Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Quotable Rhett Butler: Of Sparta and Shields

Tuesday, 10 PM - exhausted and fighting imminent painful death a nasty cold, blogger Bugsie takes a quick look at the handful of links about Plutarch and decides to go to bed instead.
Wednesday, 9 PM - still exhausted but now convinced she'll live to whine about it on the intertubes, blogger Bugsie decides life is too good to be wasted reading about Plutarch and wastes it surfing the internet instead. 
Thursday, 8 PM - the time for whining and Plutarch has come, be prepared.

I naturally assumed you were all dying to see the process that led to this post, or at least know the reason for its delay. So now that that's out of the way, and before you have the chance to dispel my egocentric illusions, let's move on to an overdue quote from our favorite eloquent hero:
"Where is your patriotism, your love for Our Glorious Cause? Now is your chance to tell me to return with my shield or on it."
--Gone with the Wind, Chapter XXIII
This is one of the lines from Rhett's departing speech at Rough and Ready, and I would argue that as far as advice goes, it is one of his most efficient lines too.  For, once she recovers her wits, Scarlett does indeed express a desire to see him - or at least the million pieces of him that survived the encounter with a cannonball, anyway - returning on a shield.

As you probably guessed from my intro, this line has its origins in  Moralia, a famous work of  the Greek historian Plutarch. But, like some of the other classical references we've analyzed so far, this expression had entered 19th century popular culture to define a certain attitude towards war and sacrifice in general. Like Thermopylae, like the Horace quotes, it was commonplace.

To return "either with this or upon this" was what a Spartan mother told her son when he left for battle, handing him his shield. Or at least that's how the story goes in Sayings of Spartan Women, a section of Plutarch's Moralia. Whether it's true or not, it is hard to tell, for Plutarch is the source for everything we know about Spartan women; we don't have much material for comparisons. And the image he builds with his collection of anecdotes is that of mothers who put country, honor and bravery above their sons' lives, of women that are faithful and virtuous, self-effacing in face of their men, but proud and defiant in front of the enemies. 

[If it sounds familiar, I will tell you that a love for Sparta's chief values characterized many societies, and that there were even voices at the beginning of the Civil War comparing the South to Sparta. For my fellow nerds those of you who want to study the matter further, Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve has an essay called "A Southerner in the Peloponnesian War," in which he attempts a larger comparison of the two wars. You can read it here.]

But returning to our quote, why was it such an important point for a man to return with his shield? The reasons are three, and can be arranged in concentric circles from the level of the individual soldier to that of the entire community. A man who abandoned his shield was most often a coward. Since the shields were large and heavy, those who ran away from the enemy in battle had no option but to leave them behind. At best a man returning without his shield had not been able to defend it, and his honor, from the enemy. But at worst, he was a deserter.

Beyond this disgrace, a man returning without a shield was a man who had squandered an important property of his family, for shields were expensive and so they were carefully passed down from father to son. And finally, losing or abandoning one's shield meant endangering one's comrades and ultimately risking the outcome of an entire battle. The Greek phalanx presented an unbreakable surface of interlocked shields to the enemy. The shield of one soldier served to protect not just himself, but his fellows as well.  If he dropped it, the enemies had the means to breach the phalanx.

So now that we dove into the meaning of this phrase, one of the many classical references Mitchell uses in regards to war, I am thinking we could do with a topic for discussion. Assuming you too would want to discuss this further,  I would very much like to hear your opinion on one aspect. Do you think Margaret Mitchell wanted us to see Rhett's gesture of joining the army at the last moment as bravery or foolishness? We know how Scarlett sees it, but does the book as a whole support her view?


  1. Ah, a military topic! I don't know if this is really an answer to your question, so much as a bunch of random thoughts provoked by the post. First off, I come from a military family, and my two sons have flirted with the idea of service in this time of war. Both of their grandfathers served with distinction, one in WWII, the other in Korea and Vietnam. So the admonition of the Spartan mothers struck me as sort of cold, but also perhaps a way to galvanize their sons' idealism with a dose of reality about warfare. Lee said, "It is well that war is so terrible. We should grow too fond of it."

    Now Rhett had always been rather contemptuous of those who were swept up with patriotic fervor. Yet, we see once Bonnie is born how much his heritage really meant to him. He laughs at the Southerners who, like his father, are committed to the Cause, but when he sees the pitiful state of the retreating army he is shamed into action. He is one of them (whether or not he believes in the Cause). I don't know if I'd characterize it as either an act of bravery or foolishness, so much as both at the same time! Truly quixotic!

    Also, Rhett reclaims his patrimony by this act. I like Molly Haskell's take on Rhett's decision to join the army: "Even as he declares his love most passionately, one of Rhett's feet is pointed homeward, toward Charleston and the clan of bluebloods that will claim him in the end--his desertion of Scarlett the first revelation of a deep temperamental divide between the couple..."

