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.