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 genuinely tempted by the throne and by Flavia’s attendant charms. Too often he ignores the questionable morality of his actions: once when he stabs a guard in the back and again when, madly vengeful, he destroys two of Black Michael’s hirelings. With bold strokes, Hope defines Rassendyll’s identity through two character foils—the dissipated real king (significantly, a namesake and distant relative) and the brash knave, Black Michael’s henchman Rupert Hentzau. The former reinforces Rassendyll’s worst qualities even as he illustrates, by contrast, the best. On the other hand, Hentzau appears at a glance to be thoroughly different from Rassendyll, yet Rassendyll’s fascination with Hentzau’s attractive evil clearly suggests an affinity between them. When Rassendyll spares his enemy and then later tries desperately to slay him, the psychological overtones are plain: Regretfully, he has let the evil in himself escape.
The themes of moral ambiguity (“If it were a sin may it be forgiven me,” says Rudolf at one point) and political chicanery in the novel fit well with the idea of individual honor. What is one to gain by acting honorably in a world without principle? This is a penetrating question, especially toward the end of the adventure, when Rassendyll and Flavia must elect honorable self-sacrifice or selfish love. Their choice of the former, it seems, points out the novel’s answer. The world becomes a measure better, and an individual a measure greater, only as there are those ready to prefer honor over happiness.