Mitchell introduces Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind as the problem-solving pragmatist who is sure that the South cannot win a protracted war with the North. In the course of the novel, Rhett becomes increasingly enamored with the survivalist instincts of Scarlett O'Hara in the chaos surrounding the war.
Like Thomas Sutpen and Charles Bon from Absalom, Absalom!, Rhett decides to join in the Southern cause, but unlike his fellow confederate, Ashley Wilkes, Rhett is not spiritually paralyzed by the South's loss.
Rhett takes leave of Scarlett after rescuing her and Melanie Wilkes from the burning of Atlanta. Scarlett cannot comprehend Rhett's sudden decision to fight, which underscores her total rejection of the Southern chivalric ideal.
(from chapter 23 of Gone With the Wind)
As they dashed down the street and bumped over the railroad tracks, Rhett applied the whip automatically. His face looked set and absent, as though he had forgotten where he was. His broad shoulders were hunched forward and his chin jutted out as though the thoughts in his mind were not pleasant. The heat of the fire made sweat stream down his forehead and cheeks but he did not wipe it off.
They pulled into a side street, then another, then turned and twisted from one narrow street to another until Scarlett completely lost her bearings and the roaring of the flames died behind them. Still Rhett did not speak. He only laid on the whip with regularity. The red glow in the sky was fading now and the road became so dark, so frightening, Scarlett would have welcomed words, any words from him, even jeering, insulting words, words that cut. But he did not speak.
Silent or not, she thanked Heaven for the comfort of his presence. It was so good to have a man beside her, to lean close to him and feel the hard swell of his arm and know that he stood between her and unnamable terrors, even though he merely sat there and stared.
"Oh, Rhett," she whispered clasping his arm, "What would we ever have done without you? I'm so glad you aren't in the army!"
He turned his head and gave her one look, a look that made her drop his arm and shrink back. There was no mockery in his eyes now. They were naked and there was anger and something like bewilderment in them. His lip curled down and he turned his head away. For a long time they jounced along in a silence unbroken except for the faint wails of the baby and sniffles from Prissy. When she was able to bear the sniffling noise no longer, Scarlett turned and pinched her viciously, causing Prissy to scream in good earnest before she relapsed into frightened silence.
Finally Rhett turned the horse at right angles and after a while they were on a wider, smoother road. The dim shapes of houses grew farther and farther apart and unbroken woods loomed wall-like on either side.
"We're out of town now," said Rhett briefly, drawing rein, "and on the main road to Rough and Ready."
"Hurry. Don't stop!"
"Let the animal breathe a bit." Then turning to her, he asked slowly: "Scarlett, are you still determined to do this crazy thing?"
"Do you still want to try to get through to Tara? It's suicidal. Steve Lee's cavalry and the Yankee Army are between you and Tara."
Oh, Dear God! Was he going to refuse to take her home, after all she'd gone through this terrible day?
"Oh, yes! Yes! Please, Rhett, let's hurry. The horse isn't tired."
"Just a minute. You can't go down to Jonesboro on this road. You can't follow the train tracks. They've been fighting up and down there all day from Rough and Ready on south. Do you know any other roads, small wagon roads or lanes that don't go through Rough and Ready or Jonesboro?"
"Oh, yes," cried Scarlett in relief. "If we can just get near to Rough and Ready, I know a wagon trace that winds off from the main Jonesboro road and wanders around for miles. Pa and I used to ride it. It comes out right near the MacIntosh place and that's only a mile from Tara."
"Good. Maybe you can get past Rough and Ready all right. General Steve Lee was there during the afternoon covering the retreat. Maybe the Yankees aren't there yet. Maybe you can get through there, if Steve Lee's men don't pick up your horse."
"I can get through?"
"Yes, you." His voice was rough.
"But Rhett--You--Aren't going to take us?"
"No. I'm leaving you here."
