Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Quotable Rhett Butler: Old Joe at Thermopylae

I can write short posts. Or at least that's my goal for today, to deliver a short and concise post, quite in contrast with my usual rambling. So, cutting to the chase, our Rhett quote for this week is:
"'They died to the last man at Thermopylae, didn't they, Doctor?' Rhett asked, and his lips twitched with suppressed laughter."
--Gone with the Wind, Chapter XVII
At the beginning of Part Three in the book, where this line is uttered, Margaret Mitchell describes Sherman's troops advance into Georgia in the late spring of 1864. In November of 1863, the Union army won the Battle for Chattanooga, which opened their way to Georgia (Chattanooga, Tennessee was one of the dozen places that claimed the honor to be the "Gateway to the South"). They would be opposed by the Army of Tennessee, under the command of Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, fondly nicknamed Old Joe, and the series of battles that ensued would eventually lead to Atlanta's siege and fall.

General Joseph E. Johnson
But at the time Rhett expresses disbelief at Old Joe's capacity to resist the Yankee attack, in a conversation with Doctor Meade, things were not so grim yet. We can actually date their exchange with a fair degree of precision, for MM mentions that Aunt Pity's party took place in May and Doctor Meade is still convinced that "General Johnston was standing in the mountains like an iron rampart." Those mountains would be the Rocky Face Ridge, that Johnston was forced to abandon on May 12. So, considering that the Spring Campaign started on May 4, that leaves us with a window of one week.

Doctor Meade's reference, picked up by Rhett, is quite obviously one to the Battle of Thermopylae fought by Leonidas' Spartans against the invading Persian army, that greatly outnumbered them. The Spartans resisted for a few days at the mountain pass of Thermopylae, but eventually, as Rhett so graciously points out, they were killed to the last man.
"'Our men have fought without shoes before and without food and won victories. And they will fight again and win! I tell you General Johnston cannot be dislodged! The mountain fastnesses have always been the refuge and the strong forts of invaded peoples from ancient times. Think of--think of Thermopylae!'

Scarlett thought hard but Thermopylae meant nothing to her. 

'They died to the last man at Thermopylae, didn't they, Doctor?' Rhett asked, and his lips twitched with suppressed laughter. 

'Are you being insulting, young man?' 

'Doctor! I beg of you! You misunderstood me! I merely asked for information. My memory of ancient history is poor.'"
--Gone with the Wind, Chapter XVII
There are many things to admire in the scene above. First of all, of course, Rhett's wit and skillful use of ancient history, which allows him to point out the self-defeating character and the irony of Doctor Meade's analogy. But, as usual with Margaret Mitchell's scenes, there is more than one layer to this. 

With historical hindsight, there is actually one resemblance between the two battles. Unlike Leonidas, Old Joe retreated from Rocky Face Ridge, but in both cases the reason why the mountain position was not impregnable, as it should have been, was that the enemy outflanked the resisting armies. Under cover of night, both Sherman and Xerxes, the Persian king (who had been alerted to the existence of a mountain path by a traitor), managed to get their troops behind the enemy lines, avoiding the deadly frontal attack. For Leonidas that spelled the end of his life and the beginning of a heroic  and military legend like few others in history. 

The Battle of Thermopylae is perhaps one of the most often quoted events in ancient history, but it is a particularly nice touch that Doctor Meade, as a Southerner, chose this particular battle. Not only because Sparta, who was ruled by a strict honor code, could to an extent appeal to the Southern ideals of chivalry, but also because this was a battle the Greeks fought against their invaders, which emphasizes the way Doctor Meade and his fellowmen saw their own war--as a war of Northern aggression. By contrast, Sherman referred to Etowah, the river he crossed in his Spring Campaign as "the Rubicon of Georgia," which, alluding to  the famous river Caesar crossed in his march against his own capital, stresses the idea of it being a civil war.

Oh, and that thing about me writing short posts? Obviously a lie. Maybe next time. 


  1. An interesting contextual consideration in this conversation is Rhett's background as a one time cadet at West Point. No doubt the Battle of Thermopylae and Leonidas' tactics were studied there. I doubt his memory of ancient history was poor! I think Rhett loved to get Dr. Meade's goat because he was the same type of honorable gentleman of the old school as Rhett's father. Rhett certainly skewered the good doctor here!

  2. Oh, Iris, those are great points. And I didn't think of it before, but West Point would be an good topic to explore in itself.

    A parallel between Rhett's father and Doctor Meade is such an interesting thought. For some reason it brings to mind the moment Rhett has to deliver the news of Darcy's death to Dr. Meade. That's a scene I would have loved to see written.

  3. Aw, I for one do appreciate your long ramblings, blogger Bugsie. 'Scarlett thought hard but Thermopylae meant nothing to her'; Yup, that kind of describes me too (though even ignorant me had heard of this particular battle. I so love it how all these Rhett remarks are explained here.

    @Iris, mmm, Rhett, his father complex and the connection to him antagonizing the whole 'old guard'. Yeah, it has made me wonder endlessly. I would love Rhett to have had some sort of surrogate father figure in his life; someone that could advise him when needed. But knowing the man's utter stubbornness and the lousy decisions he took in the course of his life I think he was and forever would be truly alone in the world. Even his wife was not somebody to lean on and it would have taken too much swallowing of pride to ever let her be something else. Sigh. It makes me sad to think of him like that.

