Despite its severe brevity and occasional plot weaknesses, The Prisoner of Zenda is among the most enduring of adventures. In part, the reasons for this are predictable. Mystery, intrigue, suspense, and love are integrated neatly in the tale. There is plenty of adventure, much of it framed as a conflict between evident good and evil, and there is a strong central character—Rudolf Rassendyll—to hold the book together. It is, therefore, a highly formulaic and popular story. It is also much more than that, however; in its touches of ethical ambiguity and its clever use of disguise (both thematic and dramatic), The Prisoner of Zenda takes up the complex matter of defining, then judging, humanity’s moral nature.
Early branded a wastrel by his sister-in-law, Rassendyll in time proves his sincerity and honor. What he learns, simply, is value—a theme that Anthony Hope explores not only in his major character but also socially in his excoriations of kings and gentry. What the reader learns, as the sister-in-law does not, is the difference between real and apparent nobility. Readers come to judge Rassendyll not by his complexion or his attitude of indifference but by his courageous, constant actions. In the same way, his “kingliness” is evidenced not in borrowed robes and crowns but in a quality of spirit that cannot be counterfeited.
Nevertheless, Rassendyll’s character is also qualified throughout the novel. He is...
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