Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3244
Alexandre Dumas, père, arrived at the novel indirectly, through the theater and an apprenticeship with history and chronicles. By the time he turned to the novel in the style of Sir Walter Scott, then intensely popular in France, he had already dealt with historical subjects in his plays and had explored the Hundred Years’ War, the French Revolution, and the Napoleonic era in his chronicles. Indeed, one can follow French history from the Middle Ages, though rather incompletely, up to the nineteenth century through Dumas’s novels. His most successful cycles are set in the sixteenth century (especially the reign of the Valois), the seventeenth (especially the periods of Richelieu and Cardinal Mazarin), and the French Revolution, and the novels set in these periods are his best-known works—with the exception of The Count of Monte-Cristo, which is not really a historical novel but is rather a social novel or a roman de moeurs. His best historical fiction was written in the years from 1843 to 1855. Dumas’s novels after 1855 are chiefly concerned with the French Revolution, the Directory, and the nineteenth century, and are less well known than his earlier works.
Among Dumas’s medieval novels are Otho the Archer, which evokes a German medieval legend; Lyderic, Count of Flanders, set in seventh century Flanders; and The Bastard of Mauléon, which covers the period from 1358 to 1369, the earlier part of the Hundred Years’ War. Dumas treats the period from 1500 to 1570 in greater detail, in scattered novels from 1843 to 1858. The Brigand treats the period from 1497 to 1519 and focuses on the youth of Charles V. The Two Dianas and Ascanio, written with the collaboration of Meurice, treat the reign of François I and the presence of sculptor Benvenuto Cellini at the French court. The two Dianas are Diane de Castro and Diane de Poitiers. The Page of the Duke of Savoy, set in the years 1555 to 1559, with an epilogue that takes place in 1580, is a companion to The Two Dianas. The final novel of the series, The Horoscope, treats the beginning of the reign of François II.
The Valois cycle, which covers the period from August, 1572, to June, 1586, comprises three of the most successful and popular of Dumas’s historical romances. Marguerite de Navarre treats the period from 1572 to 1575, beginning with the wedding of Marguerite de Valois and Henri de Navarre and focusing on their various romantic intrigues; the novel concludes with the famous Saint Bartholemew’s Day Massacre. The second book in the cycle, Chicot the Jester, is the most popular and introduces one of Dumas’s finest creations: Chicot, a rival of d’Artagnan and similar to him in many ways. The novel covers the period from 1578 to 1579 under Henri III and focuses on the death of Bussy d’Amboise. The last book in the cycle, The Forty-five Guardsmen, covers the years from 1582 to 1584; it tells of the Ligue, the duc de Guise, and the vengeance of the duc d’Anjou for Bussy’s murder.
Unquestionably Dumas’s best-written and most popular cycle, however, is that of d’Artagnan, which covers the period from 1625 to 1673. It includes The Three Musketeers, the immortal story of Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, who, together with d’Artagnan, interact in the stories of Richelieu, Louis XIII, Anne of Austria, and the Duke of Buckingham from 1625 to 1628. Twenty Years After, as the title indicates, takes place in 1648 and finds the same characters involved with Anne of Austria and Mazarin, the Fronde, and the Civil War in England. The Vicomte de Bragelonne, a lengthy account largely set in the period from 1660 to 1673, focuses less on the musketeers than on Louis XIV, Fouquet, and the Man in the Iron Mask. The intervening years (1628 to 1648) are covered in three less important novels, the best being The War of Women, which deals with the new Fronde of 1648 to 1650.
The century from 1670 to 1770 is the subject of four novels, of which the best known are the companion works The Chevalier d’Harmental and The Regent’s Daughter, both of which deal with the Cellamare conspiracy of 1718. The Marie Antoinette cycle, often referred to collectively by the title of the first volume, Memoirs of a Physician, takes place between 1770 and 1791 and is also a very popular series. The first book in the cycle, written in collaboration with Maquet, covers the period between 1770 and 1774, including the death of Louis XV and the marriage of Marie Antoinette to Louis XVI. The Queen’s Necklace focuses on the scandal of the Queen’s diamond necklace and her love affair with Charny from 1784 to 1786. Taking the Bastille covers only four months in 1789, the period of the taking of the Bastille. Finally, The Countess de Charny begins in 1789, covers the King’s flight to Varennes in 1791 and the destinies of Andrée and Charny, and concludes with the King’s execution in 1793. Although the series lacks a strong central character, with the possible exception of Joseph Balsamo, it is important for its emphasis on women.
