Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Gone with the Wind is both a romance and a meditation on the changes that swept the American South in the 1860s. The novel begins in 1861, in the days before the Civil War, and ends in 1871, after the Democrats regain power in Georgia. The South changes completely during the intervening years, and Mitchell’s novel illustrates the struggles of the Southern people who live through the Civil War era.
The novel opens in prewar Georgia, where tradition, chivalry, and pride thrive. As the Civil War begins, the setting shifts to Atlanta, where the war causes the breakdown of traditional gender roles and power structures. When the South loses the war and the slaves are freed, putting a stop to the Southern way of life, the internal conflict intensifies. White men fear black men, Southerners hate profiteering or domineering Northerners, and impoverished aristocrats resent the newly rich. Mitchell’s main characters embody the conflicting impulses of the South. Ashley stands for the Old South; nostalgic and unable to change, he weakens and fades. Rhett, on the other hand, opportunistic and realistic, thrives by planting one foot in the Old South and one foot in the New, sometimes even defending the Yankees.
Scarlett manages to overcome adversity through brute strength of will. She emerges as a feminist heroine because she relies on herself alone and survives the Civil War and Reconstruction unaided. She rebuilds Tara after the Yankee invasion and works her way up in the new political order, taking care of helpless family members and friends along the way. Mitchell suggests that overcoming adversity sometimes requires ruthlessness. Scarlett becomes a cruel businesswoman and a domineering wife, willingly coarsening herself in order to succeed. Other characters succeed by exercising willpower, among them Old Miss Fontaine, who watched Indians scalp her entire family as a child and then gritted her teeth and worked to raise her own family and run a plantation. Rhett Butler also wills his way to success, although he covers up his bullheaded willpower with a layer of ease and carelessness.
In Chapter II, Gerald tells Scarlett that “[l]and is the only thing in the world that amounts to anything.” At critical junctures Scarlett usually remembers that land, specifically Tara, is the only thing that matters to her. When Scarlett escapes to Tara from Atlanta during the war, she lies sick and weak in the garden at neighboring Twelve Oaks and the earth feels “soft and comfortable as a pillow” against her cheek. After feeling the comfort of the land, she resolves to look forward and continue the struggle with newfound vigor. Scarlett prizes land even over love. When Ashley rejects Scarlett’s proposed affair, he gives her a clump of Tara’s dirt and reminds her that she loves Tara more than she loves him. Feeling the dirt in her hand, Scarlett realizes that Ashley is right. At the end of the novel, when all else is lost, Scarlett thinks of Tara and finds strength and comfort in its enduring presence.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Despite the severe gender inequality of their time, women in Gone with the Wind show strength and intelligence that equals or bests the strength and intelligence of men. Scarlett is cunning, and manipulates men with ease. She runs Tara when her father falls ill, and eventually realizes that she has a better head for business than most men. She becomes a very successful mill owner, running every aspect of the business and putting her weak, incompetent husband to shame. Melanie, although she is a subdued figure, exhibits increasing strength as the novel progresses, and she eventually emerges as the novel’s strongest female character. She provides much of Scarlett’s strength, although Scarlett realizes this only at the end of the novel. Melanie also protects Ashley from the world he cannot face. Despite her humble means, she single-handedly facilitates the restoration of Atlanta society. Old Miss Fontaine and Ellen also demonstrate strength and intelligence. Both women act as head of the family, and the narrator describes Ellen as the true mind and strength behind Tara.
Alcohol abuse occurs throughout the novel, as Gerald, Scarlett, and Rhett all rely heavily on drinking. Characters use alcohol to cope with stress, but when they abuse alcohol, disaster ensues. Drinking is partly responsible for Gerald’s death: he rides his horse while drunk, misses a jump, and is thrown to his death. Mitchell suggests that Scarlett cheapens herself unnecessarily by drinking. Gerald disapproves of her drinking, which begins only after she escapes Atlanta, because ladies never drink liquor in polite Southern society. Scarlett continues to drink at Tara whenever she feels overworked or troubled, and she brings her habit to Atlanta when she moves back. Rhett’s drinking reveals his insecurity, a disaster for Rhett since he is obsessed with mastery and self-sufficiency. Rhett begins to drink heavily as his relationship with Scarlett deteriorates, and he drinks even more when their daughter, Bonnie, dies.
Prostitution threatens and embarrasses the characters, but it also intrigues them. Scarlett first sees a prostitute in Atlanta and is instantly fascinated. The woman she sees is Belle Watling, and the fascination she feels persists throughout the novel. Belle is an exaggerated version of Scarlett, which perhaps explains Scarlett’s interest in her. Both women ignore social mandates, manipulate and seduce men, and trade sex for money. Scarlett offers to prostitute herself to Rhett in order to get money for taxes, putting herself in Belle’s moral camp. If Scarlett can be read as a high-class prostitute, Belle can be read as a low-class aristocrat. Belle has the ideal aristocrat’s impulse to help the needy; she saves Atlanta’s Ku Klux Klan members from prosecution by providing an alibi for them. Mitchell depicts Belle as human and generous and perhaps morally superior to the ruthless Scarlett she resembles.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Rhett represents the uneasy coexistence of the Old South, the New South, and the North. He is nostalgic about the traditional values of the Old South, he is opportunistic and ethically loose in the New South, and he supports the Yankees when he believes in them or when an alliance with the North benefits him. Because he does not ally himself with only one camp, he feels free to criticize all groups, even those he sometimes supports. In his shifting allegiance he symbolizes the uncertainty about the future that pervades the South in the postwar era.
Atlanta, burned by the Yankees and then rebuilt, symbolizes the resiliency of the South. Atlanta has little to do with the Old South—born as a railroad hub, it becomes strategically vital to the South during the Civil War. After rebuilding, Atlanta becomes a city of the New South, run by Northerners and Scalawags (white Southerners who supported the efforts of the Reconstruction-era government) and is characterized by garish wealth on one side and squalid poverty on the other. Mitchell contrasts this vibrant New South city of saloons, Yankees, and freed slaves with Tara, the Old South plantation that runs on tradition.