After the party, Scarlett retires to her room, unable to shake off the memory of Melanie's courage in shielding her from scandal. She shakes with strain. She goes downstairs for some brandy and meets Rhett, who has come home drunk and in an angry mood. He tells her that he would tear her to pieces if it would remove Ashley from her mind. He admits that he is jealous of Ashley but says that he would not have begrudged him Scarlett's body. He does begrudge Ashley her heart and mind, which he feels he, Rhett, will never have. He berates her for throwing away the happiness she could have with him and pining after a man she could never be happy with. Rhett points out that he has loved Scarlett and understands her. He says that this is one night when there will only be two in the bed. He swings her off her feet, carries her upstairs, and makes violent love to her. For the first time, Scarlett feels that she has met someone whom she cannot bully or break. She feels elated.
The next morning, Scarlett awakes alone, in a state of wild excitement about the previous night. She feels passionate about Rhett and realizes that he really loves her, in spite of his cool behavior. Then she reflects with satisfaction that she has him in her power and can make him do anything she likes.
Rhett stays away for two days. When he returns, he laughingly admits that he has been at Belle's, where he has lived since Scarlett announced that she wanted separate bedrooms. He makes light of the night he spent with Scarlett, apologizing for being drunk. Scarlett tearfully thinks he does not love her after all. She orders Rhett to leave. Rhett offers her a divorce, saying that if she lets him have Bonnie, he will not contest it. He says he is leaving on an extended trip, and is taking Bonnie with him.
Rhett has left town with Bonnie, and Scarlett misses him desperately.
Scarlett tries to explain to Melanie about the scene with Ashley in the lumberyard, but Melanie refuses to listen, saying there is no need for explanations between friends. Melanie tells Scarlett that people only spread malicious gossip about her because they are jealous of the fact that she is a successful woman. She adds that Archie resented Scarlett for her employment of convicts, and that India resented her for attracting Stuart Tarleton away from her. Melanie has banned both Archie and India from her house.
Scarlett is conscience-stricken and passionately wants to keep Melanie's high opinion. Despite her desire to confess all that has passed between her and Ashley, Scarlett realizes that it would be selfish and would only place her own burden onto Melanie. She must keep silent and bear the load of her guilt alone. She knows that both she and Ashley owe their social survival to sheltering behind Melanie's skirts. Scarlett begins to wonder whether Ashley has "played the manly part in this mess," and the bright glow that has enveloped him in her mind begins to fade. Scarlett realizes sadly that she is the cause of a feud that will split the family and the town for generations. Ashley and India no longer speak to one another, and Melanie is no longer friendly with Aunt Pittypat because India lives in her house.
Melanie never mentions the subject again. She conducts a campaign to rehabilitate Scarlett, forcing her to accompany her on social visits. The Atlanta ladies tolerate Scarlett's presence because they do not want to lose Melanie's friendship.
Scarlett discovers that she is pregnant with Rhett's child.
Rhett stays away for three months. Scarlett misses him so much that she takes only a superficial interest in her mills. Missing Bonnie, too, she tries to comfort herself by taking an interest in Wade and Ella, but neither child trusts or likes her. Scarlett finds Ella silly and Wade timid. She remembers the passionate night with Rhett when the baby was conceived and for the first time ever, she feels glad to be pregnant.
Scarlett receives a letter from her Aunt Pauline in Charleston. Aunt Pauline has heard from Rhett about Scarlett's devotion to her businesses, which Aunt Pauline condemns as "unwomanly" in spite of the fact that Scarlett has saved her from penury by sending her money earned from her mills.
Rhett and Bonnie return home. Rhett mocks Scarlett and she angrily replies that she is pregnant. He asks her teasingly if the baby is Ashley's. Furious, she says that the baby is Rhett's but adds that she does not want it. Rhett says, "Cheer up. maybe you'll have a miscarriage." She moves to hit him, but he sidesteps and she falls down the stairs.
Scarlett is badly injured and miscarries. Close to death and delirious, she is confined to bed, and Melanie nurses her. Scarlett wants to see Rhett, but cannot bring herself to ask for him. Rhett is desperately worried that Scarlett might die. He cannot eat and can only sprawl on the floor crying drunkenly into Melanie's lap. When Melanie is finally able to tell him that Scarlett is recovering, Rhett bursts into tears and lets loose a stream of self-recrimination. He tells Melanie about his relationship with Belle Watling and says that he has killed Scarlett by forcing her to keep the baby even though she did not want it. He had wanted to hurt Scarlett because she had hurt him, and, crazed with jealousy, had made the callous remark about the miscarriage. Rhett says that he is certain that Scarlett does not love him, though he just manages to stop himself telling Melanie who Scarlett really loves - Ashley.
Analysis of Chapters 54-56
After the Wilkes's party, Rhett admits to Scarlett his jealousy of Ashley and once more tries to make her see what we saw right from the beginning - that her infatuation with Ashley prevents her from recognizing that Rhett is an excellent match for her. He tells her: "Yes, I'm sorry for you - sorry to see you throwing away happiness with both hands and reaching out for something that would never make you happy." Rhett frequently voices our frustration and annoyance with Scarlett, thus gaining our sympathy.
