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 that the most ethical action would be to allow her brother’s death so as to prevent the deaths not only of the English rescuer but of the many aristocrats he might still save. But Marguerite is swayed by her love for her brother, imagining him saying, ‘‘You might have saved me, Margot!’’ when she seeks to read Sir Andrew’s note. She later feels that ‘‘she had not been strong enough to do right for right’s sake, and to sacrifice her brother to the dictates of her conscience.’’ When she learns that the Scarlet Pimpernel is her husband, she notes that had she known, her love for her husband would have outweighed her love for her brother, who in signing his name to a treasonous letter did compromise himself. Thenceforth, Marguerite’s determination to right her wrong by pursuing Sir Percy to the end is what drives the novel’s action—and allows the reader to witness the Scarlet Pimpernel’s final ingenious escape.
Two other choices made by Marguerite in the past shape the course of events throughout the novel. In the distant past, she chose to speak of the marquis de St. Cyr’s treasonous correspondence with the Austrian emperor in front of friends who then reported the information. The text says that Marguerite was ‘‘impulsive, thoughtless, not calculating the purport of her words’’—which might be understood to mean that she in fact believed that the marquis would deserve whatever fate he had earned with his treason. In other words, she perhaps spoke freely of the marquis’ plotting because as a plebeian (that is, not an aristocrat), and because her brother had been ordered beaten by the marquis, her loyalty at that time was to the common people and to Republican France. Although this might be called a subconscious choice, she professes to have made the conscious choice not to explain to her husband the exact circumstances surrounding her denouncement of the marquis. Early on she recalls having ‘‘made full confession’’ of the incident, but when she and Percy meet on their lawn, he remarks, ‘‘I fancy that you refused me all explanation then, and demanded of my love a humiliating allegiance it was not prepared to give.’’ She responds, ‘‘I wished to test your love for me, and it did not bear the test.’’ Thus, in these circumstances, Marguerite prioritizes the dictates of romantic love—unquestioning devotion—over the perhaps more modern notion of complete truthfulness between two people who are romantically involved. Percy, in turn, chose to defer to his injured pride—and to the loyalties of the British aristocracy, which lay with their embattled peers across the channel—and position himself at an emotional distance from Marguerite. As such, together their choices led to their estrangement.
Tides of Emotion
An aspect of The Scarlet Pimpernel that relates to its classification as a sort of romance is the manner in which the narrative follows the tides of Marguerite’s emotions. She is the one character who is given a narrative voice; when she finds herself alone, such as on the Dover cliffs after Armand has departed and in her room in Richmond after Lord Grenville’s ball, the narration follows the train of her sentiments. As such, the reader is immersed in Marguerite’s mindset, perceiving what she perceives and considering what she considers. In this regard, analyst Gary Hoppenstand goes as far as to declare that the novel is ‘‘obviously misnamed,’’ in that the true hero of the book is ‘‘the heroine, Lady Blakeney.’’ He notes that readers ‘‘feel her anguish when she is blackmailed,’’ ‘‘celebrate with her triumph’’ in discovering Percy’s secret, and ‘‘experience the catharsis of her passion’’ when she and her husband unite in the end. Some critics have this emotional trajectory in mind when dismissively classifying the popular novel in the genres of adventure or romance. However, in linking Marguerite’s emotional states not just to the plot turns but also to her moral choices, Orczy demonstrates that a novel that focuses on sentiment can be just as enlightening with regard to human nature as any more dispassionate literary work.
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.