  4. @SJ, Scarlett's thought about Thermopylae reminded of her Borgias comment! But you surely remember the Gerard Butler film 300, that was the Battle of Thermopylae (well, sort of).

    Didn't Rhett have a father figure named Johan, a good Dutchman with a nasty wife? :)

  5. Darn, you caught me on the Gerry Butler front, Iris! So much for me trying to look intelligent ;-)

    LOL. Btw, Springtime surely is over, even in Savannah?

    Apologies to Bugsie and iso for this less than serious comment. Just had to. Won't do it again, Ladies. Promise ;-)

  6. Rita from St. LouiJuly 28, 2010 at 12:55 PM

    This is one of my favorite favorite passagees in the book, because it shows Rhett and Scarlett both in their most essential elements. He's the highly intellectual, worldly sophisticate and she's, well, what she is...

    I love how he mocks the pompous Dr. Meade with this exchange when he feigns a lack of knowledge about history. What a bluff that was!

    But my favorite part(as SJ quotes) is: "Scarlett thought hard but Thermopylae meant nothing to her". I crack up laughing every time I read it.

    Yes, this line reflects back to the Borgias comment she made earlier in the book. MM's point here is to inform the reader that Scarlett is surrounded by highly intellectual, well-read people who are devoted to her.

    Below a few more of my favorite Rhett/Scarlett contrasts.

    Here's Scarlett's thoughts as she enters the library at the Wilkes' bar-b-que. Remember, Rhett had made his exit by asking John Wilkes to show him the library.

    "Large numbers of books always depressed her, as did people who liked to read large numbers of books."

    (As an aside, here's how MM introduces the sofa where Rhett is "sleeping":
    "Far across the long room before the hearth, the seven-foot sofa, Ashley's favorite seat, reared its high back, like some huge sleeping animal").

    Here's another conversation-about military strategy-when Rhett picks Scarlett up from the hospital during her nursing days:

    "I'm just sick and tired of that old hospital," she said, settling her billowing skirts and tying her bonnet bow more firmly under her chin. "And every day more and more wounded come in. It's all General Johnston's fault. If he'd just stood up to the Yankees at Dalton, they'd have--"

    "But he did stand up to the Yankees, you ignorant child. And if he'd kept on standing there, Sherman would have flanked him and crushed him between the two wings of his army. And he'd have lost the railroad and the railroad is what Johnston is fighting for."

    "Oh, well," said Scarlett, on whom military strategy was utterly lost. "It's his fault anyway. He ought to have done something about it and I think he ought to be removed."

    Here's part of a conversation between Rhett and Scarlett right before the siege:

    Annoyed that she had shown her trepidation, she cried: "I don't see why you've stayed here this long! All you think about is being comfortable and eating and--and things like that."

    "I know no more pleasant way to pass the time than in eating and er--things like that," he said. "And as for why I stay here--well, I've read a good deal about sieges, beleaguered cities and the like, but I've never seen one. So I think I'll stay here and watch. I won't get hurt because I'm a noncombatant and besides I want the experience. Never pass up new experiences, Scarlett. They enrich the mind."

    "My mind's rich enough."

    "Perhaps you know best about that, but I should say-- But that would be ungallant."

    Here's an exchange between them at the jail:

    "Rhett, I'm so upset about your being here. Don't you think there's a chance of your getting out?"

    "'Nihil desperandum' is my motto."

    "What does that mean?"

    "It means 'maybe,' my charming ignoramus."

    Finally, here's the classic one we all like -- the infamous Swiss chalet. He suggests they build a home like the ones in New Orleans:

    "Oh, no, Rhett. Not anything old fashioned like these New Orleans houses. I know just what I want. It's the newest thing because I saw a picture of it in--let me see--it was in that Harper's Weekly I was looking at. It was modeled after a Swiss chalet."

    "A Swiss what?"

    "A chalet."

    "Spell it."

    She complied.

    "Oh," he said and stroked his mustache.

  7. @ SJ. Knock yourself out. My home, your home and all the rest of the cliches. Just don't kill anyone :P

    @ Rita from St Lou. Nice quotes! I like the one about the siege, where Scarlett also mentions Drogheda, lol. And I am going to defend her on the one against Old Joe, since MM is clearly using her there to reflect the opinion of many Southerners, including the ones who did replace Johnson.

  8. @Rita, the huge sleeping animal was really on the sofa! Great compilation of quotes, really shows Scarlett's intellectual deficiencies. LOL, the comment about Rhett spending his time in Atlanta eating, and er doing--things like that! The rejoinder was classic Rhett!

  9. @iris. You know, I never really considered Dr. Meade in relation to Rhett's father before, but that makes a ton of sense. He definitely fits the model of 'a fine old gentleman of the old school' per Rhett's definition. Nice suggestion!

    @SJ. Yes, please apologize. Only serious comments are allowed around these parts. Especially by that taskmaster Bugsie. :)

    @Rita. Oh I love your quotes! Scarlett is just so delightfully ignorant. And it's both so interesting and sweet that the only time Rhett really doesn't mocks her ignorance is in the chalet episode on their honeymoon. How gentlemanly of him! Perhaps that's why he had to retaliate with the Caveat Emptorium sign, as he'd already held his tongue for longer than he normally did, lol.

    Wow... that's a lot of @ signs for one little reply. :)


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...