Preparing for the Wilkes' barbecue, Scarlett chooses a revealing green dress and has Mammy lace her corset tight so that she fits its seventeen-inch waist. Mammy tries to persuade her to eat a good meal before going, so that she can appear to have a small and ladylike appetite at the barbecue. Scarlett does eat something, but she is also determined that she will eat as much as she pleases at the Wilkes'.
Ellen cannot accompany Gerald, Scarlett and her sisters to the barbecue, as Gerald has just dismissed Jonas Wilkerson, and Ellen has to check the plantation accounts before he leaves. Jonas feels bitter about being dismissed, as he claims that the father of Emmie Slattery's baby might be any one of a dozen men.
On the road to the Wilkes', Scarlett fantasizes about marrying Ashley. They come across the Tarleton women driving their carriage to the Wilkes'. Mrs. Tarleton, who loves horses, talks about them with Gerald. She also mentions Ashley Wilkes's forthcoming marriage to Melanie Hamilton, and Ashley's sister Honey Wilkes's plan to marry Melanie's brother Charles Hamilton. Mrs. Tarleton disapproves of marriage between cousins, as "it weakens the strain." Scarlett barely listens, as she is lost in her dreams of Ashley. Gerald asks Mrs. Tarleton about the possibility of buying some of her horses for the Clayton County Troop, which is preparing for war.
Scarlett and her family arrive at Twelve Oaks for the barbecue. All the most eminent families of the region are there. As Scarlett looks around for Ashley, she sees a tall, dark man staring at her an in impertinent way.
Scarlett asks Cathleen Calvert about the man, who is called Rhett Butler. Cathleen tells her that Rhett has come as a guest of Mr. Kennedy, with whom he was doing a cotton deal. She adds that he "isn't received" in society. He has been expelled from West Point military academy and has committed the social sin of staying out with a Charleston girl most of the night and then refusing to marry her. Rhett had said that he had not done anything to the girl, so didn't see why he should marry her, particularly as she was a fool. Her brother had taken offence and challenged Rhett to a duel, and Rhett had shot and killed him. Rhett had had to leave Charleston in disgrace.
Scarlett flirts with a circle of admiring men, including the shy Charles Hamilton, in order to make Ashley jealous. Ashley devotes his attention to his fiance, Melanie. Scarlett has upset several women by attracting their men into her circle: for example, Honey Wilkes, who favors Charles Hamilton; Suellen, who favors Frank Kennedy; and Carreen, who favors Brent Tarleton. As Scarlett's gaze drifts from Ashley and Melanie, she notices Rhett watching her. He laughs sardonically.
Gerald begins to argue loudly about the war. Charles tells Scarlett that if war breaks out, he plans to join Wade Hampton's troop in South Carolina. When he asks if she would be upset, Scarlett sarcastically replies that she would cry into her pillow every night, a remark that he takes seriously. Convinced that Scarlett must reciprocate the love he feels for her, Charles proposes. Scarlett is barely listening, being engrossed in the conversation between Ashley and Melanie, who are talking about books. Scarlett contemptuously thinks that Melanie is merely a "bluestocking" and no competition.
The men talk about the war. Ashley declares himself ready to fight with the Troop. An old man, Mr. McRae, warns the young men that war is not about glorious heroism, but about sleeping in the wet and dysentery. But the old man is quickly silenced by his female relatives. Stuart Tarleton boasts that "we could lick [the Yankees] in a month!" Rhett contemptuously points out that the South has no cannon factories, only a few iron foundries, and few textile factories. Moreover, the Yankees could block the South's harbors so that no cotton could be exported. Rhett has spent some years in the rapidly industrializing North, and has seen the thousands of immigrants who would fight for the Yankees for food and pay, and the many factories and mines. He says, "Why, all we have is cotton and slaves and arrogance. They'd lick us in a month." Scarlett inwardly thinks that he is right, but that he is "no gentleman to make such a statement."
The women retire upstairs to take their afternoon naps. Scarlett goes to the library to intercept Ashley and confesses that she loves him. An odd look comes over Ashley's face for a moment before he regains control and gallantly tells Scarlett that she has "always had my heart." He admits that he cares for her, but insists that he is going to marry Melanie. He says that he and Scarlett would not be happy, because they are too unalike. He and Melanie, on the other hand, are alike. Scarlett, humiliated and furious, slaps him across the face. He kisses her hand and leaves. Scarlett throws a china ornament at the fireplace, where it smashes. At that moment, Rhett rises from the sofa, where he has been taking his nap. He teases her about her unladylike behavior, though he adds, "ladies have seldom held any charms for me." He compliments Scarlett on her spirit and says he cannot understand what she sees in Ashley. Scarlett angrily defends Ashley and walks out of the room with as much dignity as she can muster.
Scarlett goes upstairs to join the other women, and overhears Honey Wilkes telling Melanie that Scarlett is "fast." Melanie defends Scarlett, which makes Scarlett hate her more. Honey tells Melanie that Scarlett really only cares for Ashley, but Melanie will not believe it.
