Superhero in Disguise Character
Orczy’s most famous work is often cited for giving rise to the genre of the superhero with an alter ego or secret identity. As Sarah Juliette Sasson notes, ‘‘Superheroes had not been invented when the baroness wrote her novel, but the Scarlet Pimpernel’s chivalry, courage, and impressive powers make him, in certain respects, their ancestor.’’ Johnston McCulley presented his character of Zorro, who dons a black mask and costume to fight evildoers, in 1919 in The Curse of Capistrano. Other characters written in the mode of the Scarlet Pimpernel can be found primarily in comic books, as with Superman and Batman, characters who have received increased attention in modern films. Indeed, stories of superheroes have become a veritable obsession with modern popular audiences. Some commentators have noted that during trying or fearful times—such as an economic recession—moviegoers may be more likely to desire to escape into adventurous tales with fantastic saviors or heroes.
Some of the superheroes of popular literature and film, such as the X-Men, have extraordinary powers, whereas others are ordinary humans who by experience and circumstance find themselves in the role of do-gooder or rescuer. The Scarlet Pimpernel, a character who has exceptional skills but is grounded in reality, is the latter sort of hero. Orczy endows him, though, with such impressive abilities that he leaves the French soldiers and peasants alike wondering whether or not he is merely human. The tales of his escapes ‘‘certainly savoured of the supernatural, and though the Republic had abolished God, it had not quite succeeded in killing the fear of the supernatural in the hearts of the people.’’ When Sergeant Bibot realizes that the disguised Englishman has slipped past him, ‘‘a superstitious shudder ran down his spine’’—and the Scarlet Pimpernel’s identity as an archetypal larger-than-life superhero is firmly established.
In accord with the focus on Marguerite’s emotions and her climactic reunion with her husband, Orczy herself (as noted by Sasson) referred to The Scarlet Pimpernel as a ‘‘historical romance.’’ In keeping with a narrative based on intrigue and action, the work is also often classified as an adventure novel. Sasson thoroughly explores the ways in which the novel exhibits the features of these genres, accounting for both limitations and strengths. With regard to the historical aspects, the setting of the French Revolution provides appropriate circumstances for endangered lives and acts of heroism, but it is not treated as cause for extensive philosophical inquiry. Orczy certainly demonstrates a philosophical perspective, but it is an unquestioning one: whatever the initial aims or virtues of the revolution, the slaughtering of the aristocracy and the people responsible for that slaughter can only be deemed evil. Sasson considers this one-sided view to be appropriate for Orczy’s purposes: ‘‘Adventure novels require dramatic simplicities, not historical subtleties; historical truth is always secondary to fictional invention.’’ She adds, ‘‘The efficacy of this type of text relies on an obvious conflict and a chivalric, courageous, and clear-headed hero.’’ Indeed, as befits this romantic work, the Scarlet Pimpernel is portrayed in only the most admiring light. Tension is derived instead from the questions of the hero’s identity, of the course of action Marguerite should take, and of whether Percy will be caught.
Orczy was a devoted theatergoer, and she developed The Scarlet Pimpernel both as a novel and as a play. Unsurprisingly, then, the novel bears many hallmarks of theatricality. On the level of the structure of the tale, the typical chapter is set as a self-contained scene, taking place in a single (stageable) locale—such as the Fisherman’s Rest, the opera box, the yard at Richmond, the Pere Blanchard’s hut—and its immediate (off- ` stage) surroundings. The plot, in turn, revolves more around the interactions of the characters than around actual action; aside from the opening chapter, when the Scarlet Pimpernel slips out of Paris disguised as the old hag, the reader is not treated to the adrenaline rush of his daring escapes—which would have certainly been complicated to stage. The final escape hinges not on Percy’s prowess or strength at all but on his ability to act the part of the obsequious Jew. Indeed, the roles of Marguerite and Percy are both characterized by their acting abilities. Marguerite is an actress by profession, and she spends the first half of the novel playing different parts, depending upon the company she finds herself in: parrying with the comtesse, receiving admirers’ attention at the opera, trying to ward off Chauvelin, feigning illness with Sir Andrew, or revealing her passion for her husband. Percy, in turn, is shown at first to be a sort of buffoon but is later revealed to be only acting that part, while his heroics as the Scarlet Pimpernel are dependent on his knack for fooling even those with whom he is well acquainted into thinking he is someone else entirely.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Novels for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 31, Baroness Emmuska Orczy, Published by Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.