The Scarlet Pimpernel: Essays and Questions

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1. In a close reading of the opening chapter, discuss how Orczy establishes the tone and mood of revolutionary Paris.

> Orczy seems to conflate the September Massacres and the Reign of Terror; however, considered strictly as a narrative, she effectively establishes an atmosphere of chaos and fear for revolutionary Paris. She does so describing it ironically and sarcastically using the high-minded, idealistic language of the Revolution itself. “During the greater part of the day the guillotine had been kept busy at its ghastly work: all that France had boasted of in the past centuries, of ancient names, and blue blood, had paid toll to her desire for liberty and for fraternity” (p. 7). The language here mocks the Revolutionary rallying cry of Liberté, égalité, fraternité– “liberty, equality, fraternity.” The narrator makes it clear that the promise of “fraternity,” of equal brotherhood, does not, in the revolutionaries’ eyes, extend to the nobility: “those aristos”—a slang term for aristocrats—“were such fools!” (p. 7). The narrator goes on to deem, indiscriminately, all of the aristos “traitors to the people, of course” (p. 7)—the off-handed phrase “of course” emphasizing the way in which the narrator seems to feel that the French revolutionaries indiscriminately applied their violence to the upper classes. Note that three times the narrator takes pains to mention that women and children (traditionally considered to be most in need of society’s protection) were included among the guillotine’s victims (pp. 7, 8, 9). The repetition of the fact seems to condemn the Revolution in the narrator’s eyes; and the stress on the fact that children suffered merely by accident of ancestry may well reflect Orczy’s own childhood experience.


2. Through a close reading of the descriptions of Calais in Chapter XXII, discuss how the narrator uses physical details to represent or mirror thematic concerns.

> The chapter virtually announces such mirroring as its intent: “The very aspect of the country and its people, even in this remote sea-coast town, spoke of that seething revolution, three hundred miles away, in beautiful Paris, now rendered hideous by the constant flow of the blood of her noblest sons, by the wailing of the widows, and the cries of fatherless children” (pp. 169-70). The men’s red caps “in various stages of cleanliness” (p. 170; these Phrygian caps were once proud symbols of freedom worn by emancipated slaves in ancient Rome), for example, as well as the “bare walls, with their colourless paper, all stained with varied filth” and the scrawled revolutionary slogan “Liberté—Egalité—Fraternité” (Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood) in the Chat Gris (p. 171; the inn’s name literally means “gray cat”) all speak to the extent to which the revolution (in the narrator’s opinion, and no doubt that of Orczy as well) failed to live up to its bright and shining ideals. It has produced a nominally free society, but one, in fact, gripped by terror and mistrust, as the faces of those who dwell in Calais reveal: “instead of the laughing, merry countenance habitual to [Marguerite’s] own countrymen, their faces now invariably wore a look of sly distrust” (p. 170). The fog that fills Calais’ muddied streets seems metaphorical as well as literal, a haze of sorrow and anger that obscures the light that France once was in Marguerite’s eyes. (Student responses can incorporate and similarly interpret other details, giving specific reference to the text.)


3. Select and analyze a passage that displays the novel’s simultaneous reinforcement of and subversion of stereotypical gender roles.

>One such passage occurs in Chapter XXIII, as Marguerite and Ffoulkes, having arrived in Calais, contemplate the fact that Chauvelin is no doubt close behind. Although Marguerite could, on the one hand, be seen as a stereotypical weak and cringing woman when she realizes the danger in which Sir Percy is, and the temporary forgetfulness of Armand and the others for which she shames herself—“With the sublime selfishness of a woman who loves with her whole heart, she had had in the last twenty-four hours no thought save for him” (p. 180)—we are also reminded that she possesses strength and resolve stereotypically reserved for men. Indeed, by the chapter’s end, the gender roles have been, to some extent, reveresed: “Sir Andrew obeyed her without further comment. Instinctively he felt that hers was now the stronger  mind”—a call-back, doubtless, to the novel’s earlier and oft-repeated claim that Marguerite is the cleverest woman in Europe—“he was willing to give himself over to her guidance, to become the hand, while she was the directing head” (p. 181). Such passages suggest that gender roles in The Scarlet Pimpernel are more complicated than readers may first expect. (Student responses can incorporate and similarly interpret other details, giving specific reference to the text.)


4. Discuss the beating of Rosenbaum in Chapter XXX as an incident that shows the ambiguous attitude toward anti-Semitism in the novel.

>Although in most of his appearance, Rosenbaum is clearly a caricatured, stereotype of “the Jews” common in European history, at the point Chauvelin beats him he is just as clearly cast as a scapegoat: Chauvelin “certainly felt exceedingly vicious, and since he had no reasonable grounds for venting his ill-humour on the soldiers who had but too punctually obeyed his orders, he felt that the son of the despised race would prove an excellent butt” (p. 237). At least in this instance, then, the anti-Semitism of the text confirms Chauvelin as a villain: for instance, the citoyen is shown taking explicit delight in Rosenbaum’s pain: “The howls of the Jew… sent a balm through his heart… It eased his mind to think that some human being was, like himself, not altogether at peace with mankind” (p. 239). How tragically ironic that only now will Chauvelin grant the man he calls a “cowardly brute” (p. 237) the status of a human being, when Rosenbaum is being humiliated and violently handled, not to death but, readers are given the impression, very nearly close to it. On the other hand, even in this chapter, the narrator’s engagement with the mistreatment of Rosenbaum seems to be lifted up as more of a character flaw of Chauvelin and his nation (thus, chauvinism and prejudice compounding itself) than expressly lamented as an injustice: “With true French contempt of the Jew, which has survived the lapse of centuries even to this day…” (p. 237). The point is not so much that Jews should be respected, but that the French, as exemplified by Chauvelin, are evil. For some readers (responses will vary), not even the revelation that “Rosenbaum” is the Pimpernel in disguise will fully mitigate the anti-Semitic attitudes underlying his deception.


5. Offer a close reading of a portion of the text that illuminates, in some way, the nature and role of Fate in The Scarlet Pimpernel.

> Students’ choices of texts to read closely will vary. One possibility would be Chapter XIV, in wich the question of Fate seems to first really come to the fore. When Marguerite first spies Chauvelin, for instance, the narrator comments, “Fate had willed it so” (p. 108). Is this an offhand remark, or a reference to some deeper reality? Marguerite also, when she makes her resolve to save her brother’s life, entrusts the Pimpernel to fate in the way that people of faith might commend someone to God: “let Fate decide” what will become of her anonymous hero (p. 108). Also as do some people regarding God, Marguerite in this chapter blames Fate for her own moral actions: “Fate had decided, had made her speak, had made her do a vile and abominable thing, for the sake of the brother she loved” (p. 111). Such talk of Fate is somewhat perplexing, since readers have by this point come to view Marguerite as a fully capable decision-maker. The novel’s title hero certainly views himself as an active moral agent, who, when speaking of Fate, may be talking of a Fate he shapes himself: for example, see his remark in the final chapter, “I thought that Fate and I were going to work together after all.”


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