Baroness Orczy is generally credited with creating the literary figure of the disguised superhero in 1905 with The Scarlet Pimpernel. The character of Zorro was created some fourteen years later, Superman was introduced in 1938, and before long an entire genre was flourishing. The comic book proved the favored medium for superhero stories, which mostly featured impressively masculine figures and so were naturally enjoyed in particular by boys, who would be drawn to the fantastic action and, perhaps less consciously, the dramatic depictions of how to be a man. In his introduction to Orczy’s novel, Gary Hoppenstand notes that the heroic qualities of the Scarlet Pimpernel can be traced to a variety of later fictional figures. For example, the ‘‘hedonistic protagonist who knows his wine and clothes’’ can be found reincarnated in Ian Fleming’s James Bond, who debuted in the novel Casino Royale in 1953. The ‘‘trickster hero who is able to readily escape any life-and-death . . . Read More
The French Revolution
Within the greater setting of the French Revolution, which began in 1789, The Scarlet Pimpernel takes place beginning in September 1792, a month marked by what became known as the September Massacres, in which raging mobs murdered more than a thousand suspected criminals—many of whom were innocent—held at five different prisons. Orczy establishes the horrors of this period of time in the opening chapter, the only one that takes place in Paris, the heart of the nation’s violence. Every day, condemned aristocrats—men, women, and children alike— would be wheeled to the guillotine and executed, before enthusiastic audiences of commoners. Renowned were the tricoteuses, old ladies who passed the time knitting just beneath the platform where victims were beheaded; the Scarlet Pimpernel successfully poses as one of these chilling women.
Thus, Orczy plunges the reader into the most sickening violence of the . . . Read More
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 . . . Read More
Conflicting Loyalties and Moralities
The most prominent theme in The Scarlet Pimpernel is that of conflicting loyalties and moralities, a theme that is explored through both individual relationships and interpretation of the broader events of the French Revolution. Those broader events, though historically significant, are given far less consideration than are Marguerite’s particular dilemmas. This is partly because Orczy was clearly condemning the horrific actions of the French proletariat; she did not mean to present a balanced perspective.
The context of the revolution, nonetheless, is what gives rise to the several dilemmas faced by Marguerite in the course of her life, each of which forces her to choose between loyalties or moralities. Her central dilemma is whether to refuse to help Chauvelin and thus allow her brother’s execution or to help reveal the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel. An unbiased philosophy would suggest . . . Read More
Brash and overconfident, Bibot lets a filthy hag drive her cart unchecked through the Paris gates—but the woman is the Scarlet Pimpernel, and Bibot will surely be executed for his folly.
The plot revolves around the actions of Marguerite, the central protagonist. A clever French actress with Bohemian leanings, Marguerite St. Just became Lady Blakeney in marrying Sir Percy. The two grew quickly estranged, however, when Percy learned from others of her denouncement of the executed marquis de St. Cyr; she chose to test Percy’s love rather than explain the circumstances and her lack of ill intent, but he felt his aristocratic British honor to be compromised. Thenceforth, he could only tepidly serve her, leaving her resentful and inclined to exploit his eccentricities to sharpen her wits. She laments her increasingly lonely marriage before Armand when he leaves for France after . . . Read More
Paris: September, 1792 As The Scarlet Pimpernel opens, the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror is imminent, with dozens of aristocrats being guillotined daily. Sergeant Bibot ridicules the executed Grospierre, who allowed the daring, disguised Scarlet Pimpernel to slip an aristocrat family past his watch, but then Bibot lets a frightful hag drive a covered cart through his gate—and it is the rescuer himself.
Dover: ‘‘The Fisherman’s Rest’’ In his hostel on the southeast coast of England, Jellyband discusses the turmoil in France and the effects on Britain with his patrons, including two strangers in the corner, while preparing for the arrival of nobility from across the English Channel.
The Refugees After Lord Antony arrives by horse, Sir Andrew Ffoulkes escorts the comtesse de Tournay and her son and daughter into the . . . Read More
In Reservation Blues, Alexie has scattered magical occurrences throughout his otherwise perfectly realistic fictional world, an approach critics refer to as magic realism. In her essay ‘‘Conjuring the Colonizer: Alternative Readings of Magic Realism in Sherman Alexie’s Reservation Blues,’’ Wendy Belcher discusses how the association of magic with the guitar, a secular Western object, inverts the critically recognized paradigm whereby indigenous or mythical objects are usually sources of magic. While she astutely concludes that in this novel, ‘‘Indian culture and people frequently embody rationality while the West spews easy, dangerous magic,’’ she concedes that Alexie may not have intended to address this critical paradigm at all. As Belcher notes, ‘‘In interviews, Alexie rarely talks about magic realism but emphasizes his own interest in the real, the everyday, and the human.’’ This almost seems contradictory, as the author’s inclusion of magical . . . Read More
Robert Johnson and the Blues
Although during his short lifetime his reputation reached not far beyond the bars and roadhouses of the Deep South where his music evolved, Robert Johnson, after his death, as noted by Barry Lee Pearson and Bill McCulloch in their biography, ‘‘rose from obscurity to become an all-American musical icon, the best-known although least understood exemplar of the Mississippi Delta blues tradition.’’ The blues developed early in the twentieth century from African American musical traditions such as spirituals and work songs, incorporating particular guitar chord progressions, call-and-response patterns, and lyrical lamentations, with the resulting music serving to both express and purge worldly sorrows. Born in 1911, Johnson flourished in the 1930s, when he traveled and played constantly and recorded a couple of records that sold modestly. He died a mysterious death, presumably poisoned, in 1938. As noted by . . . Read More
American Indian Literature
Works that would be classified as Native American fiction, as put forth by Daniel Grassian in Understanding Sherman Alexie, are often marked by a return journey of sorts, where an Indian protagonist ventures out into the world fashioned by whites and, eventually disillusioned or disheartened, returns to reconnect with his tribe. Such a work cannot be properly examined through the lens of white individualism—a motivating factor in many Western works—as the concept of belonging to a tribe cannot apply to members of modern white society in the same way. Necessarily, then, American Indian writers must be conscious of two or even three audiences who will perceive their work differently: their own tribe, other tribes, and the remainder of contemporary society, which happens to be the portion whose appreciation for a novel will largely determine its degree of success. Yet if an Indian writer believes in and is motivated . . . Read More
The Power of Music
Alexie has much to say in Reservation Blues about the power of music to inspire, heal, and unite listeners. Thomas professes to have been inspired by music from an early age, as his mother sang not only traditional Spokane songs but also Broadway numbers and Catholic hymns.When the enchanted guitar suggests, ‘‘Y’all need to play songs for your people,’’ Thomas, a storyteller, is immediately open to the idea. The music that the guitar plays of its own accord, as heard by Victor and Junior, is said to have ‘‘worked its way into their skins,’’ and when it rises to the clouds and rains down, the reservation ‘‘arched its back, opened its mouth, and drank deeply.’’ In a magic realist style, the music is made palpable, given a physical presence that affects people and even the land in an insistent way, whether they wish it to or not.
The spiritual nature of music is emphasized particularly . . . Read More