    Bottomline, Rhett is a deeply conflicted man with a sense of honor rooted in his heritage. The Spartan imagery works beautifully in this scene. Once more, a fine example of MM's genius.

  2. Thought provoking post. I had never really felt the need to analyse the scene with so much depth. I shy away from the action scenes - they stress me out! I think that this is one of the earliest clues that Rhett doesn't actually tell it how it is, or rather, he spouts ideas and thoughts he doesn't actually agree with, or mean. I think it shows his first real strong and unbreakable connection to the old South.
    But just imagine - what if he hadn't deserted Scarlett and had gone back to Tara with her? Surely that would've been a big thing. He would've had to marry her, wouldn't he? He couldn't just stay in the guest bedroom in a house with two maidens, one widow and one matron/potential widow. Especially seeing as the journey home was an overnight one... Thoughts?

  3. Here is as many windies, as many takes on what Scarlett becomes after the end of the novel. I like Iris' take(s) on this. I find it very believable that after a bit of heavy drinking and of letting herself slip into a bad state, Scarlett would pull through and find something to keep her occupied: a new business, extending her businesses etc. I don't think she would have managed to be mother of the year, but that she would have made efforts with Wade and Ella, yes.

    And of course Mammy didn't die. Just like Tara didn't burn down. These people...

  4. Well, I think that once Melanie died, Scarlett was in a worse position than before. Especially if India obtained Melanie's forgiveness on her deathbed. The people who ostracized India didn't have anything against her, they just sided with Melanie because of Melanie's influence and popularity. I think that the chances of that protecting Scarlett when Melanie was gone are slim.

    I can definitely see Melanie trying to make a provision for Scarlett, either by making a deathbed pact with India or with someone else from the Old Guard (the Meades?) and forcing them to work towards Scarlett being accepted back into society.

  5. Haha, well, I can't take full blame for this scenario. Iso must be blamed as well. It's with her that I discussed it. I do think that Rhett just taking them home is more believable. But then I can also see him getting caught in a vicious circle there--not being able to leave immediately b/c things are so bad and resenting it. If he stayed to help find food, he was doomed. That was a perpetual task.

  6. I am interested to know, in what ways did Scarlett change after the final day of the novel? I mean, I can't imagine Scarlett becoming Mother Theresa overnight, but in what ways did change manifest in her behaviour and thoughts?
    She knew that Melanie had been her saviour, so I think she would've tried to behave in a more acceptable manner, knowing she no longer had a champion.
    I can envision a bit of heavy drinking - with Rhett and Mammy gone, there would be noone to monitor her behaviour.
    I believe, like earlier in the novel, that Scarlett would've made a concerted effort to spend time with Wade and Ella.
    I think Scarlett would've been in a great rush to get home to Mammy, and would've been more receptive of her advice. Unlike Ripley, I don't believe that Mammy conveniently kicked the bucket so soon after Melanie.

  7. You must be a romantic Bugsie! What a cute scenario! If only...
    I think I tend to agree with Iris. Even if he had returned with them, he probably wouldn't have stayed the duration of the war. Though who knows what he would have done if he knew the full extent of what Scarlett went home to...

  8. Yes! What a fantastic idea! Though I know how much Scarlett would resent taking help from India Wilkes - they hated one another! But somehow I can see it happening. We don't know how India felt after Melanie's death about Scarlett. Before she died, India said she had to tell her she was wrong about something. It's obviously about Scarlett, but does she really mean it? Does she truly think she was wrong? Or is she just saying it at this late stage in the day?
    Remember that India's social position was similar to Scarlett's. She was ostracised by half the town. In which case it would be plausible for them to forge an alliance to reclaim their positions in society. I wonder too, what would've happened re the Scarlett/India fued after Melanie's death? Did her death make it null and void, or would it have continued?
    I doubt that Rhett left immediately. I find it hard to believe that he wouldn't have stayed in Atlanta to attend Melanie's funeral. He respected her way too much not to see her laid to rest. So the scenario from Ripley's, with Scarlett holding Ashley back, I don't agree with. In that novel, Ripley used that scene as the final nail in the coffin of Scarlett's ostracism. I think there was a chance Scarlett might have been able to recover, if events at the funeral went well. If Scarlett appeared at the funeral clad in conservative black by her husband's side and managed to behave herself (and, heavens above, show some emotion in public), there might be a chance people would start viewing her differently. I think Will and Suellen would also have come to Atlanta for the funeral, as they did for Bonnie's so they would have appeared as a family. I don't know if children attended funerals in those days, but I doubt it. My nanna was telling me about an aunt of her who had been killed and I asked if she had gone to the funeral (in the 40s) and she told me that children didn't go in those days. In my mind Scarlett would've caught the train back to Tara with Will and Suellen.

