|“||"Frankie my dear, I don't give a damn"||„|
|~ Rhett's last words yet most famous quote within the film|
In the beginning of the novel, we first meet Rhett at the Twelve Oaks Plantation barbecue, the home of John Wilkes and his son Ashley and daughters Honey and India Wilkes. The novel describes Rhett as "a visitor from Charleston"; a black sheep, who was expelled from West Point and is not received by any family with reputation in the whole of Charleston, and perhaps all of South Carolina. He angers many of the Wilkes guests by warning against the coming war, saying that the North's industrial capacity, shipyards, larger population, and other factors will eventually lead to the South's defeat. Rhett's enthrallment with Scarlett O'Hara begins when he overhears her declaration of love for Ashley in the library while the rest of the "proper" girls take a nap. He recognizes that she is willful and spirited and that they are alike in many ways, including their disgust for the impending, and later ongoing, war with the Yankees.
They meet again when Scarlett has already lost her first husband, Charles Hamilton, while she is staying with Charles' sister Melanie and their Aunt Pittypat in Atlanta during the war. Rhett, the daring and infamous blockade runner, creates a stir when he outbids (with $150 in gold) ($3,833 as of 2013) the other gentlemen in order to dance with Scarlett, who is in mourning. Rhett seemingly ruins Scarlett's reputation after this very public display of frivolity and Scarlett's father, Gerald O'Hara, comes to speak to Rhett and to take Scarlett back to Tara. However, Rhett gets Gerald drunk and they come to terms. Gerald returns to Tara and Scarlett remains in Atlanta.
As the Yankees advance towards Atlanta, Scarlett stays behind to help deliver Melanie's baby and then must depend on Rhett to get them out of the city. Scarlett sends her maid Prissy to find Rhett, and when he comes to Aunt Pitty's, he has stolen a horse and buggy in order to "rescue" them. Once they have fled Atlanta, Rhett—in a single moment of perverse idealism—joins the withdrawing Confederate soldiers for their last stand against General Sherman. Before he leaves, Rhett asks that Scarlett kiss him. She refuses, but he hauls her in—she slaps him and tells him that she hopes he gets killed while in battle. He laughs, and turns into the dark, leaving Scarlett alone with Melanie, Beau, her own young son Wade, and Prissy.
Several months later, Scarlett returns to Atlanta, this time to solicit money from Rhett to save Tara from foreclosure, only to learn from Aunt Pitty that he is in military jail, imprisoned by the Yankees for stealing the Confederate gold. Scarlett waltzes in, supposedly horrified that Rhett's life is in danger, all the while maneuvering him to give her money for the plantation. When Rhett sees through her ploy, he laughs in her face and Scarlett attacks him, causing her to faint. After regaining consciousness, she storms out.
On her way back to Aunt Pittypat's she meets Frank Kennedy, her sister Suellen's beau. Learning that Frank has done very well for himself, she plies him with affection, falsely tells him that Suellen is tired of waiting and plans to marry someone else, and finally secures a marriage proposal from him, which she accepts. Once Frank is married to her, he could not possibly allow his wife's kinfolk to be evicted from Tara, so he provides her with the $300 ($4,704 as of 2013) which she needs to pay the taxes on Tara.
Two weeks later, Scarlett is shocked when she sees Rhett while she is running Frank's store, free from the Yankees and amused that she has rushed into yet another marriage with a man she does not love, much less the fact that she stole him right out from under her sister's nose.
Frank Kennedy is killed during a Ku Klux Klan raid on the shanty town after Scarlett is attacked. Rhett saves Ashley Wilkes and several others by alibiing them to the Yankee captain, a man with whom he has played cards on several occasions.
While Scarlett is in mourning following Frank's death, Rhett appears and offers a marriage proposal promising to give her everything. Scarlett accepts only for Rhett's money. In the novel, Rhett's fortune is estimated at $500,000 ($7,839,773 as of 2013) Rhett secretly hopes that Scarlett will eventually return the love he's had since the day he saw her at Twelve Oaks. Her continuing affection for Ashley Wilkes becoms a problem for the couple, however.
When their daughter, Bonnie, falls off a pony and dies, the tragedy causes a rift between the two which is impossible to bridge. Rhett eventually leaves because he knows he has to get away from Scarlett. Her confession of love is something that Rhett seems to have expected from the moment he first saw her breathless face when she rushes to him. He knows that Scarlett could never be happy with Ashley and when she discovers that, he does not want to be around when she throws her obsession onto him.
