Gone with the Wind is not a romance novel. But it is often mistaken for one – it made the Top 100 Romances at AAR in 1998 and in 2000. (See also here. And here.) And Rhett Butler is often lauded as a romantic hero. In truth, he is a rake and scoundrel, a forerunner if you will to the many rakes and scoundrels that people the pages of historical romances. The original, totally hot bad boy – and in my humble opinion, a douchebag.
When Rhett first meets Scarlet she is 16 to his 33. She is acting like exactly what she is – a spoiled, willful child who isn’t getting her way and isn’t at all used to that sensation. Rhett, who eavesdropped on the scene between her and Ashley that instigated the tantrum, mocks her and laughs at her. This pretty much defines their relationship. Just my opinion but a man who ridicules you is, as Scarlet tells Rhett numerous times, “no gentleman”. That’s not a surprise. At the very start of the novel we are told: “He has the most terrible reputation. His name is Rhett Butler and he’s from Charleston and his folks are some of the nicest people there but they won’t speak to him. . He was expelled from West Point (for drunkenness and something involving women). . . . And then there was that business about the girl he didn’t marry.” Rhett has a long history of not rescuing the women he gets in trouble, which in his time would definitely qualify him as “no gentlemen”.
But Rhett falls far beneath not being a gentleman. It is not just that he treats Scarlet badly or that he goads her until he brings out the worst in her because he believes that “virtues are stupid.” No, the moment that I decided he was a complete douche is when he completely abandons her in her hour of need.
The scene: Atlanta is falling, Scarlet is taking a wagon (which Rhett procured for her) full of vulnerable people back to Tara. The journey will be a dangerous one and Rhett could easily escort them. He chooses not to:
“But Rhett – You- Aren’t you 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.”
Let’s break this scene down a bit. The wagon is full of women (one seriously ill) and children. The road is filled with dangerous bandits and possibly enemy soldiers. Rhett has steadfastly refused to fight for the cause (he worked as a blockade runner because it was profitable) – until this very minute. Their continued conversation proves just how much of a jerk he truly is:
She grabbed his arm and felt her tears of fright splash down on her wrist. He raised her hand and kissed it.
“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 is never helpless. God help the Yankees if they should get you.”
First, a clarification. Scarlett is not just thinking of “her own precious hide”. If she were, she would abandon the wagon full of dependents, take the horse and ride off into the sunset. Instead, she has to take care of them on that long trek home.
Second, Rhett isn’t helping the cause by adding one soldier to a losing army and abandoning needy women and children. He is being himself and doing exactly what he accuses Scarlett of – thinking only of himself. He could make a real difference on the wagon ride to Tara. The battle he is joining? Already lost. Additionally, not too long before this scene unfolds we are told:
Against no one was feeling more bitter than against Rhett Butler. He had sold his boats when blockading grew too hazardous, and he was openly engaged in food speculation. The stories about him that came back to Atlanta from Richmond and Wilmington made those who received him in other days writhe with shame.
It is highly probable that Rhett is less moved by the cause and more trying to figure out how to do what he accuses Scarlet of “save his own hide”. He needs something to show to the people of the South that he is worthy of staying among them.
Third, not only does he desert her but he insults her on the way out.
I know that Scarlett is no prize. She is far from the perfect heroine. But that doesn’t change the fact that Rhett insults, belittles, and bullies her throughout the book. The only redeeming virtue he ever develops is that he’s nice to kids. There is no big change in how he treats his heroine. No grovel. In fact, he ends the book with what I feel was actually his attitude all along – he didn’t give a damn. When she stopped being an amusing plaything, he left. He was good at that.
So now it is time to ask the question to AAR Staffers: Is Rhett Butler a dreamboat or a douchebag?
Lee: Well obviously I haven’t seen the movie for a long time and I read the book many years ago. I don’t recall Rhett being the douchebag as you described him. But now, with your evidence, it appears he was indeed quite the scalawag. And of course with his signature line of “frankly I don’t give a damn,” that pretty much sums up his character.
Caz: It’s a long time since I read the book or saw the film, but I do remember those things you point out, especially the part where he leaves Scarlett to join the army. Perhaps the author intended for it to make him seem honourable somehow in that he finally decides it’s time to join up and do his bit, but I agree that modern sensibilities are unlikely to see it that way, and I pretty much agree with your take on it.
But in spite of that, I don’t remember disliking him intensely, and at times, felt that Scarlett got what she deserved at his hands. Although she definitely didn’t deserve desertion. Scarlett is the blueprint for many of the annoying, TSTL “feisty” heroines we still see in HR, yet Mitchell does show us how strong she is through all the things she does, like nursing the wounded, caring for Melanie – but she remains recognisably Scarlett because she’s still got those selfish impulses – she just doesn’t act on them, which is a sign of her growing up. We don’t get that with Rhett – I tend to think of him as an old-skool hero, one who very much takes a back seat to the heroine, and thus he’s not as well rounded.
Unlike some of the other heroes we’ve discussed, I can’t remember anything about him that pushes him into dreamboat territory. He may be a handsome charmer, but he lacks the inner qualities that are needed to make him a true romantic hero, IMO.
Haley: It’s been ages since I read the book but I think whatever pushed him into dreamboat territory was Clark Gable’s portrayal. Gable is swarthy and heave handed to Leigh’s Scarlett but he’s damn sexy doing it. I mean, who didn’t want to be carried up the stairs by Clark Gable?
