Scarlett visits Ashley at the mill. She looks at the accounts and discovers that Ashley is barely breaking even, whereas Johnnie Gallegher is making large profits. He tells her that he cannot drive men as Johnnie does, as he feels sorry for them. He accuses Rhett of brutalizing Scarlett, not realizing that she has enough brutality of her own without needing any from Rhett. When Ashley expresses jealousy of Rhett's touching her, Scarlett feels delighted that Ashley still loves her. She decides that, just as she assumes that Ashley does not have a sexual relationship with Melanie because of Melanie's inability to have more children safely, she will not have a sexual relationship with Rhett. That way, she and Ashley can remain true to each other and she will not have to have more children.
Scarlett informs Rhett that she does not wish to continue a sexual relationship with him. He responds with indifference, saying that there are plenty of other women's beds in the world. Scarlett is mortified that he has taken her decision so lightly and regrets that out of delicacy, she cannot even tell Ashley of it. She will miss long conversations in bed with Rhett and the comfort of his arms when she wakes from a nightmare.
Rhett learns that Wade does not get invited to any parties held by their former friends in Old Atlanta society. Wade asks Rhett if he fought in the war, as the other boys are saying that he did not. Rhett, who has kept his war record secret, tells Wade that he fought in the artillery for eight months.
Rhett realizes that his children are suffering from his own and Scarlett's exclusion from society. He is determined that Bonnie will not be ashamed of her father. He forms a plan to enlist Melanie's help to re-integrate himself into Old Atlanta society. He will do whatever it takes to regain these people's favor: contributing to their charities, attending their churches, even - though he hopes it will not come to that - joining the Ku Klux Klan. He forbids Scarlett to entertain Governor Bullock in their house again, and orders her to stop inviting her unscrupulous new Yankee friends.
Scarlett tells him that if he wants to overcome society's disapproval, he should sell Belle Watling's house, which she suspects he owns. He agrees.
Rhett's campaign for acceptance could not come at a worse time. Since the South surrendered, Rhett's name has been linked with Yankees, Republicans and Scalawags, who are now hated as never before. By co-opting the black vote, the Republicans and their allies are ruling Georgia with no consideration for the Old Southern population. An army of speculators and profiteers are seizing state government contracts and growing rich. When the Georgians complain, the Governor goes North and tells Congress of white outrages against blacks, leading to even harsher rule by the Yankees and their allies.
As part of his plan to become respectable, Rhett allows it to be known that he fought in the war. Mrs. Merriwether at first does not believe him, but she writes to the commander of the regiment Rhett claims to have been in, and the commander confirms that Rhett fought bravely. When Scarlett throws a party for her Yankee friends, Rhett takes the children out and drives them around, letting it be known that he is keeping them away from the "white trash" in his house. Rhett also persuades the bank to grant a loan to Mrs. Merriwether. He keeps Bonnie with him constantly, placing her in front of him on the saddle as he rides around town. He becomes known as a devoted father.
When Bonnie is two, she develops a fear of the dark. Rhett arranges for her to sleep in his room with a lamp lit.
One night, Rhett stays out drinking with a friend and Bonnie is put to bed without a lamp. Rhett comes home drunk to hear Bonnie screaming in fear. Rhett is angry with the servant responsible and with Scarlett for not checking that the light was burning, but Scarlett believes that Bonnie should not be humored. Rhett reminds Scarlett that he has comforted her after a nightmare in exactly the same way as he does Bonnie.
Bonnie complains that Rhett smells bad when he has been drinking, so thereafter, he drinks no more than a glass of wine.
Melanie throws a surprise birthday party for Ashley. Scarlett goes to the lumberyard to keep Ashley there until five o'clock, so that he will not come home and witness the party preparations. Scarlett is elated that she will have time alone with Ashley.
At the lumberyard, Ashley takes Scarlett's hands. Scarlett has longed to feel his touch again, so she is surprised to feel nothing but a warm friendliness. Ashley tells Scarlett that if it had not been for her help, he would have descended into oblivion as surely as Cathleen Calvert did. He asks her curiously where she wants to go with her life, saying that he only wants to be himself and not be driven to do things he does not want to do. Scarlett reflects that though she has everything she ever wanted except Ashley, these things have not made her happy.
