The Scarlet Pimpernel: Symbol Analysis
Perhaps the most noticeable symbol in the book is, of course, “the hastily-scrawled little device—a tiny star-shaped flower” (p. 104), the symbol that serves as the novel’s title, the scarlet pimpernel itself. Although the novel never explicitly states why Sir Percy chooses this flower as his symbol, a clue may lie in its color. In the opening chapter, the red blood that flows through revolutionary Paris—e.g., “The lust of blood grows with its satisfaction, there is no satiety” (p. 9)—can be seen as contrasting with the red of the pimpernel—a flower, and thus a symbol of life, not death. The flower becomes not only a symbol of the French authorities’ impotence, but also of England’s superiority to France.
Jellyband’s inn, The Fisherman’s Rest, may serve a symbolic function. Readers may choose to view the Scarlet Pimpernel as a “fisherman” who “catches” those aristocrats from the turbulent “seas” of the Reign of Terror. Jellyband is, in and of himself, a symbolic embodiment of the British pride that animates the Pimpernel’s heroics: we are told he is representative of “every self-respecting innkeeper in Great Britain” (p. 18). Of course, Jellyband’s patriotism is not without its darker side (as discussed in the Analysis). He and his inn can thus symbolize the best and the worst of national pride.
The arrangement of Marguerite and Sir Percy’s chambers symbolizes in a physical way their emotional relationship—or, at least in the novel’s earlier portion, their lack thereof. We learn that Percy and Marguerite occupy separate chambers in Richmond, their elegant Tudor home, “well divided from each other by the whole width of the house, as far apart as their own lives had become” (p. 122). Furthermore, the sparse and neat interior arrangement of Sir Percy’s rooms corresponds to the strict, discreet way he has arranged to conceal his true activities from the general public, as well as his wife.
Masks and disguises are another dominant metaphor in the novel, mainly in the fact that the Scarlet Pimpernel adopts various disguises—an old woman driving a cart; Benjamin Rosenbaum the Jew; and the foppish, foolish Sir Percy—in order to accomplish his real work. Even when he is ostensibly unmasked, he is masked. In Chapter XVI, for example, we see he is able to don a mask without benefit of literal, physical costume. “The lazy, good-natured face looked strangely altered,” for example, when Marguerite pleads the love of her brother (p. 126); “Sir Percy’s face had become a shade more pale; and the look of determination and obstinancy appeared more marked than ever between his eyes” (p. 129)—the shift in his countenance as he resolves, within himself, to protect Armand. Even the couple’s approach to Richmond has to do with “masking”: the semi-darkness of the night “masks” (not Orczy’s word, but true nevertheless) the way Marguerite usually sees her husband—Percy’s “face in the moonlight looked singularly earnest, and recalled to Marguerite’s aching heart those happy days of courtship, before he had become the lazy nincompoop, the effete fop, whose life seemed spent in card and supper rooms” (p. 121). Even the way Percy drives the bay horses can be seen as a “slippage” of his mask, telegraphing to attentive readers a hint of his truly adventurous spirit: “To-night he seemed to have a very devil in his fingers, and the coach seemed to fly along the road, beside the river” (p. 120).