Blythe: Well, as you know, I named my oldest daughter after Scarlett O’Hara, so obviously I am a fan. Not just of her, but of Rhett, and I’ll defend him as a dreamboat. It’s funny that their age difference never registered with me, since I read GWTW when I was fifteen and would have had zero interest in a thirty year old man at the time. What I did feel about Rhett was that he was educated and self-aware. Scarlett isn’t. She’s smart, but she’s not an intellectual; she’s smart about business like her dad. She’s also remarkably obtuse about men and her relationship with them. Rhett loves her anyway.
When Rhett leaves her to get to Tara by herself, he has his reasons. Most notably, he knows that Scarlett isn’t in love with him. She will be eventually, but it’s the tragedy of the book that it takes her too long to realize it. I always thought that eventually she’d get him back. And I think he’s a dreamboat worth getting back.
Shannon: I’ve read the book three times, but only saw the movie once. He’s definitely a douchbag.
Dabney: I can’t see Rhett in a vacuum. I judge him in the context of Scarlett. In that context, I think he is–if these are the choices–a dreamboat. He sees her for who she really is: A woman who values herself above almost anything, a woman who loves and seeks the finer things in life, a woman who uses her intelligence to make others do her bidding. She is his counterpart. This makes him the man for Scarlett. He’s the only guy we see who is capable of holding his own against her. Furthermore, he challenges her both to be kinder to others and to be honest about what she wants. He never agrees with her unless he genuinely thinks she’s right. He doesn’t use his intelligence against her in the way she uses hers against every man she meets. Furthermore, he’s the only guy who makes her pulse pound–he believes she’s capable of great passion and he gives her that in a time when sexual pleasure was considered a sin for women. Yes, he’s capable of great assholery but he’s also the guy who sees her toes tapping beneath her widow’s weeds and, though he knows it will shock all at the bazaar, he makes sure Scarlett can dance.
Heather: For me, as a binary function, Rhett is neither complete dreamboat nor total douchebag. But if we’re grading on a scale, he falls more toward the dreamboat end of the spectrum. He does, of course, have his moments of douchieness. It’s this complexity I believe that makes him attractive to me.
Rhett is basically a war profiteer. He runs blockades, partly I believe for sport, partly for the money, and is quite monetarily successful. I love that he is unabashed about being motivated by self-interest rather than the “grand cause” of the war the other Southerners in the story believe in. I love his self-awareness and that he recognizes in Scarlett a kindred spirit.
I think it’s this recognition that allows him to abandon Scarlett on the way out of Atlanta. He knows she’s a strong, capable woman and he knows that she will do whatever it takes to survive. In this respect, like attracts like. He challenges her and helps bring out the strength she has hidden.Plus, there’s something to be said for his courtly manners. Though I believe he would probably argue the point with me and inform me that he’s no gentleman. And when he says, “You should be kissed, and often, and by somebody who knows how?” I swoon every time.
Maggie: One of the difficulties with books like GWTW or Rebecca is that movie and book become almost interchangeable. That line, delivered by Clark Gable, is swoon worthy. (In fairness, he can make most lines swoon worthy :-) The book has a slightly different scene.
“Scarlet, you need kissing badly. That’s what’s wrong with you. All your beaux have respected you too much, though God knows why, or they have been too afraid of you to really do right by you. The result is you are unendurably uppity. You should be kissed and by somebody who knows how.”
Frankly, I’d have walked away with three points from that conversation.
1)I’m unendurably uppity?
2) That’s what’s wrong with me????
3) Can my beaux respect me too much – and what the heck do you mean, God knows why? Are you saying I don’t deserve respect???
Maybe I’ve grown too used to modern men :-)
Mary: I think he is both. He is not just nice to children, he is also nice, gentlemanly and generous to other women (Melanie and Belle Watling for example). Scarlett began as a brat and grew into a selfish woman. We finally see some introspection at the very end of the book, but other than her looks, there is not much to recommend as far as Scarlett goes. She is strong. She is resilient. But I never quite got what Rhett saw in her, other than a hope and a promise. While I agree that Rhett leaving Scarlett to fend for herself when Atlanta is burning was pretty bad, he was not just going to be a soldier…his blockade running was much more important than that in the grand scheme of the war since the South was so short on supplies. His actions benefited more than just being a soldier. I think he also saw it as a way to actually win some respect from Scarlett. She would not have really given him any for just being an escort. She would have just continued to rail at him and call him a coward for abandoning the “great cause.” I think his actions were to show Scarlett he did have some convictions even if they came too late to do any good. He could be callous and cruel, but I think in his mind he was trying to make Scarlett grow up and face reality. I don’t think at his core he was a cruel man, but he was like the guy who sticks the girl’s pigtail in the inkwell…being annoying to get attention.
Heather: I agree, Mary. One of the scenes that sticks in my mind is him giving Mammy the petticoat.
Mary: And Mammy loved him.
Caz: I still err on the side of his not qualifying as a dreamboat, but others have reminded me about something I forgot to say yesterday, which is that douchebag or not, one of the things Rhett does so well is to bring out the best – as well as some of the worst – in Scarlett. He sees through her and past her pretty face, which is not something other men do – and he deliberately provokes her because he knows she’s got more guts than a simpering miss and wants her to admit to it and use them, if that makes sense.
I agree with what Dabney says about him being the only man who could handle her!
Now it is your turn – what do you think of Rhett- dreamboat or douchebag?