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Who is Rhett Butler?

By Sheri Cyprus
Updated May 23, 2024
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Rhett Butler is the hero of Margaret Mitchell's 1936 Civil War novel, Gone with the Wind, which was also made into a classic movie. The real-life Rhetts are a prestigious family from Charleston, South Carolina that helped in the formation of Charleston as a city. The character of Rhett Butler was raised near the water. Rhett Butler's time spent near the water provides the perfect background for his later job as a blockade runner pilot in 1861 after Charleston was blockaded.

Rhett Butler owned four ships that carried cotton to England to help the South keep economically feasible in the new wartime confederacy. He also voyaged to Canada and the Bahamas and brought back things that were difficult to get in wartime United States such as women's undergarments and medicine. Blockade runners faced much hostility and severe weather conditions. Rhett Butler risked capture and jail, but he also came out ahead financially as he kept his high earnings in England. As England was not involved in the war, Rhett's offshore earnings were safe while many other Southern men in the novel lost their money during the war.

Rhett Butler is not hell-bent on revenge like most of the other Southern men in the novel. He tries to get the others to see his point of view that the South can not win a war against the North. However, those sentiments just make Rhett Butler unpopular with the other Southerners and they do not listen to his advice. Rhett Butler has a mind of his own and he ends up in fist fights because of it and he also gets thrown out of West Point.

Rhett Butler notices that Scarlett O'Hara also has a mind of her own and he is attracted to her strong spirit from the first time he meets her. Scarlett was a spoiled young girl before her home, Tara, was attacked in the war. She takes action and fights to save Tara and her family even though that was not the socially acceptable thing for a woman to do in the 1800s American South. Rhett and Scarlett are both repulsed by the war with the Yankees and they both want to make things happen rather than let things just happen to them.

Love grows between Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler, but the relationship is a rocky one. Their happiness is not only complicated by the Civil War but by Scarlett's fascination with another man. Rhett Butler's famous line "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn," suggests that he feels that Scarlett's realization of her love for him may have come too late.

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