"If the novel has a theme it is that of survival," wrote Mitchell when Gone With the Wind was published. "What makes some people able to come through catastrophes and others, apparently just as able, strong and brave, go under? It happens in every upheaval. Some people survive; others don't. What qualities are in those who fight their way through triumphantly that are lacking in those who go under...? I only know that the survivors used to call that quality 'gumption.' So I wrote about the people who had gumption and the people who didn't."
Scarlett and Rhett are survivors because they adapt to the changes brought about by the war and Reconstruction. While the Old Southern society sees the war as a disaster that is tearing their world apart, Rhett sees it as an opportunity to make money: "There's just as much money to be made in the wreck of a civilization as in the upbuilding of one." He becomes a blockade-runner and a speculator, taking advantage of the shortages caused by the war. By the war's end, he is one of the few rich people left in Atlanta. Scarlett too seizes the opportunity to make money out of the hardships of the war when she goes into the lumber trade after the Yankees have burnt Atlanta and people are beginning to rebuild.
Melanie and Ashley struggle to survive the war because they fail to adapt. They embody the Old Southern way of life, centering on family, honor and tradition. After the war, Ashley spends much time dreaming about the gracious old days of plantation life. He makes a poor farmer at Tara - as Will Benteen says, "he warn't cut out for farmin' " - and when Scarlett installs him as manager of one of her mills, he proves a failure at that too. Ashley is clear-minded enough to see what is happening: "In the end what will happen will be what has happened whenever a civilization breaks up. The people who have brains and courage come through and the ones who haven't are winnowed out." He knows that he belongs to the latter sort.
Melanie proves far more adaptable than Ashley. She faces reality coolly, stands by Scarlett in every crisis that the war and Reconstruction bring, and finally impresses Scarlett with her strength and courage. But she is physically frail, timid in manner, and too wedded to the genteel old ways to make her way through the harsh conditions of the new society. Her charity activities after the war show that unlike Scarlett and Rhett, who look forward, Melanie looks back: she works for such causes as the graves of the war dead and widows and orphans of Confederate soldiers.
Several characters learn important lessons about love. Scarlett fails to understand what love is until the novel's end. For the rest of the time, she is in love with the gentlemanly Ashley, who is both very different from her and unattainable, since he has married Melanie. Scarlett's feelings for Ashley drive the plot, as Scarlett only stands by Melanie and supports the Wilkes family for Ashley's sake. The most important - and tragic - result of her fixation on Ashley is that she fails to appreciate the love and support that Rhett Butler lavishes upon her over the years. She also fails to appreciate how similar she and Rhett are, as she is blinded by her prejudice that Rhett is "not a gentleman." She also hates the fact that Rhett reads her every thought and action, making him immune to her bullying and manipulation. The reader is likely to become frustrated by the fact that only Scarlett fails to see that Ashley is utterly unsuited to her and that Rhett is a perfect match for her. Finally, Scarlett realizes that she has only loved an imaginary version of Ashley and that she loves Rhett, but it is too late: Rhett's love for her has worn out.
Rhett, in contrast, sees from the beginning how similar he and Scarlett are, and falls in love with her. He does not admit his feelings, however, because, as he later tells her, "You're so brutal to those who love you, Scarlett. You take their love and hold it over their heads like a whip."
Ashley labors under a similarly destructive delusion to Scarlett's. He will not leave Melanie because he is too honorable, but he lacks the courage to break off his relationship with Scarlett, encouraging her by kissing her and admitting that he loves her. As Rhett points out, such behavior is neither honorable nor respectful to either woman. Rhett believes that Ashley is not interested in Scarlett's mind, but that he only wants her body. This interpretation is confirmed by Ashley's inability to see Scarlett as she is. When she voices impatience over Ashley's failure to make enough profit at her mill, Ashley is determined to believe that it is Rhett who has brutalized her, when she has quite enough brutality of her own. Melanie too loves Scarlett but does not see the darker aspects of her nature: only Rhett both sees Scarlett clearly and loves her - a remarkable achievement that Scarlett is too self-absorbed to notice.
In parallel plotlines, Ashley does not realize how much he loves and relies upon Melanie until she is on her deathbed. Scarlett has a similar realization about Melanie, who has hitherto been the focus of her jealous hatred, at the same time. The lesson of all these cases appears to be that people should appreciate and love those close to them before they are taken from them.
The role of men and women in society
The pre-war South is a place of strict gender division. Women were trained to attract a rich man, provide children and run a home. Scarlett at this time thinks of little other than flirting and trying to appear to be a lady, when her true nature is ruthless, self-interested and distinctly unladylike. The seeds of her future success in business are present, however, in her talent for calculating figures. When she goes into business for herself, this skill proves useful and enables her to defeat the competition. In a broader sense, too, she is calculating, always quick to seize an opportunity and to pursue her ambition, no matter what the human cost.
The factor that enables Scarlett to break out of her role as demure Southern belle and become a successful businesswoman is the war. Before the war, the Southern economy was based around the plantation. Certain roles were assigned to men and women, the men being in charge of the plantation and the women in charge of the household and the welfare of the slaves. Note, however, that Mitchell makes clear that while Gerald takes credit for being in charge of Tara, it is Ellen who is the real manager: she does the accounts, deals with the slaves and employees, and is the recognized voice of authority on the plantation. This kind of arrangement, which does not seem to have been unusual, was socially acceptable and did not challenge traditional gender roles because Gerald is nominally in charge, with Ellen the quiet power behind the throne.
