Gone with the Wind is a historical romance that uses Scarlett O’Hara as the symbol for Reconstruction in the South. Like Atlanta, which sheds its image of Southern gentility after the Civil War, Scarlett is allowed to break away from the conventionalities of proper Southern womanhood. The exigencies of war, its devastation and defeat, enable Scarlett to adopt behavior more suited to her energy and character as she struggles to support her family, to restore the plantation Tara to productivity, and later to become a commercially successful businesswoman in Atlanta, operating a general store, a lumberyard, and a mill.
Scarlett is motivated by her need to survive and to care for an extended family, which includes Ashley and Melanie Wilkes, their child, and the loyal family slaves. Only Scarlett has the determination, courage, and practicality—perhaps even the stubbornness—to accept the challenge of survival in the radically changed post-Civil War world. Her second and third marriages, to Frank Kennedy and Rhett Butler, are marriages of expedience, both for commercial gain.
Scarlett lacks both analytical and sensitivity skills, replacing them with her determined will to act. Thus, as she faces death, starvation, rape, exhaustion, loss of her beloved mother, and fear of losing Tara, as she acknowledges the commodification of sex and marriage disguised as romance by her culture and barters her body for tax money, she is forced to face the worst. Yet the novel is also about heroic growth to maturity for Scarlett. As she develops a sense of security about her survival, she begins to develop those qualities of sensitivity and concern for others that complete such maturity.
Intertwined with Scarlett’s story of growth to heroic selfhood is a typical woman’s romance tale. Rhett Butler, who moves in and out of Scarlett’s life, plays the typical scoundrel hero so popular in this kind of fiction. He perceives Scarlett as a brave but naïve woman-child whom he can rescue and indulge after they are married. The romance formula is undermined, however, when Rhett neglects to come to Scarlett’s rescue on several occasions, forcing her to develop the self-confidence and courage that he later rejects. Thus, Scarlett is empowered by the failure of both romantic heroes—Rhett and the ineffectual Ashley. Also at odds with the romance novel formula are Scarlett’s three marriages, all occurring during the time that she is in love with a fourth man whom she no longer desires by the end of the novel. Also, when she finally “comes to realize” her love for Rhett, a central aspect of the formula, he no longer desires her. There is no happy ending or reconciliation of lovers; rather, Rhett walks out the door into a fog of confusion.
Gone with the Wind is also a story about land and agriculture. When she realizes that her mother has died, Scarlett’s need to find comfort and security either on her mother’s or Mammy’s bosom is replaced by the stability and meaning that she finds in the red earth of Tara. It is farming about which Scarlett cares most, although her insistence on keeping Tara and restoring it to some degree of productivity requires her to leave it to marry Frank Kennedy. At the unhappy ending, Scarlett decides to return home to Tara and to its beloved earth in order to restore her sense of hope and of purpose.