive in a changed world. He understands that the U.S. government has overhauled the Southern economy and that the old way of life is gone forever. He adapts to the situation masterfully, but he does not fully abandon the idealized Southern past.
Rhett falls in love with Scarlett, but, despite their eventual marriage, their relationship never succeeds because of Scarlett’s obsession with Ashley and Rhett’s reluctance to express his feelings. Because Rhett knows that Scarlett scorns men she can win easily, Rhett refuses to show her she was won him. He mocks her, argues with her, and eventually resorts to cruelty and indifference in order to win her. But his fondness for her is evident in his support of her, as he encourages her to shun social customs and gives her money to start her own business.
Blond, dreamy, and honorable, Ashley Wilkes is the foil to Rhett’s dark, realistic opportunism. Ashley courts Scarlett but marries Melanie Hamilton, thus setting in motion Scarlett’s central conflict. Ashley is the perfect prewar Southern gentleman: he excels at hunting and riding, takes pleasure in the arts, and comes from an excellent family.
Scarlett’s idealization of Ashley slowly fades as time goes on, and she finally sees that the Ashley she loves is not a real man but a man embellished and adorned by her imagination. Ashley admits to his love for Scarlett, but as a gentleman he ignores this love in order to marry Melanie, the more socially appropriate match for him. He excels at battle despite his doubts about the Southern cause. As the novel progresses, though, Ashley displays signs of weakness and incompetence. After the war he is worthless on the plantation and cannot adjust to the new world. Whereas Rhett and Scarlett survive by sacrificing their commitment to tradition, Ashley cannot or will not allow himself to thrive in a changed society. He sinks even lower as he sacrifices his honor—the only thing he still values in himself—by accepting charity from Scarlett in the form of a share in her mill and by kissing her twice.
Ashley represents the Old South and Southern nostalgia for the prewar days. He epitomizes the old lifestyle and cannot function in the New South that emerges during and after the war. Scarlett clings to him like many Southerners cling to dreams of their old lives, but her eventual recognition of Ashley’s weakness and incompetence enables her to see that dreaming of a lost world makes one weak.