The Scarlet Pimpernel: Theme


Nationalism, in both its positive and its negative aspects, is one of the themes of The Scarlet Pimpernel. On the positive side, we see what Britain regards as its finest qualities—the cause of liberty and devotion to others’ good—embodied in the daring exploits of the Scarlet Pimpernel. On the negative side, however, we see much chauvinism demonstrated toward France. In Chapter III, for example, none of the English characters forget their visitors are French, least of all Harry Waite, who objects to the Vicomte’s silent admiration of Sally with apparent profanity: “It would be impossible at this point,” our narrator delicately tells us, “to record the exact exclamation which escaped through Mr. Harry Waite’s clenched teeth” (p. 30). Even Lord Antony, who is depicted as sympathetic to the Pimpernel’s program, admonishes the Vicomte—teasingly, to be sure, but an admonishment all the same—to “not… bring [his] loose foreign ways into this most moral country” (p. 30). National identities painted in such broad, caricaturing strokes rarely do much to further mutual trust and understanding.

“Masking” of the true self forms another key theme of the book. While most evident, of course, in the titular character’s double identity, it also surfaces in other ways. Chapter XI, for instance, develops the fascinating theme of public façade versus true reality. Notice the extravagant terms in which Orczy describes the ball, sprinkling such adjectives as “exquisite,” “exotic,” “elaborate” and “extravagant” itself in her description of the setting (p. 90). It also reintroduces the rivalry between Marguerite and the Comtesse de Tournay: beneath their civil exchanges at the ball, Marguerite “could not help but rejoice” in seeing the Comtesse receive a gentle rebuke from the Prince of Wales regarding who is England’s friend, and who is not (p. 93). Likewise, several passages exploring the troubled relationship between Marguerite and Sir Percy go to the thematic question of masks. In Chapter XVII, Marguerite reflects that Sir Percy’s foppish exterior is a mask concealing “the real man, strong, passionate, willful… the man she had loved” (p. 133). So far as her thoughts take her, she is correct; the narrator’s revelation of Sir Percy’s interior emotional landscape in the previous chapter showed us that, indeed, his inane behavior is (in part) “a mask worn to hide the bitter wound [Marguerite] had dealt to his faith [i.e., in her] and to his love” (p. 138). What Marguerite has not yet ascertained, however (but which, by now, most of the text’s first-time readers probably have at least guessed), is that this “mask” also deflects any suspicion that Sir Percy is the Scarlet Pimpernel.

The role of Fate is also of thematic concern. In her strongest moments (i.e., before her journey to Calais), Marguerite emerges, somewhat like her husband, as a character unafraid to shape her own fate, her own destiny.