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.