most beloved epic novel" is its larger than life, yet deeply flawed characters. There's no question about it — these characters, Rhett, Scarlett, Melanie, and Ashley, some of the most famous in all of literature — are as variegated, as alternatingly despicable-and-sympathetic, and as purely human as any characters you might ever stumble across on the fictional landscape. Kudos, Mags! Too bad you got hit by that car, and couldn't tell us what happens next.
Anyway, going back and forth between rooting for and then being disgusted by these characters was by far my favorite part of the novel. For all the ups and downs of each character, each also has the infamous "fatal flaw." No matter the other positive qualities, this flaw is what leads to destruction — not necessarily of themselves, but certainly of their happiness. So, since this, to me, was the most interesting part of this very interesting novel, let's take a look at look at each. (What follows assumes that you've read the book (or, I guess, seen the movie) and therefore have at least a cursory knowledge of plot. In other words: Contains Spoilers.)
Scarlett is the easiest to talk about in the context of the fatal flaw, because she's quite flawed — she's manipulative, selfish and harsh. But none of those are fatal. What's fatal for her is that she believes that her manipulation, selfishness and harshness are enough for her to overcome any obstacle. And they're not. With Rhett, she meets her match. Scarlett does have fine many qualities. She has a stern sense of tradition, and she's willing to to do what is required. She also is a strong, willful woman, not something that was easy or generally accepted in that society. But those qualities are often overshadowed by her negative ones. For instance, she may be strong and willful, but she's only willing to combat cultural norms when it serves her need to do so. Otherwise, as in the case of her treatment of ex-slaves, she doesn't care. She's by no means enlightened. Even marrying Frank to save Tara isn't altruistic, because it's to her benefit. And she manipulated poor Frank at the expensive of his happiness and her sister Suellen's.
Rhett. In fact, Rhett is the only character whose side I was on from beginning to end. He's the archetype of manliness (how many times does Mitchell describe his mat of black chest hair and hard muscles?). So it's a bit ironic that Rhett's fatal flaw is love. It's only when he sacrifices his independence and aloofness to marry Scarlett and then to dote upon his daughter Bonnie, that he begins to unravel. All his life, he'd shunned normal ways of behaving, and been wildly successful. But the minute he returns to earth, so to speak, he's overwhelmed by the same problems the rest of the mere mortals face. And that's what destroys him. He's not equipped to handle it. He goes insane, not wanting to bury his dead daughter. And he falls out of love with Scarlett, realizing she'll never live up to his ideal.
Melanie is, as Rhett says, "the only completely kind person I ever knew." That's admirable as hell, but she is also blissfully naive, choosing not to believe that there could ever be any cruelty or harshness in the world. Ultimately and ironically, this doesn't destroy her (her death does), but it aides in the destruction (of the happiness) of all three of the other characters. Her flaw is introduced early in the novel as she misinterprets Scarlett's sadness as mourning for Charles — Melanie's brother who Scarlett married to spite Ashley, after he rejected her. But Melanie's naivety becomes much more central to the novel as Scarlett is constantly maneuvering to keep Ashley near her, and Melanie chooses to believe it's out of loyalty, not for ulterior motives. At one point, Scarlett considers "flinging the truth tauntingly in Melanie's face and seeing the collapse of her fool's paradise." Melanie's naivete, even though it works as a shroud of defense for Scarlett's devotion to Ashley, is so frustrating even to Scarlett, who stands everything to lose by revealing the secret of her love, that she actually contemplates revealing it just to spite Melanie. Fascinating.
Ashley, to me, is the least interesting character. He's a milquetoast. No guts. He pretty much packs it in on life after he returns from the war. Mitchell explains at one point that Ashley and Rhett are cut from the same cloth. The difference, though, and it's a big one, is that Ashley's sense of honor and decorum has dissolved his backbone, whereas Rhett isn't worried about such convention. Of course, it is admirable that he is loyal to his wife, resisting the temptation to run away with Scarlett. But he's also too loyal to convention to ever make anything of himself. And it's Melanie's naive loyalty to Scarlett that forces him to go to Atlanta and work in Scarlett's lumber mill, instead of striking out on his own to New York.
(Also, I was shocked to learn that in the book, Rhett doesn't say "Frankly" as he does in the most famous line from the movie. It's just "My dear, I don't give a damn.")
(One final, final thing — My favorite quote from the novel: "My dear, the world can ignore practically anything except people who mind their own business." — Rhett)