While it seems that Margaret Mitchell intended to create a formula-driven historical romance novel that celebrates the glory of war even in retreat, Gone with the Wind can also be understood as a kind of female Bildungsroman, a story of the growth to maturity that is traditional in Western literature that is generally reserved for male characters. Rhett Butler remains the stereotypical buccaneer throughout, but Scarlett begins as a spoiled adolescent flirt and becomes a sensitive, unselfish woman by the novel’s end. Unfortunately, this process is slowed by Scarlett’s very real fears of starvation and by her insecurity.
Mitchell portrays this process of development by sending Scarlett on a series of journeys which function as learning experiences for her, a typical part of the Bildungsroman. For example, returning home to Tara from a besieged Atlanta with Melanie, two children, and the maid Prissy, Scarlett realizes that she must be a survivor if her whole family is to survive. Her second journey is from Tara to a rebuilding Atlanta, wearing a dress made from green velvet drapes. In spite of the religious training that she received from her mother, Scarlett is willing to do anything to save Tara, including selling herself to Rhett as a mistress or, when that does not work, to Frank Kennedy, her sister’s fiancé, in marriage. Scarlett’s third journey is through human misery as she endures her father’s death, the scandal over her most innocent hug from Ashley, her pregnancy and miscarriage, Rhett’s rejection, her daughter Bonnie’s death, and finally, Melanie’s death. At this point, she realizes that financial security is not enough, but rather that compassion, community, and an understanding of reality are vital to her growth. Thus, her fourth journey is home to Rhett, as she is finally aware of how he also has been suffering. When Rhett rejects her, she prepares for a fifth journey—home to Tara to make a plan for her life.
In Gone with the Wind, Mitchell depicts several Southern female stereotypes—especially that of the helpless, passive, and sometimes silly woman, such as Scarlett’s sisters and Ashley’s sister, India Wilkes—and then undermines them by delimiting their roles. In Scarlett, she has created the stereotypical romance heroine who escapes the limits of her role and, in fact, is forced to expand her possibilities. Scarlett becomes the shrewdest businessperson among her old friends, and she has learned how to manipulate her feminine role to get what she needs for survival. Melanie Wilkes, who seems to typify the frail, passive, ideal woman, actually has a tough, pragmatic interior.
While Melanie lives within conventions, she sees beyond their limits. Thus she alone supports Scarlett through every contingency, however painful and difficult, including death, murder, and scandal. Against a background of conventional expectations for female behavior, Mitchell has set two women, seemingly complete opposites linked by courage, endurance, and pragmatism, into a bond of loyalty and support. The enduring and unexpected friendship between Scarlett and Melanie subverts the patriarchal expectation that women will compete with other women for men, who are perceived as prizes. Scarlett resists Melanie’s friendship at first because she was taught that women were weak and inadequate people with whom to make alliances. Soon, however, Scarlett perceives Melanie as armed with a sword so that she can act as Scarlett’s loyal and passionate protector.
On the other hand, Mitchell critiques male romance roles and the sentimental longing for the old Southern plantation days by creating Ashley Wilkes, whose character, even in the beginning of the novel, seems limp and washed out. Ashley is brave enough as a soldier, but he has no real place either in the practical farm world to which he returns or in the world of commercialism that follows the war. Rhett’s sense of dangerous mystery as a stock figure of melodrama is exposed by Scarlett’s movement from being the central romantic heroine to being a person in a state of development. An understanding, compassionate adult cannot also be a childlike pet, to be protected and spoiled as Rhett has spoiled Bonnie. Rhett would prefer to spoil Scarlett rather than to accept her as an adult.
Mitchell warns that when independence is forced on women, they cannot readily be returned to a passive dependence, which she illustrates through both Scarlett and Melanie, as well as through Scarlett’s mother, the figure of responsibility at Tara. The one-dimensional Rhett Butler ends his opportunistic adventurings by desiring a return to his genteel Charleston origins. In the end, Rhett gives up his role of romantic pirate to take on Ashley’s role of perfect knight, while Ashley becomes only a burden inherited from Melanie by Scarlett.