Analysis: Chapters LIII–LVII

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.