Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Quotable Rhett Butler: Call Him Ishmael

This series is really forcing me to brush up on my Bible lately. Rhett Butler will make a believer out of me yet. This week, another quote that traces back to the Old Testament: 
"After the surrender Ashley had much more than I had when I was thrown out. At least, he had friends who took him in, whereas I was Ishmael."
--Gone with the Wind, Chapter XLIII
I will admit to scratching my head at this one, before paying a visit to my friend Google, of course. The only Ishmael I could think of top of my head was a roamer, but then he was also into hunting whales and stuff. I somehow didn't think that's what Rhett had in mind. But then Google revealed that Rhett actually meant to say "I was a wild donkey of a man," and it all started to make sense...

Ishmael was the eldest son of Abraham (Abram at that time, but let's keep it simple). Abraham's wife, Sarah, could not conceive so she sent him to sleep with her maid Hagar instead.  In the good tradition of the Old Testament where everything has to be terribly violent and terribly unfair, she then becomes abusive towards Hagar when the latter falls pregnant. Hagar tries to do the reasonable thing and run away, but God orders her to return to her mistress. He also takes this occasion to impart some happy news to her. Her son? will be awful: 
"He will be a wild donkey of a man; 
his hand will be against everyone
and everyone's hand against him,
and he will live in hostility
toward all his brothers."
                                   Genesis 16
Apparently, the "wild donkey" metaphor refers to the child growing up to be a wanderer, not an ass. (Not that they wouldn't both work for our hero, of course.) Fast forward a few years and Sarah gives birth to a boy that they name Isaac. She then conveniently notices that Hagar's son, Ishmael, is "mocking," whatever that means, and asks Abraham to send both mother and child away. God agrees, so Abraham sends them off into the desert with a little food and water. You know, just enough for them to die halfway. Which they don't, because God saves them and helps Ishmael fulfill his destiny of having a really, really big family. But that, my friends, is another story. 

So there you have it. That's what means to be cast out like Ishmael. And for being "mocking" nonetheless, Rhett couldn't have chosen a better analogy. It should be noted, however, how grim and violent his references to the Bible become when he talks about his father. Here he casts his father as Abraham, who might be an important biblical figure and all, but is also a little on the narrow-minded, abusive side of the spectrum (where "a little" is an euphemism) and definitely not the best father one could hope for in this life.

And this raises a question, that, if you choose to engage it, can be our topic of discussion for this week. Given the grim terms he uses to describe the event and the obvious bitterness towards his father, do you think Rhett resented being thrown out or welcomed it as well-deserved freedom?


  1. Another very interesting entry to the 'Quotable' series. I thoroughly enjoyed it :)

    As for your question, I think Rhett both resented and welcomed his outcast status (a bit like Scarlett's attitude towards the Old Guard, after the war). I think he truly despised his father and thought that being banned put him way above the older Butler. But at the same time he felt wronged for doing, in his opinion, no wrong - a victim of injustice from his father and society. I think most of his bitterness regarding the issue stems from that.


  2. I think he resented the hypocrisy of it all. People chose to believe everything bad about him, whether it was deserved or not. He had done nothing to the girl, (if you believe Rhett's story) and so why should he be saddled with a wife he didn't love just so his father could keep his good name. I think Rhett always had great plans for his life that didn't entail following his father's footsteps but to be cast out without any money or any friends must have been hard for such a young man. All doors were closed to him and so he ended up becoming the man that his father had always believed him to be.

  3. As Hagar and Ishmael moved to Arabia, the Angel appeared and told Hagar: "...arise, lift up the lad and hold him fast in your hand: for I will make him a great nation" Gensis 21:17-21. Thus the Islamic nation was born. Our spiritual heritage can either be traced back to Joshua for the Jews - the 'chosen" ones or to Ishmael for the Muslims.

    The current Israel-Palestine conflict traces its roots back to Abraham as well. Abraham gave his land and his covenant to Isaac, the son born to his wife Keturah, who he wed after Sarah's death. Isaac, in turn passed the land and convenant on to his son Jacob. Here's a link that fully explains the issue:

    The "Call me Ishmael" of Moby Dick has his origins in this story as well. Melville was a man who knew his Bible and he takes great pains to allogorically explain both Ishmaels in Moby Dick.

    Rhett is the Ishmael of the south and while he makes strides to reconcile himself with "his people" he never fully does so.

  4. I think on some level he resented it. Being cast out made him what he was and maybe on some level he's not entirely happy with who he became. By the end of the book he does say he wants to back to Charleston and find some part of that old life that he was unfairly cast out of.


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