A surging, seething, murmuring crowd of beings that are human only in name,
for to the eye and ear they seem naught but savage creatures, animated by vile
passions and by the lust of vengeance and hate...During the greater part of the day,
the guillotine had been kept busy at its ghastly work: all that France had boasted
of in the past centuries, of ancient names, and blue blood, had paid toll to her
desire for liberty and for fraternity...
- the motto of the French Revolution
The Scarlet Pimpernel is really set during the final stage of the French Revolution - a series of tumultuous events sparked, at least in the beginning, by passionate ideals that eventually changed the face of Europe and the world. The Scarlet Pimpernel brings the urgency and danger of that time to life.
To understand the seeds of the French Revolution, you have to understand the American Revolution. Between 1774 and 1783, the thirteen American colonies had overthrown the British Empire and had become their own country, with a constitution that declared the equality of every man.
In France, no one was equal. The country was made up of three classes, or "estates." The First Estate was the members of the Church, the Second Estate was the nobility and the Third Estate was everyone else: the poor and middle class.
Although it was the majority of France's population, the Third Estate had no vote, no say in the government, and carried the highest taxes. From birth to death, the poor were burdened with taxes on every aspect of their lives. France was still a medieval state - peasants had to pay taxes to a feudal landlord as well as King Louis XVI. In good times, it could be tolerable. In bad times, like the bad winter of 1789, tensions ran high. France was heading for bankruptcy, and the Third Estate was expected to shoulder the load.
By studying the step-by-step process of the Revolution, you can get a deeper understanding of the events and ideas expressed in The Scarlet Pimpernel. By understanding the ideals that went terribly wrong in the French Revolution, you can recognize similar events in your world today. History isn't a set of dates on a blackboard - it's a series of exhilarating, passionate, sometimes terrible moments in time. And you are part of it.
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