Dark, dashing, and scandalous, Rhett Butler brings excitement to Scarlett’s life and encourages her impulse to change and succeed. Thrown out of both West Point and his aristocratic Charleston family for dishonorable behavior, Rhett, like Scarlett, goes after what he wants and refuses to take ‘no’ for an answer. He earns his fortune through professional gambling, wartime blockade-running, and food speculation, behavior that earns him the contempt and even hatred of what he terms the Old Guard—the old Southern aristocracy. Rhett sees through hypocrisy and self-delusion, horrifying people by cutting down their egos and illusions with agility and pleasure.
Whereas Ashley cannot face reality and change, Rhett thrives on both. Because of his opportunism, Rhett symbolizes the New South. However, as the novel progresses, we see that Rhett does care about the Old South. At two critical points in the novel, Rhett abandons Scarlett to commit himself to the Old South. First, he leaves Scarlett in hostile territory and joins the Confederate army. Second, at the end of the novel he leaves Scarlett and goes in search of remnants of the Old South. This sentimentality complicates Rhett’s character and reveals that he is partially motivated by emotion. Ultimately, Rhett symbolizes pragmatism, the practical acceptance of the reality that the South must face in order to survive in a changed world. He understands that the U.S. government has overhauled the Southern economy and that the old way of life is gone forever. He adapts to the situation masterfully, but he does not fully abandon the idealized Southern past.
Rhett falls in love with Scarlett, but, despite their eventual marriage, their relationship never succeeds because of Scarlett’s obsession with Ashley and Rhett’s reluctance to express his feelings. Because Rhett knows that Scarlett scorns men she can win easily, Rhett refuses to show her she was won him. He mocks her, argues with her, and eventually resorts to cruelty and indifference in order to win her. But his fondness for her is evident in his support of her, as he encourages her to shun social customs and gives her money to start her own business.