When he finally receives Scarlett's love, it is too late to salvage the love he once had for her, so he leaves her with his famous parting shot: "My dear, I don't give a damn." It has since been immortalized in film in an altered version: "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn."
In the course of the novel, Rhett becomes increasingly enamored of Scarlett's sheer will to survive in the chaos surrounding the war. The novel contains several pieces of information about him that do not appear in the film. After being disowned by his family (mainly by his father), he became a professional gambler, and at one point was involved in the California Gold Rush, where he ended up getting a scar on his stomach in a knife fight. He seems to love his mother and his sister Rosemary, but has an adversarial relationship with his father which is never resolved. He also has a younger brother who is never named, and a sister-in-law (both of whom he has little respect or regard for), who own a rice plantation. Rhett is the guardian of a little boy who attends boarding school in New Orleans; it is speculated among readers that this boy is Belle Watling's son (whom Belle mentions briefly to Melanie), and perhaps Rhett's illegitimate son as well.
Despite being thrown out of West Point, the Rhett of the novel is obviously very well-educated, referencing everything from Shakespeare to classical history to German philosophy. He has an understanding of human nature that the obtuse Scarlett never does, and at several points provides insightful perspectives on other characters. He also has an extensive knowledge of women, both physically and psychologically, which Scarlett does not consider to be "decent" (but nonetheless considers fascinating). Rhett has tremendous respect and (gradually) affection for Melanie as a friend, but very little for Ashley. Rhett's understanding of human nature extends to children as well, and he is a much better parent to Scarlett's children from her previous marriages than she is herself; he has a particular affinity with her son Wade, even before Wade is his stepson. When Bonnie is born Rhett showers her with the attention that Scarlett will no longer allow him to give to her and is a devoted, even doting and overindulgent, father.
Rhett decides to join in the Southern cause, but unlike his fellow Confederate, Ashley Wilkes, he is not spiritually paralyzed by the South's loss.
In the sequels − both in official sequels (Scarlett, written by Alexandra Ripley, and Rhett Butler's People, written by Donald McCaig) and in the unofficial Winds of Tara by Kate Pinotti − Scarlett finally succeeds in getting Rhett back.
On the eve of the American Civil War in 1861, Scarlett O'Hara lives at Tara, her family's cotton plantation in Georgia, with her parents and two sisters. Scarlett learns that Ashley Wilkes—whom she secretly loves—is to be married to his cousin, Melanie Hamilton, and the engagement is to be announced the next day at a barbecue at Ashley's home, the nearby plantation Twelve Oaks.
At the Twelve Oaks party, Scarlett notices that she is being admired by Rhett Butler, who has been disowned by his family. Rhett finds himself in further disfavor among the male guests when, during a discussion of the probability of war, he states that the South has no chance against the superior numbers and industrial might of the North. Scarlett secretly confesses to Ashley that she loves him, but he rebuffs her by responding that he and the sweet Melanie are more compatible. Afterwards, Rhett reveals to Scarlett he has overheard their conversation, but promises to keep her secret. The barbecue is disrupted by the declaration of war and the men rush to enlist. As Scarlett watches Ashley kiss Melanie goodbye from the upstairs window, Melanie's shy younger brother Charles asks for her hand in marriage before he goes. Though she does not love him, Scarlett consents, and they are married before he leaves to fight.
Scarlett is quickly widowed when Charles dies from a bout of pneumonia and measles while serving in the Confederate Army. Scarlett's mother sends her to the Hamilton home in Atlanta to cheer her up, although the O'Haras' outspoken housemaid Mammy tells Scarlett she knows she is going there only to wait for Ashley's return. Scarlett, who should not attend a party while in deep mourning, attends a charity bazaar in Atlanta with Melanie. There, Scarlett is the object of shocked comments on the part of the elderly women who represent proper Atlanta society. Rhett, now a blockade runner for the Confederacy, makes a surprise appearance. To raise money for the Confederate war effort, gentlemen are invited to offer bids for ladies to dance with them. Rhett makes an inordinately large bid for Scarlett and, to the disapproval of the guests, Scarlett agrees to dance with him. As they dance, Rhett tells her he intends to win her, which she says will never happen.
The tide of war turns against the Confederacy after the Battle of Gettysburg in which many of the men of Scarlett's town are killed. Scarlett makes another unsuccessful appeal to Ashley while he is visiting on Christmas furlough, although they do share a private and passionate kiss in the parlor on Christmas Day, just before he returns to war.
