Ashley Wilkes is representative of the Southern aristocrat who fights bravely in the war but finds himself confused and directionless in its aftermath. Ashley realizes that his absolutist convictions about honor and courage no longer have meaning in his world, but he is unable to take action.
Like Quentin Compson in Absalom, Absalom!, Ashley attempts to discover the truth in the destruction of the South in which he grew up, and like Charles Bon, Ashley is drawn to the women he loves for the comfort they offer.
For Scarlett O'Hara, Ashley represents the chivalric code of the South that she esteems without fully understanding it. In the passage, Scarlett seeks pragmatic advice from Ashley on how to pay the carpetbaggers' taxes on Tara, but Scarlett is only confused by Ashley's inability to find a solution to her problem.
(from chapter 31 of Gone With the Wind)
She went through the orchard under the bare boughs and the damp weeds beneath them wet her feet. She could hear the sound of the axe ringing as Ashley split into rails the logs hauled from the swamp. Replacing the fences the Yankees had so blithely burned was a long hard task. Everything was a long bard task, she thought wearily, and she was tired of it, tired and mad and sick of it all. If only Ashley were her husband, instead of Melanie's, how sweet it would be to go to him and lay her head upon his shoulder and cry and shove her burdens onto him to work out as best he might.
She rounded a thicket of pomegranate trees which were shaking bare limbs in the cold wind and saw him leaning on his axe, wiping his forehead with the back of his hand. He was wearing the remains of his butternut trousers and one of Gerald's shirts, a shirt which in better times went only to Court days and barbecues, a ruffled shirt which was far too short for its present owner. He had hung his coat on a tree limb, for the work was hot, and he stood resting as she came up to him.
At the sight of Ashley in rags with an axe in his hand, her heart went out in a surge of love and of fury at fate. She could not bear to, see him in tatters, working, her debonaire immaculate Ashley. His hands were not made for work or his body for anything but broadcloth and fine linen. God intended him to sit in a great house, talking with pleasant people, playing the piano and writing things which sounded beautiful and made no sense whatsoever.
She could endure the sight of her own child in aprons made of sacking and the girls in dingy old gingham, could bear it that Will worked harder than any field hand, but not Ashley. He was too fine for all this, too infinitely dear to her. She would rather split togs herself than suffer while he did it.
"They say Abe Lincoln got his start splitting rails," he said as she came up to him. "Just think to what heights I may climb!"
She frowned. He was always saying light things like this about their hardships. They were deadly serious matters to her and sometimes she was almost irritated at his remarks.
Abruptly she told him Will's news, tersely and in short words, feeling a sense of relief as she spoke. Surely, he'd have something helpful to offer. He said nothing but, seeing her shiver, he took his coat and placed it about her shoulders.
"Well," she said finally, "doesn't it occur to you that we'll have to get the money somewhere?"
"Yes," he said, "but where?"
"I'm asking you," she replied, annoyed. The sense of relief at unburdening herself had disappeared. Even if he couldn't help, why didn't he say something comforting, even if it was only: "Oh, I'm so sorry."
"In all these months since I've been home I've only heard of one person, Rhett Butler, who actually has money," he said.
Aunt Pittypat had written Melanie the week before that Rhett was back in Atlanta with a carriage and two fine horses and pocketfuls of greenbacks. She had intimated, however, that he didn't come by them honestly. Aunt Pitty bad a theory, largely shared by Atlanta, that Rhett had managed to get away with the mythical millions of the Confederate treasury.
"Don't let's talk about him," said Scarlett shortly. "He's a skunk if ever there was one. What's to become of us all?"
Ashley put down the axe and looked away and his eyes seemed to be journeying to some far-off country where she could not follow.
"I wonder," he said. "I wonder not only what will become of us at Tara but what will become of everybody in the South."
She felt like snapping out abruptly: "To hell with everybody in the South! What about us?" but she remained silent because the tired feeling was back on her more strongly than ever. Ashley wasn't being any help at all.
"In the end what will happen will be what has happened whenever a civilization breaks up. The people who have brains and courage come through and the ones who haven't are winnowed out. At least, it has been interesting, if not comfortable, to witness a Götterdämmerung."
"A dusk of the gods. Unfortunately, we Southerners did think we were gods."
"For Heaven's sake, Ashley Wilkes! Don't stand there and talk nonsense at me when it's us who are going to be winnowed out!"
Something of her exasperated weariness seemed to penetrate his mind, calling it back from its wanderings, for he raised her hands with tenderness and, turning them palm up, looked at the calluses.
"These are the most beautiful hands I know," he said and kissed each palm lightly. "They are beautiful because they are strong and every callus is a medal, Scarlett, every blister an award for bravery and unselfishness. They've been roughened for all of us, your father, the girls, Melanie, the baby, the negroes and for me. My dear, I know what you are thinking. You're thinking, 'Here stands an impractical fool talking tommyrot about dead gods when living people are in danger.' Isn't that true?"