  9. Thanks Bugsie. I would enjoy reading about something along those lines as well.

  10. Bugsie--I am of two minds on that question. On the one hand, MM wrote that by inviting Governor Bullock to her "crush", Scarlett "had cut forever any fragile tie that still bound her to the old days, to old friends". On the other hand, it was Rhett's party as well, and clearly the inclusion of Bullock didn't preclude him from later attaining a measure of acceptance. But in any case, and even with Mammy's coaching, I think that Scarlett would have needed help from someone inside the Old Guard in order to find a passageway back in. And it's highly questionable that anyone would have cared enough to have taken on that dauting task. Perhaps Kitty Bonnell, out of residual loyalty and affection for Ellen--or even (gulp) India Wilkes, if we can conjure a scenario where on her deathbed Melanie asked India to make peace with Scarlett.

  11. Iris-as to Haskell--she is entitled to grind whatever axes she pleases, but I just wish that throughout her book, she would have managed to grind them with greater textual fidelity.

    And as to Rhett--I think that it is entirely possible that he may have contemplated such a sentiment, but I would gently remind him that he had at least one rather colorful forebear himself. :)

  12. I really like the India scenario. I would read about an alliance between Scarlett and India.

  13. Well, yes, you are right about Melanie not managing to rehabilitate Scarlett, but I think a large part of that was connected with Rhett's absence. I think that if he stayed in Atlanta, by his wife's side, and joined Melanie in her efforts, together they would have managed it.

    Rhett might be the only one who could re-introduce Scarlett to Atlanta's society. But I think that the most important step would be for him to show he's really forgiven her, so it couldn't happen unless they also reconciled.

  14. Haskell had her own axe to grind with that comment. The rest of the quote argues against an eventual reunion of Rhett and Scarlett. I agree with your observation about Scarlett. She was changing and maturing. Her desire to renew old friendships seems to foreshadow Rhett's comment in the final speech about valuing things thrown away so lightly in his youth.

    After they married, Rhett made several nasty cracks about Gerald being a smart Mick on the make. This mirrors the Charleston conventional wisdom of Aunts Eulalie and Pauline, almost as if to imply that the Gerald-Ellen union was a mesalliance. I wonder if, at some point, the atavistic Charleston gentleman in Rhett didn't think he also had made a mesalliance by marrying Scarlett.

  15. I agree with you. This is the first time that Rhett let's the facade drop and reveals who he is and what he really feels. Unfortunately his timing is all wrong. He could've gone with the women and children to Tara, and seen them safely installed before running off to the army. I can't see him staying there for the duration of the war. Scarlett would have been somewhat more grateful if he'd seen her home, and perhaps tried to help find some food before leaving.

  16. Perhaps it would be Rhett himself who could bring Scarlett back into the fold! After a spending a few weeks or months away in Charleston, he could potentially return and realize that part of embracing a show of respectability is fidelity to one's commitments. An absent Rhett and Ashley as widower would probably put Scarlett in the center of a firestorm of ugly speculation and gossip. Only Rhett could neutralize it.

    On the other hand, after the mill incident, Melanie tried hard to rehabilitate Scarlett, but people tended to welcome Scarlett into their parlors only because of Melanie. If Melanie couldn't effect much of a change in Scarlett's social standing, it's hard to imagine anyone else doing so.

  17. Do you (or any of you guys, of course) think that Scarlett could have still recuperated her place among "her own kind of people"? Rhett managed this once for Bonnie, but his effort was very well schemed. Could Scarlett do the same?

  18. Very interesting comment about Rhett accompanying Scarlett to Tara. You are right that there would have been a social aspect to solve there, and it would have probably been decorous to marry her, though possibly not that great. The ride overnight was not with Scarlett alone, there were some chaperons at Tara (Gerald was still there too, even if insane) and while these were clearly not the perfect circumstances, it was war after all, so they might have gotten away with it.

    But even if there wasn't any pressure to marry, I think that if Rhett came to Tara and was there for Scarlett when she found out Ellen died, and he helped her run the plantation after that, she would have married him anyway. For one thing, she was definitely looking for someone to shoulder the burden for her at those moments. But I think it would have been a matter of time until she came to fall in love with Rhett. Or, you know, at least be extremely fond of him.

  19. Iris--I agree with you that it is both at the same time, and utterly quixotic. And I also agree with Haskell's contention that the desertion on the road to Tara is an early sign of the ingrained significance of Rhett's hertiage. However, as to Rhett and Scarlett's tempreramental divide--I don't think that it is as pronounced (even if only on this subject) as Haskell's theory would suggest. I would contend that Scarlett's sentiments in the chapter before Melanie's death where she longed "to be with her own kind of people again" is her concurrent version, though perhaps diluted, of the same type of longing Rhett was also experiencing.


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