As Scarlett waits for Prissy to return with Rhett, she notices a glow in the sky and realizes that the town is on fire. She assumes that the Yankees have arrived and are burning the town. She longs for the comfort and reassurance of Ellen.
Prissy bursts in with the news that it is the Confederates who are burning the foundry, army supply depots and warehouses as they retreat, to ensure that they do not fall into enemy hands. She has found Rhett, who he has told her that the Confederates have confiscated his horse and carriage, but that he will steal a horse from the army corral and come to fetch the women.
Rhett arrives, impeccably dressed as always, with a worn-out horse and rickety wagon that he has stolen. He is surprised that Scarlett intends to go to Tara, since there has been fighting all day at Jonesboro and the Yankees may be at Tara. She may run into the Yankees or deserters from both armies. Scarlett, tearful and hysterical, insists that she will go home and see her mother. He comforts her and sets about getting the women, Wade, and the new baby into the wagon. He whips the old horse into action and drives them all out of the burning town. Scarlett feels grateful to Rhett for his strength and protection. She tells him how glad she is that he is not in the army. He responds with a look of silent anger and bewilderment. When they are out of the town, he stops the wagon, and gets out. He tells her that he is leaving her to make her own way home and is going to join the Confederate army. Scarlett, horrified, asks him why he is going. He answers that perhaps it is because of the "betraying sentimentality that lurks in all of us Southerners" or because he is ashamed. He says, in a light-hearted tone, that in spite of what he said to her previously, he does love her, because they are alike. He kisses her passionately, and she is surprised to feel herself responding. But she is still furious at him for deserting her, so she slaps him across the mouth and declares that he is not a gentleman. Rhett laughs and walks away.
Scarlett awakes in the wagon after an exhausting night driving the horse into the woods to avoid soldiers and pushing the wagon out of gullies. Both the sick old horse and Melanie look close to death. Melanie has no milk for her baby. Scarlett realizes that they have spent the night on the Mallorys' plantation, but the lawns have been churned up by the hooves, wheels and feet of the Yankee army and the house has been burned to the ground. Scarlett finds some fallen apples and water for them all and they continue along the road. They pass one burnt-out house after another, and the bodies of dead men and horses, but they do not see a single living soul. Scarlett dreads finding Tara destroyed.
Along the road, they encounter a cow. Scarlett decides they must take it with them, to provide milk for the baby. She makes a lead rope by tearing up her petticoat and hitches the cow to the wagon.
Finally, they reach Tara. To Scarlett's immense relief, the house is still standing. She is greeted by Gerald, who suddenly seems a broken old man. He tells Melanie that the Twelve Oaks plantation is burned, and that she must live at Tara. He says that Ellen died yesterday. Pork tells Scarlett that all the slaves have either run away or gone with the Yankees. Only he, Mammy and Dilcey have stayed with Gerald. Dilcey has just had a baby and can nurse Melanie's baby.
Gerald reveals that the Yankees did not burn Tara because they used it as a headquarters. Gerald had met the Yankees on the front porch. They had told him to leave as they were going to burn Tara, but he had told them that the girls were so sick with typhoid that they could not be moved. The Yankee officer was "a gentleman" and had fetched an army surgeon, who had saved the girls' lives. The Yankees had moved in, filling all the rooms except the sick room. They had eaten or taken all the food and livestock, and torn down the outbuildings for firewood.
Scarlett drinks some whiskey and puts Gerald to bed as if he is a child. Mammy arrives and tells Scarlett that Ellen had brought typhoid into the house after nursing Emmie Slattery, who had the illness. Carreen and Suellen had contracted it first and then Ellen, worn out with nursing the girls, had succumbed and declined fast. In her delirium, Ellen had thought she was a little girl back in Savannah. She did not think of any of her present-day family. Dilcey tells Scarlett that Ellen died calling the name "Philippe" - her cousin and the love of her life.
Scarlett feels overwhelmed with her burden and longs to lay it on someone else's shoulders, but there is no one. Gerald is old and stunned, her sisters are ill, Melanie is frail, and the children helpless, and the remaining slaves have lost their confidence along with Ellen. She drinks more whiskey and realizes that she will never be looked after again. She thinks of her ancestors, who rose above crushing misfortunes. She belongs to Tara and is determined to keep it - her father and sisters, Melanie, Ashley's child and the slaves. Tomorrow, she would look for food and stray livestock.
Next day, Scarlett has a hangover from the whiskey. As she sits down to breakfast, Gerald says they must wait for Ellen. Scarlett notes that Gerald has dementia from his grief; he does not realize that Ellen is dead. Scarlett takes control of Tara, giving orders brusquely in a way of which Ellen would never approve.
Pork brings news that the horse is dead and the cow has had a calf. The only livestock left after the Yankees' visit is a sow and her litter, which Pork drove into the swamp to prevent the Yankees laying hold of her. Scarlett tells him and Prissy to go and catch the pig, which Pork is unwilling to do since he is not a "fe'el han'" but a higher status "house nigger." Scarlett tells him, "Anyone at Tara who won't work can go hunt up the Yankees." Pork reports that the Yankees have taken all the corn and trampled the growing cotton, with the exception of about three bales, which they did not notice. Scarlett wonders how she will pay the taxes on Tara, since the Confederate government had taken cotton in lieu of money for taxes.
Scarlett goes to Twelve Oaks to look for food in the gardens. She is stunned by the sight of the Wilkes' home, burnt to the ground. She finds some turnips and cabbages growing in the deserted slaves' gardens, and gathers them in her basket. She eats a radish, but her empty stomach revolts and she vomits. Lying in the furrows, too weak to move, she reflects on those who are lost forever, and quickly decides that she has finished with looking back. She makes a solemn vow that she will not be defeated and that "I'm never going to be hungry again."