She looked around wildly, at the livid sky behind them, at the dark trees on either hand hemming them in like a prison wall, at the frightened figures in the back of the wagon--and finally at him. Had she gone crazy? Was she not hearing right?
He was grinning now. She could just see his white teeth in the faint light and the old mockery was back in his eyes.
"Leaving us? Where--where are you going?"
"I am going, dear girl, with the army."
She sighed with relief and irritation. Why did he joke at this time of all times? Rhett in the army! After all he'd said about stupid fools who were enticed into losing their lives by a roll of drums and brave words from orators--fools who killed themselves that wise men might make money!
"Oh, I could choke you for scaring me so! Let's get on."
"I'm not joking, my dear. And I am hurt, Scarlett, that you do not take my gallant sacrifice with better spirit. Where is your patriotism, your love for Our Glorious Cause? Now is your chance to tell me to return with my shield or on it. But, talk fast, for I want time to make a brave speech before deporting for the wars."
His drawling voice gibed in her ears. He was jeering at her and, somehow, she knew be was jeering at himself too. What was he talking about? Patriotism, shields, brave speeches? It wasn't possible that he meant what he was saying. It just wasn't believable that he could talk so blithely of leaving her here on this dark road with a woman who might be dying, a new-born infant, a foolish black wench and a frightened child, leaving her to pilot them through miles of battle fields and stragglers and Yankees and fire and God knows what.
Once, when she was six years old,she bad fallen from a tree, flat on her stomach. She could still recall that sickening interval before breath came back into her body. Now, as she looked at Rhett, she felt the same way she had felt then, breathless, stunned, nauseated.
"Rhett, you are joking!"
She grabbed his arm and felt her tears of fright splash down her wrist. He raised her hand and kissed it arily.
"Selfish to the end, aren't you, my dear? Thinking only of your own precious hide and not of the gallant Confederacy. Think how our troops will be heartened by my eleventh-hour appearance." There was a malicious tenderness in his voice.
"Oh, Rhett," she wailed, "how can you do this to me? Why are you leaving me?"
"Why?" he laughed jauntily. "Because, perhaps, of the betraying sentimentality that lurks in all of us Southerners. Perhaps--perhaps because I am ashamed. Who knows?"
"Ashamed? You should die of shame. To desert us here, alone, helpless--"
"Dear Scarlett! You aren't helpless. Anyone as selfish and determined as you are is never helpless. God help the Yankees if they should get you."
He stepped abruptly down from the wagon and, as she watched him, stunned with bewilderment, he came around to her side of the wagon.
"Get out," he ordered.
She stared at him. He reached up roughly, caught her under the arms and swung her to the ground beside him. With a tight grip on her he dragged her several paces away from the wagon. She felt the dust and gravel in her slippers hurting her feet. The still hot darkness wrapped her like a dream,
"I'm not asking you to understand or forgive. I don't give a damn whether you do either, for I shall never understand or forgive myself for this idiocy. I am annoyed at myself to find that so much quixoticism still lingers in me. But our fair Southland needs every man. Didn't our brave Governor Brown say just that? Not matter. I'm off to the wars." He laughed suddenly, a ringing, free laugh that startled the echoes in the dark woods.
"'I could not love thee, Dear, so much, loved I not Honour more.' That's a pat speech, isn't it? Certainly better than anything I can think up myself, at the present moment. For I do love you, Scarlett, in spite of what I said that night on the porch last month."
His drawl was caressing and his hands slid up her bare arms, warm strong hands. "I love you, Scarlett, because we are so much alike, renegades, both of us, dear, and selfish rascals. Neither of us cares a rap if the whole world goes to pot, so long as we are safe and comfortable."
His voice went on in the darkness and she heard words, but they made no sense to her. Her mind was tiredly trying to take in the harsh truth that he was leaving her here to face the Yankees alone. Her mind said: "He's leaving me. He's leaving me." But no emotion stirred.