The war destroys the plantations and with them, the traditional economic and social systems. Southern gentlemen like Ashley are not fitted for anything but running a plantation, and cannot deal with the cut and thrust of the new climate of entrepreneurship. It is left to the strongest, bravest and most adaptable to become the new generators of income, and sometimes, these are women, such as Scarlett. Though Scarlett is disapproved of by the Old Atlanta society for her "unwomanly" behavior in running her own businesses, the war has at least made it possible for a woman to break out of her traditional gender role - such a thing would have been unthinkable previously. Scarlett begins to talk and act like a man, takes charge at Tara, supports Ashley and his family, and employs Ashley at her mill, all activities that are traditionally the preserve of the male. Scarlett's disinclination to have children would have been viewed in both her own and Mitchell's time as extremely unnatural in a woman, and underlines her rejection of the traditional female role.
Necessarily, a woman taking the male role has the effect of somewhat emasculating the men. It is notable that Scarlett's second husband, Frank, is referred to as an "old maid in pants" and Ashley often appears more of a woman than Scarlett, taking the sexually passive role to Scarlett's aggressor and having to take orders from her at the mill.
Rhett is the only Atlantan who consistently supports Scarlett in her business activities. He also expresses feminist ideas. For example, he does not see the point in widows being expected to refrain from enjoying themselves, or in pregnant women hiding themselves away from view. More practically, he helps three women (Scarlett, Belle Watling, and Mrs. Merriwether) set up or expand their businesses by providing or arranging loans.
Mrs. Merriwether, who runs a pie-making business after the war, is not socially disapproved of as much as Scarlett. Rhett thinks that this is because she has the good grace not to be too successful and not to appear to enjoy working. Other factors may be that the men of her family help her in the business and the business itself revolves around the traditional feminine activity of baking.
The traditional rigid class structure of the South is broken up by the war. Before the war, the plantation owners are at the top of the social hierarchy, though gradations are clear even within this sector, with old aristocratic families like the Robillards being placed above self-made but lowly born people like Gerald. The plantation owners are superior to their overseers, who in turn are set above the slaves. Within the slave society, house slaves are set above field slaves. All the slaves, in turn, look down upon poor "white trash" like the Slatterys, who are at the bottom of the heap (it is no accident that they live in the "swamp bottom").
The war, in which plantations are ruined and slaves freed, subverts this hierarchy. Those who were high are brought low, and those who were low but have some useful skill are able to rise in the newly fluid society. Formerly powerful gentlemen from grand plantation families like Ashley are no longer valued if they lack practical skills such as farming or an entrepreneurial spirit that will allow them to succeed in trade. A poor white, Will Benteen, is able to become master of Tara because of his farming skills and general competence.
As well as breaking down class structure, the war also begins to dismantle social conventions that had previously exercised an iron grip. Young men and women ignore the usual rules of courtship and marry in haste, before the men are called away to fight. People ignore class divisions in choosing a marriage partner, paying more attention to practical matters of survival: the aristocratic Cathleen Calvert marries her family's former overseer, Mr. Hilton, so that her sick brother can be taken care of; and Will Benteen is able to marry Suellen O'Hara, a woman who before the war would have been out of his reach, because he is a capable farmer. Rhett, who is the target of a scandalized society's disapproval at the novel's beginning because he stayed out all night with a woman and yet did not marry her, is welcomed back into society when his work as a blockade-runner makes him able to provide sought-after supplies. In the most shocking (for the time) breaking of social boundaries, many 'respectable' Atlanta gentlemen find themselves indebted for their lives to the prostitute Belle Watling, who provides them with an alibi for murder after a Ku Klux Klan raid.
Scarlett's self-absorbed blindness to the truth of many situations leads to our seeing more than she does, which in turn results in irony. The chief irony of the novel is that Scarlett's obsession with Ashley prevents her from appreciating that Rhett is the perfect match for her. Paralleling this is the irony that Ashley only realizes how much he loves and relies upon Melanie when she is dying. Similarly, it is ironic that Scarlett hates and despises Melanie throughout most of the novel while Melanie loves Scarlett and is her devoted champion, a fact that infuriates Scarlett. Like Ashley, Scarlett only recognizes how much she values Melanie when she is about to lose her through Melanie's death.
There is irony too in Melanie's persistent attribution of Scarlett's support of her to noble qualities like altruism and bravery, when in fact, Scarlett only acts the way she does because of a promise she made to her beloved Ashley.
The disruption of the social hierarchy by the war leads to many ironic situations. Jonas Wilkerson, the former overseer at Tara, ends up in charge of the local Freedmen's Bureau after the war. In his new position of power, he is able to raise the taxes on Tara so high that Scarlett looks set to be forced to sell the estate to him. Wilkerson and Emmie Slattery turn up at Tara in a fine carriage and expensive clothes and offer to buy the place. The irony is that before the war, the O'Haras had wanted to buy the Slatterys' land but the Slatterys had been too proud to sell. The war has brought about this reversal in fortune.
Another social irony is the power that (in Mitchell's view) is granted to the freed slaves by the victorious Yankee government, while the former ruling class is disenfranchised and disempowered. The freed slaves after the war are courted and manipulated by the Yankees, as their votes decide who is appointed to political office. Mitchell says, "The South had been tilted as by a giant malicious hand, and those who had once ruled were now more helpless than their former slaves had ever been." The white former ruling class is denied the vote, and the former slave class is given the vote.