Monday, November 29, 2010

The Quotable Rhett Butler: Loved He Not Honour More?

For our last edition of the QRB, we discussed a quote from the popular romantic ballad The Soldier's Dream and one of our readers, Iris, had a very interesting observation to make. She talked about how Mitchell uses similar - and, in some cases, identical - quotes to convey entirely different meanings in Rhett's and Ashley's speech. Both characters are aware of the unpleasant reality lying behind heroic lines, but whereas Ashley continues to use the said lines in their genuine sense - as if rejecting reality and aspiring to the higher realm of heroism and chivalry they propose - Rhett prefers to employ them sarcastically or twist their meaning to emphasize their ultimate hollowness. Scarlett herself remarks on this aspect at one point:
"'They both see the truth of this war, but Ashley is willing to die about it and Rhett isn't. I think that shows Rhett's good sense.' She paused a moment, horror struck that she could have such a thought about Ashley. 'They both see the same unpleasant truth, but Rhett likes to look it in the face and enrage people by talking about it--and Ashley can hardly bear to face it.'" 
--Gone with the Wind, Chapter XII
It is a very interesting parallel, and, even if this were all there was to it, it would still make for a good compare & contrast post. But the situation is a little more complicated, for there appears to be at least one counterexample to this theory: the scene at Rough & Ready, when Rhett shows himself perfectly willing to die for a war he has no illusions about. His discourse in that scene will be our topic of discussion this week:
"'I could not love thee, Dear, so much, loved I not Honour more.' That's a pat speech, isn't it? Certainly better than anything I can think up myself, at the present moment. For I do love you, Scarlett, in spite of what I said that night on the porch last month."
--Gone with the Wind, Chapter XXIII
To get this out of the way first, I'll tell you that the quote Rhett uses above comes from the poem To Lucasta, Going to the Wars by Cavalier poet Richard Lovelace. Cavalier poetry generally thrived on artfulness, rhetoric artifice, polished structures and a lightness of tone that was often - but not always - paralleled by lightness of subject.  One could easily imagine Rhett Butler declaiming some of the more daring Cavalier lyrics to Scarlett's blushing benefit. But To Lucasta, Going to the Wars is, on the contrary, an example of poetry that touches on serious themes (love & honor, what can be more serious than that?): 
Tell me not, Sweet, I am unkind,
That from the nunnery
Of thy chaste breasts, and quiet mind,
To war and arms I fly.

True, a new mistress now I chase,
The first foe in the field;
And with a stronger faith embrace
A sword, a horse, a shield.

Yet this inconstancy is such,
As you too shall adore;
I could not love thee, Dear, so much,
Loved I not honour more.
       --To Lucasta, Going to the Wars

The question is, of course, how much of it is simply jest in Rhett's use of this quote. Is he just being sarcastic? One could definitely build an argument for that. Talk of honor doesn't seem to suit Rhett Butler. This is Ashley's field and, much to Scarlett's chagrin, Ashley does imply on a few separate occasions that he values duty and honor over his feelings for her. On the contrary, Rhett wastes no chance to imbue the words "honor" and "duty" with as much cynicism and contempt as he can.

But I think that what actually happens in this scene is just a good example of Lying by Telling the Truth™.  It is a technique Rhett employs quite often. He pompously declares love to Scarlett on more than one occasion, the mock solemnity of his declarations the perfect shield that keeps her from suspecting his true feelings. Like in those cases, his appeal to a heroic cliché here disguises the fact that he is ultimately bond by honor - however obscure his other motivations - to join the army. In that sense, his situation  is very similar to that of Ashley (at least if one ignores the part where Rhett left women and children stranded between two armies to run off to the wars).

But is it also true that love is connected to chivalry in our heroes' case, in the way the poem  Rhett alluded to suggests? Is this type of quixotic honor a necessary condition for love? I would say yes to that, if Rhett loved Melanie, not Scarlett. Those of you who have been around for a while are probably familiar with the depth of my resentment for her book, but in this case I think Molly Haskell gets it right. When it comes to Rhett and Scarlett, his devotion to the values of the Old South is a sign of "a deep temperamental divide" that will affect their relationship negatively, rather than a positive element:
"In attempting to explain Rhett’s change of heart, which had a bevy of screenwriters gnashing their teeth, Sidney Howard et al. decided to translate their bafflement into Rhett’s, having him puzzle over his own motives. 'I always had a weakness for lost causes once they’re really lost,' he offers, or alternatively, 'maybe I’m just ashamed of myself.' In some ways it’s the inexplicability of the act that marks it as deeply personal, springing from some demons of the unconscious on Mitchell’s part, a prompting of the past rather than a rational plot calculation. But nothing comes out of nowhere. The scene is powerful precisely because it gives off glints of large, unseen forces, a Rosebud moment that makes sense only in retrospect. 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 that bodes ill for any kind of 'happy ending.'"
--from Frankly, My Dear: Gone with the Wind revisited
I would love to hear what do you think of all this. And if my ramblings haven't bored you entirely, you can also check Molly's post on this topic. (And even if they did bore you, I promise her post is better!)


  1. The quote from Haskell's book is interesting. I never knew the reasoning behind the change in that scene but it makes sense. I can only imagine their frustration with this apparent change of heart in Rhett! And Lying by Telling the Truth...I love it. It's one of those things that kills me throughout the book when it's so blatant that he loves her but he cloaks it in mocking or sarcasm. We as well as him know that Scarlett would never see through that so he's revealing and covering up his love at the same time.

    Thanks again for referring to my post :)

  2. Too deep for me at this moment.


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