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Three Classroom Activities with "The Scarlet Pimpernel"

By Peter Boysen

These three activities will help your High School students enjoy and understand Baroness Orczy's breathtaking novel set during the worst of the French Revolution.

Monitoring Stereotypes

As you are teaching The Scarlet Pimpernel, your students may well notice that the French and English characters have a lot of differences in terms of ethics and personality. Also, even French and English buildings have significant differences -- compare the Chat Gris with Jellyband's Inn.

Have your students make two columns on a piece of paper. Title one column "French people" and the other "English people." Then, as you read through the novel with your students, have them record characteristics of the two groups in their columns. Have them record descriptions as well. Each characteristic should have a quotation and a page number.

Once you are about halfway through the novel, ask your students to come up with generalizations about the French and English in the novel, based on their observations so far. If your students have been paying attention, they should notice a hard passion at work in the French, who act before thinking, while the English are the other way around, putting hours of thought into every action.

If you want to extend this into writing, have your students do a comparison/contrast essay about the two groups based on their findings at the end of the novel.

The Elements of Disguise

The hero in The Scarlet Pimpernel uses a disguise to elude the French, and one question you may want to explore while teaching The Scarlet Pimpernel is the purpose of that concealment. On the one hand, the purpose is obvious -- to stay out of the hands of Chauvelin's henchmen. On the other hand, it takes a special motivation to fight in a mask.

Have your students choose one of the following heroes/villains: Wonder Woman, Batman, Zorro, the Riddler, or the Phantom of the Opera (please feel free to add more to this list if you have some others in mind). Why does that particular hero or villain wear a mask? What is the function of the mask? What elements in that hero/villain's backstory makes a mask necessary?

Now, consider the hero/villain and the Scarlet Pimpernel. Why does the Pimpernel wear a mask? What is he hiding, and why is he hiding it? Note that he even hides his true self from his wife, which is unlike most modern comic book heroes. Why does he do that?

Give each of your students a piece of butcher paper, and provide access to markers and crayons. Have each of them come up with a superhero or villain of their own. They must draw their hero or villain on the butcher paper, and write a two-page backstory explaining where the hero or villain came from.

Political Pioneers

One theme that you can't afford to overlook when teaching The Scarlet Pimpernel has to do with the political situation in France. While the excesses that the peasants and their leaders took in overthrowing the aristocracy are legendary -- and well catalogued, not only in The Scarlet Pimpernel but also in books like Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities -- the nobility contributed greatly to their own demise by refusing to permit any reforms.

After the Bourbon monarchy fell, the French National Assembly passed the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. This document appeared in 1789, thirteen years after the American Declaration of Independence from England.

Take some time to review both of these historical documents. In what ways are they similar, and in what ways do they differ? You can have students present their findings in a number of ways: essay, multimedia presentation, speeches, or even pamphlets along the lines of those that Thomas Paine and others published in those days.