The guillotine, a device consisting of a wooden frame and weighted blade used for decapitation, is the preferred form of execution in Orczy’s novel and is symbolic of the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror in The Scarlet Pimpernel. Historically speaking, the guillotine replaced the breaking wheel—a particularly gruesome form of execution—after the aristocracy was overthrown in France. The French Republic thought the guillotine a more humane, and therefore more just, form of punishment, and they summarily sentenced all French royals, and their royal supporters, to death. The guillotine is swift and exacting, and constantly busy at its “ghastly work.” Thousands of French aristocrats—including women, children, and the elderly—are killed at the guillotine, known popularly as “Madame la Guillotine,” during the Reign of Terror.
More specifically, the guillotine represents the violence of the French Republic and their complete discrimination against those of noble birth in The Scarlet Pimpernel. The guillotine is a constant threat to the aristocracy, to the Scarlet Pimpernel, their heroic savior, and to anyone who supports him in his attack against the Republic. The relentless killing machine is the symbol of the French Republic’s vengeance, and their blind hate for those privileged few who once claimed social superiority over them. Orczy portrays the citizens of the French Republic as “bloodthirsty” and completely unjustified in their efforts to gain liberty and power, and the guillotine is the tool through which they realize their vicious plan.
The Guillotine Quotes in The Scarlet Pimpernel
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 of hate. The hour, some little time before sunset, and the place, the West Barricade, at the very spot where, a decade later, a proud tyrant raised an undying monument to the nation’s glory and his own vanity.
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 carnage had only ceased at this late hour of the day because there were other more interesting sights for the people to witness, a little while before the final closing of the barricades for the night.
She hated the Marquis. Years ago, Armand, her dear brother, had loved Angele de St. Cyr, but St. Just was a plebeian, and the Marquis full of the pride and arrogant prejudices of his caste. One day Armand, the respectful, timid lover, ventured on sending a small poem—enthusiastic, ardent, passionate —to the idol of his dreams. The next night he was waylaid just outside Paris by the valets of the Marquis de St. Cyr, and ignominiously thrashed—thrashed like a dog within an inch of his life—because he had dared to raise his eyes to the daughter of the aristocrat. The incident was one which, in those days, some two years before the great Revolution, was of almost daily occurrence in France; incidents of that type, in fact, led to the bloody reprisals, which a few years later sent most of those haughty heads to the guillotine.
She had but little real sympathy with those haughty French aristocrats, insolent in their pride of caste, of whom the Comtesse de Tournay de Basserive was so typical an example; but, republican and liberal-minded though she was from principle, she hated and loathed the methods which the young Republic had chosen for establishing itself. She had not been in Paris for some months; the horrors and bloodshed of the Reign of Terror, culminating in the September massacres, had only come across the Channel to her as a faint echo. Robespierre, Danton, Marat, she had not known in their new guise of bloody justiciaries, merciless wielders of the guillotine. Her very soul recoiled in horror from these excesses, to which she feared her brother Armand—moderate republican as he was—might become one day the holocaust.