She nodded, wishing he would keep on holding her hands forever, but he dropped them.
"And you came to me, hoping I could help you. Well, I can't."
His eyes were bitter as he looked toward the axe and the pile of logs.
"My home is gone and all the money that I so took for granted I never realized I had it. And I am fitted for nothing in this world, for the world I belonged in has gone. I can't help you, Scarlett, except by learning with as good grace as possible to be a clumsy farmer. And that won't keep Tara for you. Don't you think I realize the bitterness of our situation, living here on your charity--Oh, yes, Scarlett, your charity. I can never repay you what you've done for me and for mine out of the kindness of your heart. I realize it more acutely every day. And every day I see more clearly how helpless I am to cope with what has come on us all--Every day my accursed shrinking from realities makes it harder for me to face the new realities. Do you know what I mean?"
She nodded. She had no very clear idea what he meant but she clung breathlessly on his words. This was the first time he had ever spoken to her of the things he was thinking when he seemed so remote from her. It excited her as
if she were on the brink of a discovery.
"It's a curse--this not wanting to look on naked realities. Until the war, life was never more real to me than a shadow show on a curtain. And I preferred it so. I do not like the outlines of things to be too sharp. I like them gently blurred, a little hazy."
He stopped and smiled faintly, shivering a little as the cold wind went through his thin shirt.
"In other words, Scarlett, I am a coward."
His talk of shadow shows and hazy outlines conveyed no meaning to her but his last words were in language she could understand. She knew they were untrue. Cowardice was not in him. Every line of his slender body spoke of generations of brave and gallant men and Scarlett knew his war record by heart.
"Why, that's not so! Would a coward have climbed on the cannon at Gettysburg and rallied the men? Would the General himself have written Melanie a letter about a coward? And--"
"That's not courage," he said tiredly. "Fighting is like champagne. It goes to the heads of cowards as quickly as of heroes. Any fool can be brave on a battle field when it's be brave or else be killed. I'm talking of something else. And my kind of cowardice is infinitely worse than if I had run the first time I heard a cannon fired."
His words came slowly and with difficulty as if it hurt to speak them and he seemed to stand off and look with a sad heart at what he had said. Had any other man spoken so, Scarlett would have dismissed such protestations contemptuously as mock modesty and a bid for praise. But Ashley seemed to mean them and there was a look in his eyes which eluded her--not fear, not apology, but the bracing to a strain which was inevitable and over-whelming. The wintry wind swept her damp ankles and she shivered again but her shiver was less from the wind than from the dread his words evoked in her heart.
"But, Ashley, what are you afraid of?"
"Oh, nameless things. Things which sound very silly when they are put into words. Mostly of having life suddenly become too real, of being brought into personal, too personal, contact with some of the simple facts of life. It isn't that I mind splitting logs here in the mud, but I do mind what it stands for. I do mind, very much, the loss of the beauty of the old life I loved. Scarlett, before the war, life was beautiful. There was a glamor to it, a perfection and a completeness and a symmetry to it like Grecian art. Maybe it wasn't so to everyone. I know that now. But to me, living at Twelve Oaks, there was a real beauty to living. I belonged in that life. I was a part of it. And now it is gone and I am out of place in this new life, and I am afraid. Now, I know that in the old days it was a shadow show I watched. I avoided everything which was not shadowy, people and situations which were too real, too vital. I resented their intrusion. I tried to avoid you too, Scarlett. You were too full of living and too real and I was cowardly enough to prefer shadows and dreams."
"Melanie is the gentlest of dreams and a part of my dreaming. And if the war had not come I would have lived out my life, happily buried at Twelve Oaks, contentedly watching life go by and never being a part of it. But when the war came, life as it really is thrust itself against me. The first time I went into action--it was at Bull Run, you remember--I saw my boyhood friends blown to bits and heard dying horses scream and learned the sickeningly horrible feeling of seeing men crumple up and spit blood when I shot them. But those weren't the worst things about the war, Scarlett. The worst thing about the war was the people I had to live with.
"I had sheltered myself from people all my life, I had carefully selected my few friends. But the war taught me I had created a world of my own with dream people in it. It taught, me what people really are, but it didn't teach me how to live with them. And I'm afraid I'll never learn. Now, I know that in order to support my wife and child, I will have to make my way among a world of people with whom I have nothing in common. You, Scarlett, are taking life by the horns and twisting it to your will. But where do I fit in the world any more? I tell you I am afraid."
While his low resonant voice went on, desolate, with a feeling she could not understand, Scarlett clutched at words here and there, trying to make sense of them. But the words swooped from her hands like wild birds. Something was driving him, driving him with a cruel goad, but she did not understand what it was.