Eight months later, as the city is besieged by the Union Army in the Atlanta Campaign, Melanie goes into premature and difficult labor. Keeping her promise to Ashley to take care of Melanie, Scarlett and her young house servant Prissy must deliver the child without medical assistance. Scarlett calls upon Rhett to bring her home to Tara immediately with Melanie, Prissy, and the baby. He appears with a horse and wagon and takes them out of the city through the burning depot and warehouse district. Instead of accompanying her all the way to Tara, he sends her on her way with a nearly dead horse, helplessly frail Melanie, her baby, and tearful Prissy, and with a passionate kiss as he goes off to fight. On her journey home, Scarlett finds Twelve Oaks burned, ruined and deserted. She is relieved to find Tara still standing but deserted by all except her parents, her sisters, and two servants: Mammy and Pork. Scarlett learns that her mother has just died of typhoid fever and her father's mind has begun to fail under the strain. With Tara pillaged by Union troops and the fields untended, Scarlett vows she will do anything for the survival of her family and herself.
Scarlett sets her family and servants to picking the cotton fields, facing many hardships along the way, including the killing of a Union deserter who attempts to rape her during a burglary. With the defeat of the Confederacy and war's end, Ashley returns, but finds he is of little help at Tara. When Scarlett begs him to run away with her, he confesses his desire for her and kisses her passionately, but says he cannot leave Melanie. Meanwhile, Scarlett's father dies after he is thrown from his horse in an attempt to chase away a scalawag from his property.
Scarlett realizes she cannot pay the rising taxes on Tara implemented by Reconstructionists, so pays a visit to Rhett in Atlanta. However, upon her visit, Rhett, now in jail, tells her his foreign bank accounts have been blocked, and that her attempt to get his money has been in vain. As Scarlett departs, she encounters her sister's fiancé, the middle-aged Frank Kennedy, who now owns a successful general store and lumber mill. Scarlett lies to Kennedy by saying Suellen got tired of waiting and married another beau, and after becoming Mrs. Frank Kennedy, Scarlett takes over his business and becomes wealthy. When Ashley is offered a job with a bank in the north, Scarlett uses emotional blackmail to persuade him to take over managing the mill.
Frank, Ashley, Rhett and several other accomplices make a night raid on a shanty town after Scarlett narrowly escapes an attempted gang rape while driving through it alone, resulting in Frank's death. With Frank's funeral barely over, Rhett visits Scarlett and proposes marriage, and she accepts. They have a daughter whom Rhett names Bonnie Blue, but Scarlett, still pining for Ashley and chagrined at the perceived ruin of her figure, lets Rhett know that she wants no more children and that they will no longer share a bed.
When visiting the mill one day, Scarlett and Ashley are spied in an embrace by two gossips, including Ashley's sister India, who dislikes Scarlett. They eagerly spread the rumor, and Scarlett's reputation is again sullied. Later that evening, Rhett, having heard the rumors, forces Scarlett to attend a birthday party for Ashley. Incapable of believing anything bad of her beloved sister-in-law, Melanie stands by Scarlett's side so that all know that she believes the gossip to be false. After returning home from the party, Scarlett finds Rhett downstairs drunk, and they argue. The argument leads to marital rape, which causes Rhett to return the following day to apologize for his behavior and offer a divorce, which Scarlett rejects saying it would be a disgrace.
Rhett takes Bonnie on an extended trip to London, but cuts the trip short after Bonnie suffers a terrible nightmare. On their return Scarlett is delighted to see him, but he rebuffs her attempts at reconciliation. She informs him that she is pregnant, but an argument ensues, and an enraged Scarlett lunges at Rhett resulting in her falling down the stairs and suffering a miscarriage. As Scarlett is recovering, Bonnie dies while attempting to jump a fence with her pony. Melanie visits their home to comfort them, but then collapses during a second pregnancy she was warned could kill her.
On her deathbed, Melanie asks Scarlett to look after Ashley for her, as Scarlett had looked after her for Ashley. With her dying breath, Melanie tells Scarlett to be kind to Rhett because he loves her. Outside, Ashley collapses in tears, forcing Scarlett to realize that Ashley only ever truly loved Melanie. Scarlett dashes home to find Rhett preparing to leave. She pleads with him, telling him she realizes now that she had loved him all along, and that she never really loved Ashley. However, he refuses, saying that with Bonnie's death went any chance of reconciliation. As Rhett is about to walk out the door, Scarlett begs him to stay but to no avail, and he walks away into the early morning fog leaving Scarlett weeping on the staircase and vowing to one day win back his love.