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Chapter LIII (53)
Scarlett has a long awaited understanding with Ashley, but India and Mrs. Elsing appear at the wrong moment and misunderstand the situation. Melanie is planning a birthday party for Ashley. Since Scarlett has to ride to the mills with paychecks anyway, Melanie asks her to hold Ashley there until India and Mrs. Elsing come for him. Ashley sees through the ruse as all the men have already clued him in on the surprise, but he and Scarlett begin talking about old times. He reminds her of the way their lives used to be, and Scarlett realizes that nothing has turned out as she had planned. In fact, she doesn’t even feel the passion she thought she had for Ashley. Her feeling seems to be just a warm and soothing friendship. She begins to cry and Ashley wraps his arms around her in comfort. At that moment, India and Mrs. Elsing appear.
Scarlett tries to skip the party, but Rhett-who also believes she was throwing herself at Ashley, forces her to attend. In spite of her dread, Scarlett’s dignity is saved when Melanie greets her at the door and keeps her at her side during the entire party. She tries to explain that she really wasn’t doing anything wrong, for once, but Rhett will not listen. For herself, she has just realized that she was in love with a fantasy all along, a fantasy into which she had inserted Ashley Wilkes.
Scarlett's emotions become very complicated here. She thinks that she simply doesn't love Ashley and never did. However, I believe that he was the one she really did love, even if he was part of a fantasy. The reason she feels no emotion now is because both of them have changed so drastically. She has become hard and businesslike, no longer interested in playing the coquette. He is no longer the dashing young son of a plantation owner, but is a beaten man, the last of his own kind; before the onslaught of overwhelming change, he is helpless and resigned. He is an example of the same weakness she thought she had seen in Charles and Frank, but she had misread them. Ashley's weakness is real; Scarlett's strength and determination puts her in a world so far from Ashley that she never could love what he has become. The irony of this situation is that when she finally got Ashley alone for a heart to heart talk, all the passion was gone. The embrace seen by India and Mrs. Elsing was nothing more than brotherly comfort. Because Rhett knows of her lifelong fantasy for Ashley, he immediately assumes that a romantic moment was interrupted. When he begins insulting her, she stiffens her own resolve and refuses to dignify his insults with explanation.