As Ashley reminisces about the charm of the Old South, Scarlett notices that he looks old and tired. She notes that he cannot see the present and fears the future; all he can do is look back into the past. Ashley's talk of the old days prompts Scarlett to cry. He gently takes her in his arms and comforts her. Suddenly, Ashley pulls away and Scarlett sees India and Archie standing at the door, watching them.
Scarlett leaves the lumberyard and goes home. She is tortured primarily by what Melanie will think of her, and secondarily, by the possibility that Ashley will hate her for bringing ruin to his family. Rhett is the third person whose reaction she considers. She tells herself that she will think of all this tomorrow. Unable to face going to Ashley's party, she tells Rhett that she has a headache and cannot go. Rhett, who has been told about Scarlett and Ashley's embrace by Archie, calls her a coward. He forces her to accompany him to the party and face everyone, if only for Bonnie's sake.
By now, Scarlett cares only about what Melanie thinks of her. As she and Rhett enter the room, everyone falls silent and stares at them. Then Melanie emerges from the crowd, puts her arm around Scarlett and asks her to help receive the guests.
Analysis of Chapters 51-53
Scarlett takes huge risks with her relationship with Rhett, as she decides to pursue a symbolic faithfulness to Ashley by refusing sex to Rhett. Rhett responds with apparent indifference and a resolution to seek sex with other women, cementing the distance between himself and Scarlett. It soon becomes apparent that Scarlett's 'sacrifice' is not only futile (she cannot tell Ashley about it, out of delicacy) but based on a delusion: in the scene in the lumber yard with Ashley, Scarlett realizes that she does not love Ashley after all. All she feels for him is a warm friendliness. She has endangered her marriage to no purpose.
Why does Scarlett realize now that she does not love Ashley? Though she has always lacked insight into others, Scarlett finally notices what has been obvious to everyone else from the beginning: that Ashley is wedded to the past and the Old South, and is incapable of adapting to the present or of fully standing on his own feet. He could not be more different to her. While she sheds the occasional tear over the loss of the Old South, she is determined to make the most of present opportunities to carve out a prosperous future.
It is a heavy irony that until this point in the novel, Scarlett and Ashley have been able to keep their love sufficiently hidden to avoid disgrace, but now that Scarlett no longer loves Ashley, they are discovered in a chaste embrace and scandal looks set to overwhelm them.
Rhett continues to develop as a more sympathetic character. Thus far in the novel, he has won our affection for his charisma, humor, strength, perceptiveness and refusal to be bullied by Scarlett. But our sympathy for him has been challenged by the fact that he has generally acted out of self-interest. Now, however, his devotion to Bonnie shows us the soft, giving and self-sacrificing sides of his nature. His painstaking campaign to become "respectable" in the eyes of society shows that he values Bonnie's welfare more than his own pride. It is also an admission on his part that there is a price to pay for treating society's conventions and expectations with contempt, as Rhett has done, and as Scarlett continues to do. Rhett's rehabilitation in Old Southern society parallels his growth in stature in our own eyes.
Though Rhett's campaign to court Old Southern society comes at a bad time insofar as he is identified with Yankees and Scalawags, who have never been more hated than they are now, it comes at the perfect time insofar as the Reconstruction is soon to end and the Democrats are gaining power once more. If Rhett succeeds in becoming respectable, he will once again be on the winning side. As ever, he is one step ahead of everyone else, and his unerring political instincts tell him which way the trends are moving.
Melanie's action in welcoming Scarlett to her party in spite of India and Archie's report of Scarlett's embracing Ashley at the lumber yard can be seen as heroically generous (in that Melanie cannot see the bad in anyone) or willfully self-blinding (in that the evidence surely suggests that Scarlett and Ashley are having an affair) - perhaps both. There is no doubt that Melanie's gesture is testament to her remarkable qualities of courage, loyalty and love. That these qualities have great power is shown by the fact that even the contemptuous Scarlett now cares only about what Melanie will think of her. Scarlett's newly respectful attitude to Melanie is reminiscent of her attitude to Ellen. Deep within Scarlett is a recognition that these two women have such goodness and integrity that their opinions count for a great deal.