Scarlett runs back downstairs and meets Charles, who reports that a messenger has just arrived with the new that President Lincoln has called for troops, which signals that the Civil War has begun. Charles takes Scarlett's emotional state to mean that she is upset about the war, but in fact, she does not care about it. Charles asks her again to marry him. She swiftly calculates that marrying Charles would be a good way to punish Ashley and Honey, as well as salvaging her hurt pride. She accepts.
Just two weeks after Charles proposes to Scarlett, they marry - against Ellen's counsel to wait - just one day before Ashley's wedding. Such haste would not be considered decorous in time of peace, but the war prompts many couples to rush to the altar in the knowledge that the husband will soon leave to fight. Just two months after the marriage, Charles dies of measles, leaving Scarlett a widow. Motherhood soon follows, to Scarlett's dismay. Scarlett names her son Wade Hampton Hamilton, after Charles' commanding officer.
Feeling hemmed in by the restrictions of widowhood, Scarlett is miserable and bored. Everybody assumes that she is grieving for her dead husband, but in fact, Scarlett can barely remember anything about Charles and resents having to stay home and deny herself enjoyment. She is uninterested in her baby and has trouble remembering that he is hers.
Pining after Ashley, Scarlett loses her appetite. The family physician recommends a change of scene, and she goes to stay with Melanie and her Aunt Pittypat in Atlanta.
Analysis of Chapters 5-7
The theme of women having to hide their intelligence and strength to win a husband is continued in Scarlett's minor rebellion against Mammy' insistence that she eat a lot before she goes to the barbecue so that she can appear to be one of the "mousy lil gals wid bird's tastes an' no sense at all" that are so prized by gentlemen. "Why is it," Scarlett asks, "a girl has to be so silly to catch a husband?" (Chapter 5) The narrator criticizes the fashion for female affectation and hypocrisy: "There was no one to tell Scarlett that her own personality, frighteningly vital though it was, was more attractive than any masquerade she might adopt." The narrator adds that if she had been told, she would not have believed it, and neither would society, "for at no time, before or since, had so low a premium been placed on feminine naturalness."
While Scarlett is adept at playing society's games and keeping up pretenses for her own ends, Rhett Butler refuses to dissemble and act the hypocrite in order to please other people. He sees through Scarlett's games and play-acting, and is the only character who instantly recognizes that she does not care for Charles Hamilton but is flirting with him to take revenge on Ashley. The story we are told about Rhett's shocking refusal to marry a girl with whom he spent some time unchaperoned ("Mr. Butler said he'd rather be shot than marry a stupid fool") shows that he cares more about emotional honesty than the old societal conventions of the South. Rhett tells Scarlett that he respects her for her spirit and straightforwardness in declaring her love to Ashley, but her hurt pride at being overheard in a humiliating situation makes her unable to accept his admiration. All she can do is react with fury at Rhett's ungentlemanly manners and continue to pine after the chivalrous but limp-spirited Ashley, who in contrast to Rhett is completely unable to match Scarlett's passionate vitality.
One of the major themes of the novel is the contrast between the old and fast-disappearing world of the Old South, which stood for the values of the past - aristocratic breeding, refined manners, chivalry, tradition and a slave economy - and the North, which was the wave of the future and which stood for the new industrialization, entrepreneurship, meritocracy, brash manners, pragmatism and a wage economy. Ashley embodies the values of the South, and Rhett, though he was born in the South, has imbibed the values of the North. In Chapter 6, he contradicts the young men at the Wilkes' barbecue, who are bragging with patriotic fervor that the Confederacy will "lick" the Yankees in a month. Rhett sees beyond idealism to the reality: "I have seen many things that you all have not seen. The thousands of immigrants who'd be glad to fight for the Yankees for food and a few dollars, the factories, the foundries, the shipyards, the iron and coal mines - all the things we haven't got. Why, all we have is cotton and slaves and arrogance. They'd lick us in a month."
Scarlett's loss of Ashley, coming as it does at the start of the Civil War, parallels and symbolizes the impending destruction of the South and its values in the war. Ashley's decision to marry Melanie seals his fate. Melanie is "like" him, a creature of the South, refined but frail, and we wonder if the two of them can survive in the brash new world that is dawning. In contrast, Scarlett's crude Irish peasant's blood, her un-aristocratic ignorance of culture, her robust physical health, and her selfishness and vitality link her with the modern values of the North that will prevail after the Civil War. Scarlett, like Rhett, is a survivor in a way that Melanie and Ashley are not. Scarlett is not, however, ready publicly to acknowledge her true nature, and frantically tries to maintain her veneer of the Southern belle in the face of Rhett's ungentlemanly insistence that she is "no lady".
The chivalrous and romantic Charles too is a figure of the Old South. His death in camp from measles before he has seen military action comes across as distinctly delicate, particularly when set against Scarlett's rapid recovery from childbirth, which Mammy condemns as "downright common - ladies should suffer more."