Five other novels cover the intervening period until 1800, of which The Whites and the Blues, showing the influence of the novelist Charles Nodier, is the best known. Six novels treat the Napoleonic period, the Restoration, and the reign of Louis-Philippe. Of these, The Mohicans of Paris, dealing with the revolution under the Restoration in the 1820’s, and Salvator, its companion, together form Dumas’s longest novel; although not his most popular, it is a highly representative work.
In Dumas’s many social novels, there are frequent historical excursions; among his finest and most popular works in this genre is The Count of Monte-Cristo, which begins with Napoleon’s exile at Elba, the Hundred Days, and the second Restoration. In the manner of Balzac, this great novel depicts the greed and selfishness of the Parisian aristocracy and the consuming passion of ambition. Dumas treated racial prejudice in George, set in Mauritius, and depicted his own native town in three novels known as the Villers-Cotterêts cycle: Conscience, Catherine Blum, and The Wolf Leader.
In virtually all of his novels, Dumas excels in plot and dialogue. His most successful works blend history or social observation with fantasy, and his plots nearly always involve mystery and intrigue. Usually they concern romantic involvements, yet there are relatively few scenes of romance.
Although Dumas’s novels are rich with memorable characters, he does not focus on psychological development. A given character remains essentially the same from the beginning to the end of a work. Despite the disguises and the mysteries that often surround a character’s name—even the three musketeers have strange aliases—there is never an aspect of personality that remains to be discovered. Dumas’s characters are not inspired by moral idealism; they are usually motivated by ambition, revenge, or simply a love for adventure. Dumas does not instruct, but he also does not distort the great movements of history or of social interaction. He aims principally to entertain, to help his readers forget the world in which they live and to move with his characters into a fantastic world that is sometimes truer to life than reality.
The famous d’Artagnan trilogy, which is made up of The Three Musketeers, Twenty Years After, and The Vicomte de Bragelonne, has three differing basic texts: the first, the original published in Le Siècle; the second in pirated Belgian texts; the third published by Baudry; many other versions exist as well. The series covers the period from 1625 to 1673, focusing on the events during the period of Richelieu, Mazarin, and Louis XIV. The main characters, and even some secondary ones, have their sources in history, although their interaction with the major historical figures is often imaginary. Dumas’s primary source is the Mémoires de M. d’Artagnan (1700), a fabricated account of d’Artagnan’s life by Gatien de Courtilz de Sandras. The trilogy provides an excellent introduction to Dumas’s use of historical sources, his storytelling technique, his dramatic power, and his creation of character.
The Three Musketeers
The Three Musketeers begins in April, 1625, at Meung-sur-Loire, where the Quixote-like d’Artagnan, a young Gascon of eighteen years, is making his way to Paris with a letter of introduction to Monsieur de Tréville, the captain of the King’s musketeers. It is here that he meets the Count of Rochefort, Richelieu’s right-hand man, and “Milady,” a beautiful and mysterious woman whose path will cross his throughout the novel and whose shadow will haunt him for the next twenty years. In Paris, d’Artagnan becomes fast friends with Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, the three musketeers who share his adventures throughout the novel. D’Artagnan falls in love with Constance Bonacieux, his landlord’s wife, also a lady-in-waiting to the Queen, Anne of Austria. He thus becomes involved in recovering the Queen’s diamond studs, a present from the King that she has unwisely given to her lover, the handsome Duke of Buckingham, Richelieu’s rival in both political and amorous intrigue. D’Artagnan falls in love with the bewitching Milady and discovers her criminal past, for which knowledge she begins an inexorable pursuit of him.
Meanwhile, the siege of La Rochelle permits the four friends to display their bravery and to develop a plot against Milady, who in a very complex intrigue becomes an agent in Buckingham’s assassination. Milady’s revenge leads her to poison Constance, and for this final crime she is tried and condemned by the four musketeers and her brother-in-law, Lord de Winter. Since the siege of La Rochelle ends to Richelieu’s advantage through the invaluable assistance of the musketeers, d’Artagnan becomes a friend of Richelieu and a lieutenant of the musketeers. Porthos marries his mistress, the widowed Madame Coquenard; Aramis becomes a priest; and Athos, or the Comte de la Fère, after a few more years of military service, retires to his estate in Roussillon.
