Blond, dreamy, and honorable, Ashley Wilkes is the foil to Rhett’s dark, realistic opportunism. Ashley courts Scarlett but marries Melanie Hamilton, thus setting in motion Scarlett’s central conflict. Ashley is the perfect prewar Southern gentleman: he excels at hunting and riding, takes pleasure in the arts, and comes from an excellent family.
Scarlett’s idealization of Ashley slowly fades as time goes on, and she finally sees that the Ashley she loves is not a real man but a man embellished and adorned by her imagination. Ashley admits to his love for Scarlett, but as a gentleman he ignores this love in order to marry Melanie, the more socially appropriate match for him. He excels at battle despite his doubts about the Southern cause. As the novel progresses, though, Ashley displays signs of weakness and incompetence. After the war he is worthless on the plantation and cannot adjust to the new world. Whereas Rhett and Scarlett survive by sacrificing their commitment to tradition, Ashley cannot or will not allow himself to thrive in a changed society. He sinks even lower as he sacrifices his honor—the only thing he still values in himself—by accepting charity from Scarlett in the form of a share in her mill and by kissing her twice.
Ashley represents the Old South and Southern nostalgia for the prewar days. He epitomizes the old lifestyle and cannot function in the New South that emerges during and after the war. Scarlett clings to him like many Southerners cling to dreams of their old lives, but her eventual recognition of Ashley’s weakness and incompetence enables her to see that dreaming of a lost world makes one weak.