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I will outline plot, themes and characters below, and include some of my own personal observations on the book, but note that the personal reflections which you include should be your own.
Gone with the Wind is a sweeping historical romance, consciously conceived in epic terms and dealing with one of the favourite themes of epic since ancient times: war, and more specifically the American Civil War, one of the most cataclysmic events in American history.
With such a subject, it is not surprising that the plot is full of dramatic, sensational events as it sketches a panoramic view of life in the old South before its forced transformation through war. The novel portrays ante-bellum Southern culture, ideals, everyday life and work, relationships. Beginning with the build-up to war, the story then goes on to give a vivid picture of the bitter conflict and the ensuing death and destruction. It also deals with re-construction, as epitomized in the heroine’s struggle to survive and to keep her family plantation going. Intertwined with this is a story of love and passion, the heroine’s pursuit of two very different men: Ashley Wilkes and Rhett Butler. The novel therefore boasts a strong plot and colourful characters. Full of drama and suspense, it also undoubtedly strays into rather clichéd melodrama and sentimentality, and is sometimes criticized for this. But its bestselling status testifies that it certainly struck a chord with readers, and of course was also made into a hugely successful film.
To look more closely at the characters, undoubtedly the most memorable is Scarlett o’Hara - all the more so for being a somewhat unconventional type of romantic heroine as she very often follows a morally dubious path. From the beginning she is seen to use and manipulate others, notably when she marries Charles Hamilton and later Frank Kennedy from purely selfish motives rather than for love. After the war she becomes obsessed with making money at all costs as she tries to re-build her life and family fortunes. She pursues the men she desires without ever really stopping to reflect on the advisability of her course; she allows herself to be driven by her passions. But there are things to admire in her too, most of all her unquenchable will to survive. I would say that this aspect of her character ultimately outweighs her bad points. Her character is a testament to the strength of the human spirit against all odds.
In my view, other characters in the book are really not as engaging as Scarlett, although it’s interesting how Melanie, who initially appears as a rather stereotypical gentle and frail woman, turns out to have a strong will of her own as she valiantly supports Scarlett. Also noteworthy is how Scarlett’s two great loves, Ashley and Rhett, both fail to live up to her romantic ideals in the end: Ashley, although the courtly gentleman she dreams of, ultimately proves ineffectual while Rhett is altogether too cynical.
Looking at theme, war is an obvious theme of the book, and Mitchell shows just how destructive it really is. Disillusionment is also a significant theme. At the beginning, there is quite a lot of focus on illusions of war and the idea that it is a noble, glorious undertaking, allied to the fatally mistaken belief among the Southern gentlemen that they are ready for war and can triumph. Such delusions are brutally stripped away.
Self-growth seems to me to be the most important theme of the book, as shown in Scarlett’s coming-of-age in the grimmest of circumstances. She must learn to adapt or she will go under. She undergoes a transformation from spoiled, romancing, willful Southern Belle into a hard-headed businesswoman. And in fact, it is not just Scarlett but the whole of the South that has to come of age, as it were. Times have changed and the South also has to change in order to survive.
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