Twenty Years After
Twenty Years After, as the title indicates, begins in 1648, twenty years after the conclusion of The Three Musketeers; Mazarin is at the helm of the government, and Paris is on the verge of the Fronde, a rebellion of the nobles against the regent. The lives of the four musketeers have been singularly without adventure during the preceding twenty years; d’Artagnan, still a lieutenant in the musketeers, lives with “the fair Madeleine” in Paris; Athos, Comte de la Fère, spends his time bringing up his son, Raoul de Bragelonne; Porthos, now Comte du Vallon and master of three estates, is dissatisfied with his lot and aspires to become a baron; Aramis, formerly a musketeer who aspired to be an abbé, is now the Abbé d’Herblay and longs to be a musketeer again.
The four men, now a bit distrustful of one another, are unable to join forces since Athos and Aramis are frondeurs and d’Artagnan and Porthos are cardinalists. They meet on opposite sides in their first encounter with the Duke of Beaufort, who escapes from d’Artagnan. Subsequently in England, during Cromwell’s overthrow of Charles I, they find themselves opponents but join in an unsuccessful attempt to save the King. Their efforts in this and other intrigues are thwarted by Mordaunt, Milady’s son, who seeks to avenge his mother and finally meets with a violent death at sea. Their united support of Charles I wins the four imprisonment from Mazarin, whom they in turn abduct and coerce into signing certain concessions to the frondeurs. At the end, d’Artagnan becomes captain of the musketeers and Porthos, a baron.
The Vicomte de Bragelonne
The third novel in the series, The Vicomte de Bragelonne, which is twice as long as the two previous novels together, covers the period from 1660 to 1673, from Louis XIV’s visit to Blois in 1659 and his marriage to Marie-Thérèse of Spain to the death of d’Artagnan. It has four centers of interest: the Restoration of Charles II of England; the love affair of Louis XIV and Louise de la Vallière; the trial of Fouquet; and the famous tale of the Man in the Iron Mask. The musketeers are no longer in the foreground; in fact, they do not even appear in several episodes, and the novel as a whole is more disconnected than its predecessors in the trilogy. The main character, Raoul de Bragelonne (Athos’s son), is unconvincing, though Louis XIV in particular emerges as a well-developed figure. Indeed, the historical characters dominate the novel, giving it the quality of a “sweeping pageant,” as Richard Stowe describes it.
The d’Artagnan novels, especially The Three Musketeers, are Dumas at his best. They include his most successful character portrayals, both the primary historical figures—Richelieu, Mazarin, Anne of Austria, and Louis XIV—and the musketeers, who also have a basis in history. D’Artagnan especially is an immortal creation, partaking at once of Don Quixote, the clown, and Ariel; he is a creature of the air and the night whose age hardly seems to matter and whose sprightly, carefree manner is balanced by his inflexible loyalty to his three musketeer friends and to his masters. The three books in the trilogy, more successfully than any others, combine history and fiction and are perhaps the most popular novels produced in the nineteenth century.
The Count of Monte-Cristo
Rivaling the d’Artagnan saga in popularity is The Count of Monte-Cristo. Incredible as the adventures of Monte-Cristo may seem, they are based on reality. In 1842, Dumas visited Elba with Prince Jérôme, son of Napoleon’s youngest brother, and sailed around the island of Monte-Cristo. Dumas said that he would someday immortalize it. At about the same time, he was approached by Béthune and Plon to write a work titled “Impressions de voyage dans Paris” (travel impressions in Paris). Béthune and Plon did not want an archeological or scientific work, but rather a novel like Eugène Sue’s Les Mystères de Paris (1842-1843; The Mysteries of Paris, 1843). Dumas found the germ of a plot in “Le diamant et la vengeance,” a chapter in Mémoires tirés des archives de la Police de Paris (1837-1838) by Jacques Peuchet, referred to by Dumas in his Causeries as “État civil du ’Comte de Monte Cristo.’” The main character of The Count of Monte-Cristo is based on an unjustly imprisoned shoemaker named François Picaud.
The Count of Monte-Cristo first appeared serially, in Le Journal des débats, with the spelling Christo, a spelling also used in the Belgian pirated editions. Unlike Dumas’s historical novels, The Count of Monte-Cristo is set in contemporary France and, except for short passages relating to Napoleon and Louis XVIII, is almost totally a roman de moeurs.
