Melanie throws a surprise birthday party for Ashley, and Scarlett goes to the lumberyard to delay Ashley. Scarlett and Ashley talk wistfully about the old days before the war. Scarlett finally allows herself to look back on old memories and begins to understand that Ashley’s unhappiness stems from the loss of the Southern gentleman’s way of life. Her passion for Ashley feels dim now, replaced by a friendly, sympathetic love. Scarlett begins to cry and Ashley takes her in his arms to comfort her. Ashley stiffens, and Scarlett turns to see that Archie and India, Ashley’s sister, have been watching them.
Archie tells Rhett about the scene. Scarlett, knowing the story will spread, dreads facing the party. Rhett berates her, calls her a coward, and forces her to go to the party. Scarlett realizes that she cares about no one’s judgment but Melanie’s. When Scarlett enters the party, everyone falls silent and turns to stare. Melanie emerges from the crowd, takes Scarlett’s hand, and asks Scarlett to receive the guests with her.
That night Scarlett paces frantically in her room, unable to abandon the memory of Melanie’s fierce faithfulness to her. She slips downstairs to find some brandy and encounters Rhett, who is drunk and angry. He tells Scarlett that he loves her and that he would kill her if he thought it could take Ashley from her mind. Suddenly Rhett seizes her in his arms and carries her upstairs, tearing her clothes off and kissing her roughly. After a wild night, Scarlett wakes with new passion for Rhett. She is nervous and excited to see Rhett again, but he has left and does not return for several days. He returns and nonchalantly tells her he has been at Belle’s. They exchange harsh words, and Rhett tells Scarlett that he is taking Bonnie on a long trip.
Melanie continues to support Scarlett faithfully and openly breaks with India’s camp. All of Atlanta’s prominent families choose sides, and the feud splits the town in two, ending Ashley’s relationship with India and Melanie’s relationship with Aunt Pittypat, in whose house India lives. Scarlett reflects that both she and Ashley must now hide behind Melanie’s protective strength.
Rhett stays away for three months, and Scarlett misses him terribly. She discovers that she got pregnant the night before Rhett left and for once the news of pregnancy makes her happy. Rhett mocks Scarlett upon returning. She angrily tells him of her pregnancy and he replies, “Cheer up, maybe you’ll have a miscarriage.” Enraged, Scarlett swings at him. Rhett steps out of the way, and Scarlett falls down a long staircase. As a result of her fall, she loses the baby and nearly dies. Melanie stays by her side. Rhett, frantic with guilt, weeps and tells Melanie that he loves Scarlett and fears that he has killed her with his crazed jealousy.
A month later, Scarlett goes to Tara to recuperate. Rhett tells Melanie he wants Ashley to buy the mills from Scarlett. He will anonymously give Ashley the money to make the purchase, and Melanie must encourage Ashley to buy the mills. Hopeful that if Ashley owns the mills Beau might attend Harvard and Scarlett might worry less, Melanie reluctantly agrees. Ashley buys the mills, and the four have a little party to celebrate. But Scarlett denounces Ashley’s plan to fire Johnnie Gallegher and send away the convicts. Ashley replies that ill-gotten money cannot make anyone happy. Scarlett protests, but when Rhett asks her sardonically whether her money has made her happy, she falls silent.
Scarlett begins to understand her love for Rhett as the novel draws to a close, and Rhett begins to understand his love for Scarlett more fully. Scarlett’s understanding begins with her encounter with Ashley in the lumberyard and consequent realization that she feels only warm friendship for him. Her meeting with him should feel imbued with all of the accumulated, pent-up passion of their years-long hidden love for one another, but instead it feels safe and sad. In Chapter LXII, she realizes she loves Rhett in a revelatory moment, as if finally waking up from a recurring nightmare. Scarlett’s feelings for Rhett begin to emerge and surprise her as she starts to understand her own hopes and dreams. At the same time, Rhett’s love for Scarlett cracks his sardonic, nonchalant mask. Rhett fully realizes his love for Scarlett only after he treats her horribly. His tumultuous, tightly contained passions break out of his control several times in this section. His jealousy is evident in his claim to Scarlett that he would kill her if it would make her stop thinking about Ashley. His emotions continue along this violent trajectory as he carries Scarlett up the stairs and brutally makes love to her. Rhett confesses all his feelings to Melanie only after insulting Scarlett deeply and causing her to fall down the stairs. The depths of his dark soul are not exposed until it rages and then repents.
The sex scene in Chapter LIV presents difficulties for a reading of the novel that sees Gone with the Wind as a feminist work starring a feminist heroine. By modern standards, Rhett rapes Scarlett, or at least practices sadism on her without her consent. Mitchell writes that “he had humbled her, hurt her, used her brutally.” If Scarlett were a feminist character, she would be outraged at how Rhett dehumanizes her to satiate his own desires. But Scarlett is not a feminist character, and she reacts to this treatment with elation and “the ecstasy of surrender.” Her grateful reaction to Rhett’s sexual violence makes Scarlett seem more the wilting woman her society expects and less the strong and independent woman more typical of modern society. Scarlett, whom we usually see emotionally abusing men, now glories in being physically abused by a man. At worst, Mitchell presents rape as a manly last resort, good for winning a difficult woman’s respect and love. At best, she presents two characters who make a perfect match, Scarlett’s masochism and Rhett’s sadism adding up to a mutually satisfying sexual experience.
Mitchell almost certainly intends Scarlett to be seen as a strong, progressive woman throughout the novel, and it seems unlikely that she would intentionally undercut our opinion of Scarlett’s strength in the last chapters. Even after submitting to his violent sexual advances, Scarlett continues to defy Rhett feistily. She tries to slap him when he insults her and her unborn child, for example. We may see Scarlett’s reaction to Rhett’s sexual attack as unsettling, but readers of Mitchell’s day might have found it empowering. Scarlett has the agency to enjoy sex in a time when women’s sexual pleasure was not discussed. Also, even in Mitchell’s time, sex was seen as an obligation in marriage, not a choice, and spousal abuse was not loudly condemned as it is today. Rhett’s behavior therefore does not absolutely transgress the boundaries of acceptable married behavior.
As the novel draws toward its climactic moment, its consistent large-scale view of Southern society collapses into a tight focus on Scarlett, Rhett, Ashley, and Melanie. Although Gone with the Wind is a historical novel, near its end it becomes most importantly a powerful story about a group of memorable characters, and it puts aside history in favor of a close examination of personal relationships.