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Literature / The Scarlet Sails

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The Scarlet Sails (Russian: Алые паруса) is a 1923 novella by Alexander Grin, set in his Grinlandia universe in the vaguely European seaside village of Kaperna.

Longren, a sailor, finds out his wife has died while he was at sea: she has given birth to a baby daughter and was struggling to support her, the local innkeeper Menners refused to lend her money, so she went to a pawnbroker in the town during a storm and expired from pneumonia. Longren quits his job to raise Assol and becomes a toymaker. A while later, he sees Menners being carried off to a stormy sea in a boat and calmly stands on the shore; Menners is rescued but lives just long enough to tell the villagers Longren killed him, after which Longren and his daughter become social outcasts.

One day Assol meets a traveling storyteller who tells her that one day, a prince will come to her in a ship with scarlet sails. The dream takes root in Assol's heart, and she believes it firmly afterwards, leading to even more of the villagers' taunts and disdain.

Meanwhile, a rebellious aristocrat Arthur Grey runs off to sea from his oppressive family, and gradually rises from cabin boy to captain. His voyages bring him to Kaperna, where he falls in love with Assol from afar and resolves to make her dream come true.

The Scarlet Sails is a classic in the Eastern Bloc and especially Russia as a symbol of everlasting hope, dream, and love, with two films in 1961 and 1982 and a highly popular musical, not counting the endless other stage adaptations based on it, as well as a famous St.-Petersburg summer festival inspired by the book.

The Scarlet Sails provides examples of:

  • All of the Other Reindeer: Nobody in Kaperna wants to deal with Longren or Assol. Later a single exception is revealed – a drunken charcoal burner, an outcast himself, who often gives Assol a lift.
  • Aerith and Bob: Mary, Lionel Grey, Arthur Grey on one hand, and Assol, Longren, Letika, Egl, Hin on the other.
  • Barefoot Loon: Assol is a dreamy girl with a penchant for going barefoot.
  • Beautiful Dreamer: Grey first sees Assol and is struck by her beauty when she is asleep.
  • Birds of a Feather: Grey and Assol; both have had a big dream since childhood, are believed crazy or at least weird by those around them, both are kind-hearted, with a love for fairytales and a sense of humor. No wonder Grey falls for Assol when he learns her story.
  • Cloud Cuckoolander: Assol, who believes in fairy tales and a prince who will come for her on a ship with scarlet sails.
  • The Cuckoolander Was Right: Arthur Grey does become a successful and respected captain, and Assol does get her Happily Ever After with scarlet sails.
  • Daddy's Girl: Longren and Assol are each other's only family and confidants.
  • Discretion Shot: Grey and Assol go to his cabin, and a couple of paragraphs later – "now we will leave them, knowing that they need to be alone". Cut to the next scene.
  • Former Teen Rebel: Lionel Grey, the prim aristocrat, used to be quite mischievous when he was a boy. He recognizes the traits of his young self in his son – only Arthur remains rebellious after growing up as well.
  • Hate Sink: Menners Sr., being a greedy, ruthless lecher and Consummate Liar, is an absolutely despicable human being in every version. Unlike his son, who has at least a justification for hating Longren even in the book and the 1961 film and is made even more sympathetic in other adaptations, Menners Sr. is just plain horrible with no excuses for his behavior.
  • In the Blood: According to the charcoal burner, the whole Menners family consists of Consummate Liar bullies. From what we can see of them, it looks like he's right.
  • Malicious Misnaming: The villagers, when teasing Assol, always say "red sails" instead of "scarlet sails".
  • Meaningful Name: Grey's ship is called The Secret.
  • Murder by Inaction:
    • When Menners Sr. refuses to help Mary (for free), she is forced to go the town in the middle of the thunderstorm, gets pneumonia and dies.
    • Afterwards, Menners gets his Laser-Guided Karma when he freezes to death at sea and Longren does nothing to rescue him.
  • Punctuated! For! Emphasis!: The shopkeeper in Liss who sells the scarlet silk to Grey, when he learns how much Grey wants to buy.
    Shopkeeper: Two? Thousand? Meters?
  • Purple Prose: Letika enjoys speaking like this. For example, when he praises Assol's beauty, he calls her "a wondrous painting".
  • Rebel Prince: Grey is a noble but not a prince, but otherwise he qualifies. He is considered strange ever since childhood, and he runs off to sea rather than lead an aristocratic life.
  • Rhymes on a Dime: Letika often speaks in rhymes, to the delight of the rest of the crew.
    Letika (in the 1961 film's English subtitles): With a string and a pole of wood I have made myself a whip / And now I tie a hook on it and, whistling, make it flip.
  • Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: Grey learns from the locals that Assol is waiting for her prince on a ship with scarlet sails, buys some scarlet cloth for his sails, and becomes that prince.
  • Silly Rabbit, Cynicism Is for Losers!: The people of Kaperna realizes how they have been mistaken when a ship with scarlet sails does appear.
  • Silly Rabbit, Idealism Is for Kids!: The philosophy of Kaperna. It backfires terribly once they see that the supposedly crazy Assol has been telling the truth.
  • Small Role, Big Impact: Egl, the storyteller and gatherer of folk tales, appears only once and briefly, but his scarlet sails prophecy leads to huge consequences.
  • Sugar-and-Ice Personality: Grey's mother is a haughty Proper Lady, except towards her son.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: The kindly neighbor who nursed Assol from Mary's death till Longren's return isn't mentioned after the first chapter. It's up for interpretation whether she has died at some point or joined the rest of Kaperna in boycotting Longren.
  • With This Ring: Grey puts his ring on Assol's finger while she's asleep, and she feels that her dream is going to come true very soon.

Alternative Title(s): Scarlet Sails