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“Gone With the Wind”: A Tale of Two Terrible People Falling in Love

Updated on September 1, 2017

On the surface, “Gone With the Wind” is a film that’s half spent listening to a whiny Southern brat lament a love she never had and half spent listening to Southerners lament the loss of an inevitably doomed lifestyle. But “Gone With the Wind” is more than a parody of the romanticism of the Confederacy; it’s a parody of romance itself. In it, there are four major characters; a married couple, Ashley and Melanie, who could not be more in love with each other and the Confederate cause, and Scarlett and Rhett, who only take breaks from loving themselves to indulge in the manipulation of better people. While Ashley and Melanie pledge their loyalty to a dying ideology, Scarlett and Rhett find refuge in narcissism, self-absorption, and exploitation.

Gerald O’Hara, Scarlett’s father, believed that “land is the only thing in the world worth working for, worth fighting for, worth dying for, because it’s the only thing that lasts.” I imagine many Confederate soldiers fought and died repeating this mantra to themselves in the midst of battle, but what good was the land after Sherman torched it? Southerners not only watched their homes burn, but watched their livelihood disappear following the abolition of slavery. All that was left was poverty and starvation. What good is land if you can’t prosper from it?

And what good is love if you’re too self-absorbed to enjoy it? Joyce Carol Oates wrote, “In love there are two things – bodies and words.” If this is true, neither Scarlett nor Rhett ever truly loved each other, or anyone else for that matter. Scarlett spends most of the movie fawning over Ashley Wilkes, a married man who speaks affectionate words to her but who she can never fully have. On the other end is Rhett, who at one point succeeds in marrying and fathering a child with Scarlett, only to find the experience unsatisfying and lacking the one thing he truly desires, for her to say she loves him. One chases a body, the other chases words, and neither is happy in the end.

If the film has one message, it’s this: don’t go chasing waterfalls. Or, more specifically, don’t be so self-centered that you can’t enjoy a union. The South could have avoided its decimation by accepting the abolishment of slavery and the inevitability of a changing world. In a similar sense, Scarlett and Rhett had ample opportunity to build a loving marriage, assuming either had taken the time to understand what love truly meant. Love is cooperation. It’s not one side persuading or manipulating the other, but two people who work together because they truly care about the other person. Rhett only cared about a conquest and Scarlett only cared about a fortune and both are temporary endeavors.

So what makes them terrible people? The same thing that makes anyone terrible. Carelessness.

Let’s start with Scarlett who is, in every sense of the word, a sociopath. In fact, the film opens with her strumming the heartstrings of two fawning ginger soldiers while she ho-hums on about how boring war is. This will set the stage for her to enter three marriages; one to make another man jealous, one to escape poverty, one to expand her fortune, none for love. Did I mention the first was Ashley Wilkes’ brother? And the second is her sister’s fiancée? Terrible.

Then there’s Rhett, the epitome of smug assholishness. He spends most of the film telling Scarlett he loves her while he bangs prostitutes. He also might be a psychotic, as indicated in the scene where, in a drunken stupor, he regales his wife with fantasies of smashing her head like a walnut. Charming.

So how do you make a love story with two self-centered douchebags as its main characters? Easy. You set it over the backdrop of the antebellum South. Any behavior seems tolerable when juxtaposed with the horrors of slavery. You stole your sister’s fiancée? Well, at least you’re not a slaver. You threatened to murder your wife? Well, at least you’re not a slaver. You use everyone around you for your own personal advancement? Well, at least you’re not a slaver. What’s that, Mammy? They used to be slavers? Well shit.

The true tragedy that results isn’t that Scarlett and Rhett never found love together. That, like the dream of the Confederacy, was doomed from the beginning. The true tragedy is that Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler have been embraced by book readers and moviegoers alike as characters worthy of admiration and imitation. Scarlett is often praised as a feminist icon, a survivor of desperate circumstances who uses the one advantage she has to get ahead, her charisma. Rhett is painted as a dreamboat, who conquers his only weakness by telling the woman he loves that he “doesn’t give a damn.” They’re the literary role models for egoists too smart to worship the Kardashians.

It may pain some to hear that one of the great romance novels of all time is, in fact, a stinging critique of romance itself. Scarlett and Rhett, who spend the entire book caught up in their own selfish romantic pursuits end up alone in the end while Ashley and Melanie find time to devote themselves to causes outside of themselves and enjoy a long, healthy relationship with each other. It’s a reminder that morality and love are inseparable and we can’t truly accomplish one without embracing the other.

Then again, they were all slavers, so fuck all of them equally.


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    • Kara Skinner profile image

      Kara Skinner 

      16 months ago from Maine

      Your review was really good and had some good insights. I don't think Scarlett nor Rhett are very sympathetic or likeable.

      However, whether she's moral or not, Scarlett is a feminist icon. She started her own business empire in a time when it was scandalous for women to make a living. In an era where women were legally not given much power at all, she found ways to get power and to use it. She did a lot of morally wrong things in both her business (hiring prisoners for labor) and in her personal life (stealing her sister's fiance) but despite all the bad there were some things to admire her for.

      As for Rhett, I think he did genuinely love her. I never got the impression she was just a conquest to him. He was really hurt when he realized she was still in love with Ashley. He did sleep with a prostitute but let's be honest, he knew his wife didn't love him and was refusing to sleep with him or give him any real affection. What was he supposed to do, be like her first two husbands and become a tragic character manipulated by her? He can't exactly divorce her.

      You are right about when he gets drunk and threatens to kill her. It's not cool and in fact it's downright scary. But in its own messed up way it shows she's more than a conquest to him. If that's all she was, then he wouldn't have been so affected.

      I'm not saying they had a healthy marriage or one that should be romanticized. In fact, it's pretty abusive on both sides. But I do think it's sad that they couldn't find it in themselves to love each other at the same time. Whether or not we like them or agree with the old Southern ideology (I certainly don't), they did lead hard lives without real happiness, especially during and after the war, and it's really sad they still couldn't find happiness even at the end.

    • Paddycat profile image

      Annabelle Johnson 

      16 months ago from Charente, France

      Good article, well written, well constructed argument. I did enjoy reading it but it provoked some questions in my mind. Is it a review of the book or are you reviewing the characters in the book? And are you saying that you didn't like the book because you didn't like the characters? I agree that the characters have unpleasant sides to them, just like real people have to a greater or lesser extent. But again, like real people, the characters have strengths too, and the book is about how ordinary mortals with personality flaws cope in turbulent times. In my view, that's the underlying theme throughout and that's what makes the book interesting. And anyway, if I wanted to read about a saint, I'm sure there are stories about Mother Teresa and such like out there, but they're not on my reading list!

    • courtlneygdtm profile image


      16 months ago from United States

      I guess everyone has their own perspective of Gone with the Wind. I especially like the words you used -- "One chases a body, the other chases words, and neither is happy in the end." That being said, I think Gone with the Wind had a strong, independent, rebellious leading lady in the character of Scarlett at a time when women were relegated to taking a back seat to men -- which is even true in some instances in current day. Gone with the Wind, with all its drama etc., closes with Scarlett saying in my opinion - a positive message -- "Tomorrow is another day." In other words, who knows what tomorrow will bring. Thanks for this insightful article.

    • shon1121 profile image

      16 months ago from Scotland

      Interesting read, that book has been on my reading list for years! Have a cynical attitude to love fairly but characters sound most unappealing. Selfishness is an unappealing trait.


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