Scarlett O'Hara, a beautiful 16-year-old born on the Tara estate in Atlanta, cheerfully awaits Mayday when the youths of the area get together. She is love with their neighbour, Ashley Wilkes, whom she has known since childhood, and believes she will marry him one day.
Mayday comes and it transpires that Ashley is due to marry his cousin, Melanie Hamilton. In the library Scarlett begs Ashley to marry her and offers her lips for a kiss, but Ashley kisses her on the forehead, like a little girl. Insulted, Scarlett slaps Ashley across the face. Sitting in unassumingly in the library, Rhett Butler, a guest to the party, accidentally witnesses the scene and immediately falls in love with the girl.
The Mayday party continues, soldiers arrive to recruit men: war has broken out between North and South. The girls quickly choose a husband, not wishing to remain maids. Scarlett decides to marry Melanie's brother Charles, and so a double wedding is held where Ashley takes Melanie's hand. The men are called up. News comes of Charles who is among the first to be killed in the war. In mourning, Scarlett sets off to visit Aunt Pittypat in Atlanta, where Melanie also lives. A charity ball is being held in the town, raising money for the relatives of wounded soldiers. Butler, too, makes a donation and notices Scarlett in black, still beautiful as ever. He asks her for a dance, creating quite a stir.
Scarlett, Melanie and Aunt Pittypatt are expecting Ashley home for Christmas. Scarlett finds it hard that Ashley comes home not to her, but to Melanie. She helps with the sick and dying soldiers in the hospital. Ashley returns to the war and entrusts Melanie to her. Scarlett is under immense pressure. She sends for Butler in the tavern to help them escape from Atlanta to Tara. Butler accompanies them and on the way he confesses he is in live with her, and goes back to the war. Scarlett reaches Tara with Melanie, who is very ill, and her baby. They are awaited by her widowed, shattered father.
Their food supplies looted in the war, Scarlet struggles to support her sick father and to help Tara survive. The bailiff comes, but they cannot pay up. Scarlett and later her father chase off the auctioneers, but in the scuffle her father dies. In the meantime Ashley turns up, having lost everything in the war, and he hides at Tara with Melanie. He tussles between the two women he loves, Melanie and Scarlett. Scarlett tries to bind Ashley to herself. Sewing a dress from a velvet curtain, she travels to Atlanta to raise money for rescuing Tara. She visits Butler in prison, but he has none to give. Scarlett offers herself to him-which he refuses: he wants Scarlett's love! She leaves the prison and in the streets of Atlanta she bumps into Mr Kennedy, her younger sister's fiancé. Realising he has become rich, she seduces him and marries him to save Tara with his fortune. Butler is very upset about this-again, he has missed the opportunity.
A clever trader, Scarlett hires slaves and with Melanie's help she asks Ashley to come to Atlanta to manage the saw mill. She visits him often, and on one such occasion she is attacked by three prisoners. Sam, their old servant passes by and saves her. Mr Kennedy, Butler and Ashley and a band of policemen form a search party to seek out the prisoners, but a stray bullet kills Mr Kennedy, widowing Scarlett once more. Full of remorse, when Butler turns up and proposes, she says yes.
In Butler's beautiful palace, Scarlett has everything a woman can ask for, yet she is unhappy. She years for Ashley. She is delighted by the birth of their child, Bonny, but not wanting another baby, she bans Butler from her bedchamber. A jealous Butler turns to drink, attacks her wife returning from a visit to Ashley at the saw mill, and rapes her. Scarlett refuses to admit to Butler she is, for the first time in her life happy. Butler visits his old lover Belle Watling, but she drives him off. At home Scarlett, expecting a baby, awaits him, and for the first time he is happy. Butler bitterly asks her who the child's father is. Scarlett tries to slap him, but in the process she loses her balance and falls down the stairs. Butler reproaches himself for the incident. Their little girl Bonny keeps together their very fragile marriage. Butler throws a huge party to celebrate her birthday. All the town notabilities are invited. Bonny is given riding gear and a pony for her birthday. At the end of the ball, Mammy brings in the dead Bonny who has fallen from her horse. Butler refuses to acknowledge the death of his daughter, the sick Melanie tries to help, but she, too is very frail.
Melanie is dying, and the exasperate Ashley is consoled by Scarlett. Butler misinterprets the situation and slams the door on the. Scarlett realises that Ashley has only ever yearned for her as a woman, but was really always in love with Melanie; Butler, whom she might truly have loved, she proceeds to lose. She hurries home and meets Butler who is about to leave. The sun rises and the only hope Scarlett has is that they may still meet sometime.