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.