On the morning of the Wilkes’s party Scarlett chooses a dress that will show off her seventeen-inch waist. Mammy persuades Scarlett to eat something to discourage an unladylike appetite at the barbecue. Ellen cannot attend the barbeque because she must go over the plantation accounts with Jonas Wilkerson before he leaves Tara. On the road, the O’Haras meet the Tarleton women. Gerald and feisty Mrs. Tarleton talk about horses and the possibility of war. Scarlett barely listens, and even the mention of Ashley’s engagement fails to disrupt her daydreams of eloping with him.
All the county’s best families have arrived at Twelve Oaks. Scarlett notices a tall, dark, and powerfully built man staring at her without proper deference. His boldness thrills and shocks her. She learns that he is Rhett Butler, a scandalous man from an aristocratic family in Charleston, South Carolina. Rhett once took a girl out without a chaperone and then refused to marry her, though he should have married her after such outrageous behavior. In defense of his sister’s honor, the girl’s brother challenged Rhett to a duel. Rhett killed the brother during the duel.
Scarlett commands the largest circle of suitors and admirers at the barbeque, including Charles Hamilton. Charles, Melanie’s timid brother, showers Scarlett with awkward attention. He even proposes to her, although he is already Honey Wilkes’s beau. Scarlett hardly hears Charles, fixing her attention on Ashley. Sitting with Melanie, he seems oblivious to Scarlett’s admirers.
The talk of war has attracted men young and old, who boast that they will defeat the Yankees in a month or less. Rhett contemptuously interjects that there are no cannon factories in the South, only a few iron foundries, and no naval power to keep the Southern ports open. He claims that the Yankees will prevail easily and excuses himself before the outraged men can respond.
After the women and girls go upstairs to take their afternoon naps, Scarlett slips into the dark library to intercept Ashley. When Ashley enters, Scarlett confesses her love. To her dismay, he says that he plans to marry Melanie and tells her that she would come to hate him if they were married because they are too different to make a good match. Her pride stung, Scarlett slaps him. He walks quietly out of the room and she hurls a bowl at the wall, shattering it. Unbeknownst to Scarlett, Rhett has been lying on the couch, and he now he sits up and teases her about her unladylike manner. Furious and humiliated, Scarlett storms out with all the dignity she can muster. She goes upstairs and overhears Honey jealously telling Melanie that Scarlett is “fast.” To Scarlett’s disgust, Melanie, who can see only the good in people, defends Scarlett. Scarlett runs back downstairs just as news arrives that President Lincoln has called for troops, signaling the start of the Civil War. Charles spots Scarlett and again asks her to marry him. Seeing an opportunity to hurt Ashley and Honey and salvage her own pride, Scarlett accepts.
The next months pass in a blur. Scarlett and Charles marry just one day before Melanie and Ashley’s wedding. The men then go off to war and Charles dies of measles only two months later. Scarlett gives birth to a son and names him Wade Hampton Hamilton, after Charles’s commanding officer. Scarlett hates the restrictive and boring life of a widowed mother, hates the general excitement over the war, and hates that Ashley is married. She takes a trip to Atlanta to stay with Melanie and her aunt, Pittypat.
Rhett Butler appears in Chapter VI as a foil (a character whose attitudes or emotions contrast with and thereby accentuate those of another character) for Ashley Hamilton. Rhett plays the North to Ashley’s South, and the contrast between the two men deepens our understanding of the clashing cultural attitudes and tensions in the South. Blond, gentle Ashley stands for the romantic and doomed values of the Southern world, while dark, powerful Rhett represents the hardened, practical Northern world that rises up victorious after the war. When Scarlett desperately attempts to get Ashley’s attention, his chivalrous devotion to Melanie contrasts with Rhett’s ungentlemanly, heated stares at Scarlett. After Ashley takes Scarlett’s slap with dignified pain and sorrow, Rhett mercilessly teases Scarlett in manner unbecoming a refined Southern gentleman.
Scarlett’s interactions with Ashley and Rhett mirror the conflict the South is to undergo between old and new ways. The Civil War breaks out just as Scarlett loses Ashley to Melanie. Marrying Ashley, who represents the pinnacle of Southern chivalry, would have cemented Scarlett in the wealthy plantation lifestyle. The declaration of war necessitates the pair of hasty marriages and Scarlett’s loss of Ashley. Scarlett’s loss of Ashley therefore reflects the South’s impending loss of its aristocratic culture in the war. Ashley becomes unattainable for Scarlett, just as the life he represents becomes irrecoverable for the South. At this crucial moment, the introduction of Rhett, an outcast from aristocratic society, represents a new future for both Scarlett and the South. Scarlett, with her desire for more personal freedom than her culture allows her, finds herself drawn to Rhett. Later, Scarlett finds herself struggling to choose between the honorable Southern gentleman Ashley Wilkes and the opportunistic, irreverent cynic Rhett Butler, just as the South finds itself struggling to choose between its traditional culture and values based on land, inheritance, and slave-driven agriculture, and the new Northern way of life driven by the industrial economy and individual freedom.
The omniscient narrative voice shifts between a focus on Scarlett and a general perspective. Primarily, the narrative concerns itself with Scarlett’s actions and thoughts, allowing us to see her as other characters cannot. Upon Charles’s death, Melanie and Aunt Pittypat think that Scarlett is crying over the loss of her husband, but the narrator reveals that Scarlett is actually crying because of her secret passion for Ashley and her jealous hatred of Melanie. This shifting narrative voice also allows Mitchell to explain historical events that Scarlett does not understand and does not want to understand. It is important to understand the historical context of the novel’s setting, which shapes the lives of all of the characters. The narration also speaks from a general perspective in order to illustrate the difference between the sentiments typical of the wealthy Southern culture and those of Scarlett, which are often atypical. For example, when talk turns to war or patriotism, the narrator shows both typical Southern war fever and Scarlett’s unusual lack of interest. Shifting between viewpoints accentuates Scarlett’s independence.