The lumberyard episode between Scarlett and Ashley acts as a catalyst and brings to the surface aspects of the relationship between Scarlett and Rhett that have remained unacknowledged. Finally, and painfully slowly, Scarlett and Rhett begin to understand their relationship. An important turning point for Scarlett is the violent sex scene in which he "humbled her, hurt her, used her brutally through a wild mad night." Far from being furious with Rhett, Scarlett responds with "rapture" and "the ecstasy of surrender." Scarlett's masochism has found a perfect match in Rhett's sadism. For the first time, Scarlett believes Rhett's statement that he loves her.
This scene is much discussed by critics to illustrate their views on whether Scarlett is a feminist heroine. The scene suggests that what Scarlett has needed her whole life (Mitchell tells us that "For the first time in her life she had felt alive.") is to submit to rough and violent sex with a domineering man. The experience teaches her how to respect and love Rhett. Some critics argue that the scene undermines Scarlett's status as a feminist heroine. However, it depends on one's definition of feminism. A common dictionary definition of feminism is the belief that women should enjoy social, political, and economic equality with men. Scarlett certainly goes a long way to fulfilling this definition at a time when 'decent' women were expected not to work, earn and manage their own money, overrule their husbands, or travel without a male escort. Many modern feminists argue that feminism does not define what goes on the bedroom between consenting adults. There is today a growing awareness that sexual tastes vary widely. Many women who are dominant in the workplace or within the family enjoy putting aside or reversing their usual assertiveness where sexuality is concerned. The fact that Scarlett rebukes Rhett and throws him out of the house shortly after her "ecstasy of surrender" confirms that she has no plans to play the submissive wife anywhere but the bedroom.
We may regret that, just as Scarlett acknowledges her feelings for Rhett, he vanishes for two days, robbing them both of any opportunity to build on their burgeoning relationship. However, it is clear that he acts in the interests of self-preservation, since scarcely has Scarlett realized that Rhett loves her than she exults in the thought that "she could hold the whip over his insolent black head. From now on she had him where she wanted him. she could make him jump through any hoops she cared to hold." Scarlett lacks the humility and compassion to treat fairly those who love her; her instinctive response is to use their love as a weapon against them. In such a context, Rhett's decision to leave seems sensible. Scarlett is not mature enough to nurture their relationship.
When Rhett returns, he and Scarlett revert to their old habit of withholding their true feelings from one another. Scarlett does not admit that she is happy to be pregnant with his child and claims not to want it; Rhett flaunts his relationship with Belle and dismisses his night with Scarlett as a fit of drunken lust. Scarlett does not tell Rhett that she has begun to fall out of love with Ashley, and Rhett, assuming that she is still pining for Ashley, offers her a divorce. Neither trusts the other enough to risk revealing their true feelings.
There are signs that Scarlett is beginning to learn humility - though not so much with Rhett as with Melanie. Scarlett still cares more about keeping Melanie's good opinion than she does about anyone else's, including Rhett's. Now, Scarlett is overcome with shame at the thought of Melanie's staunch defense of her when she knows that she does not deserve Melanie's trust. Mitchell often uses the image of a sword to express Melanie's courage and Old Southern loyalty and gallantry: ".Melanie standing between her and social ruin, standing like a thin, shining blade, with trust and a fighting light in her eyes." (Chapter 55). The image recalls the episode where a weak and sick Melanie had emerged from her room with Charles's sword to defend Tara against the Yankee soldier. Though Scarlett longs to unburden her conscience and confess all to Melanie, she has gained enough maturity to realize that this would be a selfish act: "She would be ridding herself of her burden and laying it on the heart of an innocent and trusting person." In deciding that she must bear the load of her guilt in silence, Scarlett makes one of the very few truly self-sacrificing acts of her life. Those acts that may have appeared self-sacrificing in the past, such as her helping to deliver Melanie's baby and taking her safely out of Atlanta to Tara, were in fact selfish attempts to keep Ashley's love for herself by fulfilling his request to look after Melanie.
Just as Melanie proves to be Scarlett's source of strength, standing between her and social ruin, so she is also the support to whom Rhett turns in his agony of guilt as Scarlett lies close to death. Insofar as the reader is concerned, Melanie's role here is as a sounding board to allow Rhett to reveal his love for Scarlett in a way that he has never done to Scarlett herself. The scene is at once moving and frustrating, since once again, Rhett and Scarlett miss an opportunity to develop their relationship in the direction of honestly expressed love. We find ourselves wishing that Scarlett would ask for Rhett, that Rhett would sit on Scarlett's bed with her instead of on his own with his bottle of whiskey, and that he would cry into Scarlett's lap instead of Melanie's. But Rhett and Scarlett, tragically, never seem to match each other in mood: if one feels more honest and communicative, the other feels defensive and closed.