Scarlett is unable to think about the war or the outside world: all she thinks about now is feeding the household. Everyone complains of being hungry except Melanie, who selflessly gives up her own rations to others even though she is growing even thinner. Gerald, Wade and the slaves cling to Melanie because she is kind and sympathetic, whereas Scarlett is growing ever more sharp-tongued and intolerant of weakness. Wade seems frightened of his mother's reprimands. He has been traumatized by the Yankee shelling of Atlanta and has not recovered. Scarlett is impatient with the convalescing Carreen and Suellen. She hangs over the foot of their bed and outlines the work she expects them to do as soon as they are better.
Scarlett bullies the others partly "because it helped her to forget her own bitterness that everything her mother had told her about life was wrong." Ellen's teachings to be gentle, gracious, honorable and kind have no place now, when all that matters is survival. It would be more useful to know how to plough or gather cotton. Scarlett does not take account of the fact that Ellen's ordered world has gone and values have changed; she can only think that Ellen was wrong. What has not changed is Scarlett's love for the land at Tara. Land and property, she now believes, as Gerald believed, is the only thing that is worth fighting wars for. She is determined that "She would hold Tara, if she had to break the back of every person on it."
Analysis of Chapters 23-25
As never before, Scarlett is thrown back on her own resources. Gone are the days when she was a pampered belle whose every need and desire were catered for by others; increasingly, she can rely on no one but herself. In a dramatic subversion of the love story tradition in which the hero rescues the lady in distress, Scarlett calls on Rhett to help her and her household escape from the burning town. Rhett comes to her call, but he is no knight in shining armor. First, he turns up with a broken-down old nag that he has stolen from the army. Then, once he has driven Scarlett, Melanie, Prissy and the children out of town, he unchivalrously deserts them in order to go off and join the Confederate army. Left without a protector, Scarlett has to overcome dangers and obstacles to get herself and the others (who are no help and rely on her completely) back to Tara. That she does so, saving the lives of her charges and even making a small 'profit' in the shape of the cow she acquires along the route, is testament to her growing self-sufficiency.
Rhett's decision to join the army comes after Scarlett's remark that she is grateful that he is not in the army. It appears to be prompted by shame and a patriotism that has hitherto lain hidden under a cynical veneer. His action is given a quixotic flavor by the fact that the South has virtually lost the war. Rhett's momentary discarding of his customary cynicism spills over into his relationship with Scarlett. He admits that, contrary to his previous claim, he does love her, and gives his reason: she is like him. In matters of love, Rhett is more of a realist than Scarlett, recognizing that two people who are alike are better suited than two people who are different, like the pragmatic, Irish peasant-bred Scarlett and the Old Southern aristocrat, Ashley. Scarlett's body shows more wisdom in this than her mind and heart: she responds in spite of herself to Rhett's passionate kiss, but when she realizes that Rhett is really going to leave her to fend for herself, she slaps him and dismisses him on the grounds that he is not a "gentleman."
Scarlett faces even greater challenges when she arrives at Tara. She longs to lay her burdens on someone else's shoulders, only to find Ellen dead, Gerald in a state of dementia, her sisters sick, and the remaining slaves expecting Scarlett to replace Ellen as the figure of strength. Instead of laying down her burdens (Melanie, the new baby, Wade, and Prissy), she finds that they are simply added to. As she takes control of Tara, she grows sharp-tongued and hard. This is partly due to her realization that everything Ellen taught her - such as being gracious and honorable - is useless to her in this ruined world, where only survival matters. The turning point for Scarlett is the scene in the slaves' garden at Twelve Oaks, where, after scratching about for vegetables, Scarlett consciously turns away from those people and things she has lost in the past and decides to look only to the future. The famous and often-quoted speech in which she makes the solemn vow, "I'm never going to be hungry again," marks her refusal to be defeated by the depredations of the war and her determination not only to survive, but also to prosper. Her resolve parallels the new pragmatic, opportunistic and entrepreneurial values that the South will have to adopt after the war in order to survive. Scarlett's mantra, which she frequently repeats in times of hardship, is, "I won't think of it now. I can't stand it now. I'll think of it later." She relies upon it to dull the effects of grief, worry or the pangs of conscience and to keep her attention firmly on her goal. This example is from Chapter 25, when Scarlett is stunned by the sight of the Wilkes' home, Twelve Oaks, which has been burnt to the ground by the Yankees.
If Scarlett's hardships are making her ever more sharp-tongued and hard-hearted, one balancing and softening trait is her Old Southern love for the land of Tara, which she has inherited from Gerald. This land is as essential to her as her life-blood ("She could not desert Tara; she belonged to the red acres far more than they could ever belong to her. Her roots went deep into the blood-colored soil and sucked up life, as did the cotton." - Chapter 24). It is this deep love for her land that rescues Scarlett from seeming utterly cold and attached to superficial values - even if, with characteristic ruthlessness, she does grow determined to "hold Tara, if she had to break the back of every person on it."
Rhett and Scarlett show great reserves of strength in these chapters. Melanie too shows strength of another sort. She gives birth without expert help and without complaint, in spite of her difficult labor. In stark contrast with Scarlett, at Tara, she maintains her gentle and kind nature, and becomes a refuge for the frightened and bewildered inhabitants, who are quivering nervously under Scarlett's ruthless rule. Melanie embodies the values of the Old South - courtesy, kindness and graciousness, which Ellen had exemplified and tried to teach to Scarlett. Ellen had managed to combine these qualities with a strength that made her word law at Tara, but her saintliness is impossible to live up to and the two sides of her character are now shared between two less-than-complete women, Melanie and Scarlett. Melanie's main limitation is that she lacks physical robustness, and her growing weakness parallels the weakening of the South by the war.