Then his arms went around her waist and shoulders and she felt the hard muscles of his thighs against her body and the buttons of his coat pressing into her breast. A warm tide of feeling, bewildering, frightening, swept over her, carrying out of her mind the time and place and circumstances. She felt as limp as a rag doll, warm, weak and helpless, and his supporting arms were so pleasant.
"You don't want to change your mind about what I said last month? There's nothing like danger and death to give an added fillip. Be patriotic, Scarlett. Think how you would be sending a soldier to his death with beautiful memories."
He was kissing her now and his mustache tickled her mouth, kissing her with slow, hot lips that were so leisurely as though he had the whole night before him. Charles had never kissed her like this. Never bad the kisses of the Tarleton and Calvert boys made her go hot and cold and shaky like this. He bent her body backward and his lips traveled down her throat to where the cameo fastened her basque.
"Sweet," he whispered. "Sweet."
She saw the wagon dimly in the dark and heard the treble piping of Wade's voice.
"Muvver! Wade fwightened!"
Into her swaying, darkened mind, cold sanity came back with a rush and she remembered what she had forgotten for the moment--that she was frightened too, and Rhett was leaving her, leaving her, the damned cad. And on top of it all, he bad the consummate gall to stand here in the road and insult her with his infamous proposals. Rage and hate flowed into her and stiffened her spine and with one wrench she tore herself loose from his arms.
"Oh, you cad!" she cried and her mind leaped about, trying to think of worse things to call him, things she had heard Gerald call Mr. Lincoln, the MacIntoshes and balky mules, but the words would not come. "You low-down, cowardly, nasty, stinking thing!" And because she could not think of anything crushing enough, she drew back her arm and slapped him across the mouth with all the force she had left. He took a step backward, his hand going to his face.
"Ah," he said quietly and for a moment they stood facing each other in the darkness. Scarlett could bear his heavy breathing, and her own breath came in gasps as if. she had been running hard.
"They were right! Everybody was right! You aren't a gentleman!"
"My dear girl," he said, "how inadequate."
She knew he was laughing and the thought goaded her.
"Go on! Go on now! I want you to hurry. I don't want to ever see you again. I hope a cannon ball lands right on you. I hope it blows you to a million pieces. I--"
"Never mind the rest. I follow your general idea. When I'm dead on the altar of my country, I hope your conscience hurts you."
She heard him laugh as he turned away and walked back toward the wagon. She saw him stand beside it, heard him speak and his voice was changed. courteous and respectful as it always was when he spoke to Melanie.
Prissy's frightened voice made answer from the wagon.
"Gawdlmighty. Cap'n Butler! Miss Melly done fainted away back yonder."
"She's not dead? Is she breathing?"
"Yassuh, she breathin'."
"Then she's probably better off as she is. If she were conscious, I doubt if she could live through all the pain. Take good care of her. Prissy. Here's a shinplaster for you. Try not to be a bigger fool than you are."
"Yassuh. Thankee suh."
She knew he had turned and was facing her but she did not speak. Hate choked all utterance. His feet ground on the pebbles of the road and for a moment she saw his big shoulders looming up in the dark. Then he was gone. She could hear the sound of his feet for a while and then they died away. She came slowly back to the wagon, her knees shaking.
Why had he gone, stepping off into the dark, into the war, into a Cause that was lost, into a world that was mad? Why had he gone, Rhett who loved the pleasures of women and liquor, the comfort of good food and soft beds, the feel of fine linen and good leather, who hated the South and jeered at the fools who fought for it? Now he had set his varnished boots upon a bitter road where hunger tramped with tireless stride and wounds and weariness and heartbreak ran like yelping wolves. And the end of the road was death. He need not have gone. He was safe, rich, comfortable. But he had gone. leaving her alone in a night as black as blindness, with the Yankee Army between her and home.
Now she remembered all the bad names she had wanted to call him but it was too late. She leaned her head against the bowed neck of the horse and cried.