Rhett devotes his time and attention to Bonnie and to the Democratic Party. He reveals that he and Ashley disbanded Georgia’s Ku Klux Klan by convincing its members that it was counterproductive. By October of 1871, the efforts of men like Rhett and Ashley bring back a Democratic majority in the state legislature, effectively ending Reconstruction.
Bonnie becomes increasingly spoiled, and Rhett does nothing to curb her desires. She likes to ride, so he buys her a little Shetland pony and teaches her to jump obstacles. One day Bonnie asks Rhett for a higher bar, and, against his better judgment, Rhett complies. Her eyes flashing like Gerald’s, Bonnie calls out to Scarlett to “watch me take this one!” Remembering her father uttering the same words before his death, Scarlett cries out to Bonnie to stop, but it is too late. The pony misses the jump, throwing Bonnie to her death. Rhett sequesters himself in his room with the dead child, refusing to bury her because of her fear of the dark. Scarlett accuses Rhett of murdering Bonnie, and Rhett responds that Scarlett never cared for Bonnie. Melanie hurries to Rhett’s side. She persuades him to let Bonnie’s funeral go forward and sits up all night with Bonnie’s body as Rhett sleeps.
Some weeks after the funeral, Scarlett grows afraid and lonely and wishes Rhett would comfort her, but he is constantly drunk, hostile, and bitter. His physical condition deteriorates and he spends much of his time at Belle Watling’s. Scarlett longs to tell him that she does not blame him for Bonnie’s death but she cannot approach him. She even longs for the company of her old friends, but she has alienated everyone except Melanie, Ashley, and Aunt Pittypat.
Scarlett is in Marietta, Georgia, when she receives an urgent telegram from Rhett saying that Melanie is dying. Scarlett rushes home, where she finds Melanie on her deathbed. Although Melanie was forbidden to have more children because of her frailty, she got pregnant and had a miscarriage, and the effort has doomed her. Suddenly realizing how much strength she has drawn from Melanie over the years, how much Melanie has done to protect her, and how much she has wronged Melanie, Scarlett feels a desperate sense of loss. At Melanie’s bedside, Scarlett promises to look after Ashley and Beau. She seeks Ashley to take comfort in his strength, but when she sees him broken and weak, she realizes that she must have loved a fantasy that she created, not the man before her.
Scarlett goes outside to clear her head, distraught by the loss of both Melanie and her fantastical love for Ashley. Walking through a thick mist, she realizes with terror that her surroundings exactly mirror those of her recurring nightmare in which she runs through a fog looking for something, not knowing what she hopes to find. She begins to run, and suddenly she realizes that she wants to find Rhett. Immediately she understands that she loves him and that he has loved her all along. No longer afraid and sad, she runs joyfully home to him.
My dear, I don’t give a damn.
When Scarlett confesses her feelings to Rhett, he tiredly tells her that his love for her has worn out and that he is going away. Unmoved by her passionate pleas, Rhett says he is going to search for a calm, dignified life like the one he and the South lost in the war. Scarlett asks what she will do if he leaves her, and he says their relationship cannot be fixed. He parts with the words, “My dear, I don’t give a damn.” Scarlett collapses in misery and shock, but suddenly she decides she must go back to Tara. There, she thinks, Mammy will comfort her. Scarlett believes she will recuperate and grow strong again and find a way to win Rhett back, just like the spirited people in the Old South “who would not know defeat, even when it stared them in the face.” Scarlett feels comforted and stronger and refuses to think of her pain until tomorrow, falling back on her mantra, “tomorrow is another day.”
[T]omorrow is another day.
Bonnie’s death climactically links Scarlett’s past, present, and future, lending a sense of inevitability to the conclusion of the novel. Because she is their child, Bonnie represents the union between Scarlett and Rhett, and her death symbolizes the death of Scarlett and Rhett’s marriage. Bonnie’s death also evokes Gerald’s death, in Chapter XXXIX, thus infusing the present with a painful reminder of the past. Bonnie dies in exactly the same manner as Gerald, after calling out exactly the same words before taking the fatal jump. Scarlett even notices how closely Bonnie resembles Gerald in the moment before the horse jumps. This look backward heightens the tension of the story, but it also foreshadows the end of the novel. Mitchell shows that Bonnie, like Gerald, dies from her O’Hara hardheadedness. Scarlett ignores this warning that stubborn actions lead to death, however. She has achieved great things throughout the novel by virtue of her willpower, and at the conclusion of the novel she decides to persevere no matter how great the obstacles facing her. As Gerald’s death symbolizes not only his hardheaded nature but also his pride in the Old South, the recall of his death at this moment in the novel foreshadows the fact that Scarlett, like her father before her, will persevere in the spirit of the Old South, not just in the spirit of the new order.
At the end of the novel, Scarlett finally understands Ashley and Rhett. She has long perceived the striking similarities between the two men, who often surprise her with shared beliefs in the futility of war, the rampant hypocrisy in the South, and the foolishness of the Ku Klux Klan. Finally she realizes that the crucial difference between them is not that Ashley is fine while Rhett is coarse but that Ashley is weak while Rhett is strong. When Melanie dies, Scarlett feels strength drain from her. She turns to Ashley for support and finally understands that Ashley is not strong. He is a weak man, not the heroic man she imagines him to be in the beginning of the novel. On her way home, she realizes that Rhett is the man who gives her real strength, whereas Ashley only reflects the strength that Scarlett projects onto him.
Scarlett and Rhett torment us with their inability to feel the same emotion at the same time. If one feels passionately in love, the other feels sullen; if one is talkative, the other is silent; if one is desperate, the other is indifferent. They cannot work out their difficulties because they are too similar, and they are both equally to blame for the failure of their love. Scarlett ignores years of Rhett’s devotion, too self-absorbed to see that true love lies just underneath Rhett’s veneer of apathy. Rhett cannot rein in his passion for Scarlett, and lets it erupt in violence. When he does win her love, he throws it away in a true, unfeigned fit of apathy.
The end of the novel can be read as either tragic or hopeful. Scarlett insists that she can get Rhett back and seems certain that she will go back to Tara, renew her strength, and continue fighting to survive and find happiness. The final phrase of the novel, “tomorrow is another day,” could signify that the story does not end with the novel and that Scarlett will never give up in her quest for happiness. However, the same events can be read more darkly. Scarlett has lost Rhett’s love, and although we have seen her survive through many hardships, she has never lost a husband she loved (she does not love either of her previous husbands). Her determination to return to Tara seems either valiant or deluded, for it is not entirely certain she will find happiness alone at Tara. Her final repetition of the mantra “tomorrow is another day” seems slightly disappointing. Scarlett always thinks she will put off moral considerations until an easier time, but as the novel ends she still has not reflected on her actions or learned from her wrongdoing. In some ways, she has not progressed at all.
Still, Scarlet does stand for the South and the South’s resilience. When Scarlett chooses Rhett over Ashley it suggests that the life of the Old South, symbolized by Ashley, no longer exists. Like the Old South, Scarlett gives up hopeless dreams of a past life and looks to build a better future. Rhett scoffs at the South early on, but in the end he speaks sentimentally of his Southern heritage, so that when Scarlett chooses Rhett to love, she chooses the strange mixture of old and new that Rhett embodies. Like Scarlett, the South survives by changing with the changing times.