In Gone With the Wind Melanie Wilkes operates as the reader's touchstone, a fact that makes her death at the end of the novel all the more jarring. At the same time Melanie is able both to appreciate the pragmatism of Scarlett O'Hara in the wake of the war and to appreciate the tenuous, absolutist hold her husband, Ashley Wilkes, keeps on the South's chivalric code of honor.
In certain ways, Melanie resembles Quentin Compson from Absalom, Absalom! Both characters attempt to understand their worlds without passing judgment on it, and it is through both characters that the reader can most clearly see the struggles of the other characters.
On Melanie's deathbed, as chronicled in the following passage, Melanie exhorts Scarlett to care for her son and husband. Melanie correctly realizes that it is only through the efforts of realists like Scarlett that the South and its ideals can hope to survive.
(from chapter 61 of Gone With the Wind)
He opened the door before she could answer, pushed her into the room and closed the door behind her. The little room, cheaply furnished in black walnut, was in semi-darkness, the lamp shaded with a newspaper. It was as small and prim a room as a schoolgirl's, the narrow little low-backed bed, the plain net curtains looped back, the clean faded rag rugs on the floor, were so different from the lavishness of Scarlett's own bedroom with its towering carved furniture, pink brocade draperies and rose-strewn carpet.
Melanie lay in the bed, her figure under the counterpane shrunken and flat like a little girl's. Two black braids fell on either side of her face and her closed eyes were sunken in twin purple circles. At the sight of her Scarlett stood transfixed, leaning against the door. Despite the gloom of the room, she could see that Melanie's face was of a waxy yellow color. It was drained of life's blood and there was a pinched look about the nose. Until that moment, Scarlett had hoped Dr. Meade was mistaken. But now she knew. In the hospitals during the war she had seen too many faces wearing this pinched look not to know what it inevitably presaged.
Melanie was dying, but for a moment Scarlett's mind refused to take it in. Melanie could not die. It was impossible for her to die. God wouldn't let her die when she, Scarlett, needed her so much. Never before had it occurred to her that she needed Melanie. But now, the truth surged in, down to the deepest recesses of her soul. She had relied on Melanie, even as she had relied upon herself, and she had never known it. Now, Melanie was dying and Scarlett knew she could not get along without her. Now, as she tiptoed across the room toward the quiet figure, panic clutching at her heart, she knew that Melanie had been her sword and her shield, her comfort and her strength.
"I must hold her! I can't let her get away!" she thought and sank beside the bed with a rustle of skirts. Hastily she grasped the limp hand lying on the coverlet and was frightened anew by its chill.
"It's me, Melly," she said.
Melanie's eyes opened a slit and then, as if having satisfied herself that it was really Scarlett, she closed them again. After a pause she drew a breath and whispered:
"Beau--look after him."
Scarlett could only nod, a strangled feeling in her throat, and she gently pressed the hand she held by way of assent.
"I give him to you." There was the faintest trace of a smile. "I gave him to you, once before--'member?--before he was born."
Did she remember? Could she ever forget that time? Almost as clearly as if that dreadful day had returned, she could feel the stifling heat of the September noon, remembering her terror of the Yankees, hear the tramp of the retreating troops, recall Melanie's voice begging her to take the baby should she die--remember, too, how she had hated Melanie that day and hoped that she would die.
"I've killed her," she thought, in superstitious agony. "I wished so often she would die and God heard me and is punishing me."
"Oh, Melly, don't talk like that! You know you'll pull, through this--"
"You know I promise. I'll treat him like he was my own boy."
"College?" asked Melanie's faint flat voice.
"Oh, yes! The university and Harvard and Europe and anything he wants--and--and--a pony--and music lessons--Oh, please, Melly, do try! Do make an effort!"
The silence fell again and on Melanie's face there were signs of a struggle to gather strength to speak.
"Ashley," she said. "Ashley and you--" Her voice faltered into stillness.
At the mention of Ashley's name, Scarlett's heart stood still, cold as granite within her. Melanie had known all the time. Scarlett dropped her head on the coverlet and a sob that would not rise caught her throat with a cruel hand. Melanie knew. Scarlett was beyond shame now, beyond any feeling save a wild remorse that she had hurt this gentle creature throughout the long years. Melanie had known--and yet, she had remained her loyal friend. Oh, if she could only live those years over again! She would never even let her eyes meet those of Ashley.
"O God," she prayed rapidly, "do, please, let her live! I'll make it up to her. I'll be so good to her. I'll never even speak to Ashley again as long as I live, if You'll only let her get well!"
"Ashley," said Melanie feebly and her fingers reached out to touch Scarlett's bowed head. Her thumb and forefinger tugged with no more strength than that of a baby, at Scarlett's hair. Scarlett knew what that meant, knew Melanie wanted her to look up. But she could not, could not meet Melanie's eyes and read that knowledge in them.
"Ashley," Melanie whispered again and Scarlett gripped herself. When she looked God in the face on the Day of Judgment and read her sentence in His eyes, it would not be as bad as this. Her soul cringed but she raised her head.
She saw only the same dark loving eyes, sunken and drowsy with death, the same tender mouth tiredly fighting pain for breath. No reproach was there, no accusation and no fear--only an anxiety that she might not find strength for words.
For a moment Scarlett was too stunned to even feet relief. Then, as she held Melanie's hand more closely, a flood of warm gratitude to God swept over her and, for the first time since her childhood, she said a humble, unselfish prayer.
"Thank You, God. I know I'm not worth it but thank You for not letting her know."
"What about Ashley, Melly?"
"You'll--look after him?"
"He catches cold--so easily."
There was a pause.
"Look after--his business--you understand?"
"Yes, I understand. I will."
She made a great effort.
Only death could have forced that disloyalty from Melanie.
"Look after him, Scarlett--but--don't ever let him know."
"I'll look after him and the business too, and I'll never let him know. I'll just kind of suggest things to him."
Melanie managed a small smile but it was a triumphant one as her eyes met Scarlett's again. Their glance sealed the bargain that the protection of Ashley Wilkes from a too harsh world was passing from one woman to another and that Ashley's masculine pride should never be humbled by this knowledge.
Now the struggle went out of the tired face as though with Scarlett's promise, ease had come to her.
"You're so smart--so brave--always. been so good to me--"
At these words, the sob came freely to Scarlett's throat and she clapped her hand over her mouth. Now, she was going to bawl like a child and cry out: "I've been a devil! I've wronged you so! I never did anything for you! It was all for Ashley."
She rose to her feet abruptly, sinking her teeth into her thumb to regain her control. Rhett's words came back to her again, "She loves you. Let that be your cross." Well, the cross was heavier now. It was bad enough that she had tried by every art to take Ashley from her. But now it was worse that Melanie, who had trusted her blindly through life, was laying the same love and trust on her in death. No, she could not speak. She could not even say again: "Make an effort to live." She must let her go easily, without a struggle, without tears, without sorrow.
The door opened slightly and Dr. Meade stood on the threshold, beckoning imperiously. Scarlett bent over the bed, choking back her tears and taking Melanie's hand, laid it against her cheek.
"Good night," she said, and her voice was steadier than she thought it possibly could be.