The lengthy novel is divided into three unequal parts—based on the cities in which the action takes place: Marseilles, Rome, and Paris—the last being by far the longest. Part 1 opens in 1815, in Marseilles, where Dumas introduces the attractive first mate of the ship Pharaon, Edmond Dantès, soon to be promoted to captain. He is celebrating his impending marriage to his beautiful Catalan sweetheart, Mercédès, when he is suddenly arrested. Earlier, the dying captain of the Pharaon had given him a letter to deliver to a Bonapartist group in Paris, and because of this he has been accused of treason by two jealous companions: Danglars, the ship’s accountant, and Fernand, Dantès’s rival for the hand of Mercédès. Caderousse, a neighbor, learns of the plot against Dantès but remains silent. Villefort, the procureur du roi, is sympathetic to Dantès until he discovers that the letter is intended for his father, whose Bonapartist and Girondist political views he despises, seeing them as a threat to his own future. He therefore allows Dantès to be condemned to solitary confinement at the nearby Château d’If. Dantès, resentful and despairing, remains in prison for fourteen years, during which time he makes the acquaintance of the Abbé Faria (a character based on a real person), who instructs Dantès in history, mathematics, and languages and wills him the fabulous treasure that the Abbé has hidden on the island of Monte-Cristo. At the Abbé’s death, Dantès changes places with his corpse in the funeral sack, is thrown into the sea, and swims to safety.
Once free, Dantès claims the treasure and learns the whereabouts of his betrayers: Danglars has become a successful banker, while Fernand, after acquiring wealth by betraying Pasha Ali in the Greek revolution, has gained the title of Count de Morcerf and has married Mercédès. Shortly afterward, Dantès, now the Count of Monte-Cristo, assumes the persona of Sinbad the Sailor and entertains the Baron Franz d’Épinay at Monte-Cristo. An atmosphere reminiscent of The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments (fifteenth century) dazzles Franz, who hardly knows if what he sees is real or imaginary. Later, Franz, in the company of his friend Albert de Morcerf, the son of Mercédès and Fernand, again meets Monte-Cristo in Rome, where Monte-Cristo saves Morcerf from the kidnapper Luigi Vampa. Albert invites Monte-Cristo to visit him in Paris, thus introducing part 3.
Part 3 is, properly speaking, the story of Dantès’s vengeance and takes place twenty-three years after he was first imprisoned. Disguised sometimes as Monte-Cristo, sometimes as the Abbé Busoni, sometimes as Lord Wilmore, Dantès dazzles all of Paris with his endless wealth, powerful connections, and enigmatic manner. Meanwhile, he slowly but surely sets the stage for his revenge. Directly attacking no one, he nevertheless brings his four enemies to total ruin by intricate and complex machinations. The greedy Caderousse, who gave silent assent to Dantès’s imprisonment, is killed by an anonymous assassin while attempting to rob Monte-Cristo’s rich hotel on the Champs-Élysées. Before his death, he learns Monte-Cristo’s real identity. Danglars is the next victim; by means of false information, Monte-Cristo succeeds in ruining him financially and exposing his wife’s greed and infidelity. Fernand is brought down in turn when Monte-Cristo, with the aid of his adopted daughter, Haydée (the natural daughter of Pasha Ali), brings to light several acts of cowardice of which Fernand was guilty during his army service. Fernand’s son Albert challenges Monte-Cristo to a duel, but through the intercession of Mercédès, who recognizes her fiancé of many years before, Albert’s life is spared.
The last victim is Villefort, whose daughter Valentine is in love with Maximilien Morrel, the son of a shipping master who had aided Dantès and his father long ago. Monte-Cristo encourages Madame de Villefort’s greedy efforts to acquire the wealth of Valentine (who is her stepdaughter), and the Villefort family is all but destroyed by the poison Madame de Villefort administers as part of her plan; Valentine herself is an apparent victim. Saved by Monte-Cristo, she is at last reunited with her lover on the island of Monte-Cristo, which Edmond Dantès reveals to the lovers as the site of the treasure he bequeaths to them. He sails off in the distance, his revenge complete. The revenge has also brought about a second transformation in Dantès, for he is now a man who, “like Satan, thought himself for an instant equal to God, but now acknowledges, with Christian humility, that God alone possesses supreme power and infinite wisdom.”
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