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.