Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1699
Dumas’s long novels are sometimes called, misleadingly, romances. They are not, first of all, like what are commonly called romance novels, which deal with a woman falling in love. Moreover, there is an important distinction to be made between a novel and a romance. The distinction has to do with the powers of the protagonist. Novels are about ordinary people and how they fare in their conflicts. The protagonist of a novel is treated realistically and is often given a detailed psychological portrait. On the other hand, the romance presents extraordinary persons whose powers are magical and border on the mythological. The protagonists of romances are not so much individual men and women as archetypes, dream images, or symbols. The romantic protagonist comes from an upper world, and the antagonist has attributes of an underworld. The conflict takes place in a realistic setting, but the laws of nature may be suspended. Shakespeare’s play The Tempest (pr. 1611, pb. 1623) is an example of such a romance in English literature, as is the film Star Wars (1977). Dumas’s novels are realistic, not romances.
Dumas wrote many historical novels. When reading history, one needs always to remember that what happened is being rendered by the person telling what happened. Even the most factual histories involve interpretation. Dumas’s historical novels do not make romances out of history. For example, rather than create a King Arthur, whose powers are those of a hero of a romance, Dumas creates characters who resemble, in their accomplishments, failings, and personalities, people the reader may know in life. Dumas usually succeeds in producing a convincing illusion of historical reality. His novels are often so compelling that many readers never question their historical accuracy.
The Three Musketeers
First published: Les Trois Mousquetaires, 1844 (English translation, 1846)
Type of work: Novel
Three of King Louis XIII’s musketeers and a cadet serve their king and queen with loyalty, bravery, and honor, their adventures taking place in a context of historical fact.
The Three Musketeers, a historical novel, is arranged in five parts. In the first, the introduction, the reader meets the heroes: the cadet, d’Artagnan, and the king’s musketeers Athos, Porthos, and Aramis. They become the Inseparables. In the second part, the reader discovers that there is considerable intrigue going on in the court of Louis XIII. There is rivalry between the king and Cardinal de Richelieu, which is reflected in a rivalry between the king’s guards and the cardinal’s guards. What is more, scandal follows the king’s consort, Queen Anne of Austria, and the duke of Buckingham, who are in a liaison. In the third part, there is a religious war between the Catholics and Protestants of France. There is a siege at La Rochelle (an actual event). In the fourth part, a beautiful femme fatale causes the assassination of the duke of Buckingham, tries without success to poison d’Artagnan, and successfully poisons another character. In the last part, she gets her retribution. Her executioner is the brother of a priest whom she seduced and ruined. D’Artagnan is rewarded with a promotion.
The principal characters have their prototypes in real people. The king, queen, cardinal, and other important members of the court all existed in fact. D’Artagnan is based on a real person.
The king’s guards, an elite force whose job was to protect the king, were gentlemen trained from an early age in horsemanship and the use of arms. They were armed with muskets and rapiers. When guarding the king, they rode horseback and used their rapiers, but in war they fought on foot, with their muskets. When Cardinal de Richelieu saw this impressive military unit, he formed his own guard of musketeers. Both corps wore scarlet uniforms. They were distinguished from each other by whether they rode gray or black horses. Not surprisingly, the two corps were rivals.
Dumas tells a simple yet stirring tale. Aside from the dashing swordplay, the novel relies upon, and communicates to the reader, a complex set of social codes. The text supports the institution of absolute monarchy and the aristocratic values of France before 1789. The aristocratic conception of honor, for example, is promulgated in the actions and discussions of the characters.
The Count of Monte-Cristo
First published: Le Comte de Monte-Cristo, 1844-1845 (English translation, 1846)
Type of work: Novel
Evil men cause a young ship captain to spend fourteen years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Once free, the man obtains great wealth, brings about the destruction of the men, reunites two lovers, gives them his wealth, and sails away to parts unknown.
The Count of Monte-Cristo, which may be the best example of Dumas’s narrative and imaginative power, is quite unlike The Three Musketeers. It is not historical. The time of its action is not remote, relative to the time of its publication. Its values are not aristocratic but bourgeois. It deals with the power of money, with what currently is called white-collar crime, and with greed. It is about shipping, commerce, banking, bribery, and corruption. Opposing a dishonest group including a lawyer, an accountant, and a banker are an honest shipowner and merchant marine officer.
The novel is also about the bourgeois values of getting demoted and promoted. Dantês, the merchant marine officer, gets promoted, because of his ability, to captain. He is about to marry his sweetheart, Mercédès. He is honest and naïve. He does not think that Danglers wants his captaincy or that Mondego wants his sweetheart. The men falsely accuse him of being a Bonapartist spy. He does not think that the prosecutor Villefort will convict him and send him to prison in order to cover up the wrongdoing of Villefort’s father. Dantês, for being too innocent, is demoted.
He learns in prison of a great treasure hidden on the island of Monte-Cristo. He escapes. Retrieving the fortune, he changes his identity, becoming the Count of Monte-Cristo. He is, in a sense, promoted. Now extremely wealthy, he seeks vengeance on those who have wronged him. He is also healthy and handsome, despite his years in prison.
“Monte-Cristo” is Italian for “Christ mount” or “Cristo hill.” Chatêau D’If, the island prison from which the count escapes (by water, necessarily), is French for “house of the evergreen tree.” In a sense, then, a second son of God (healthy, rich, and handsome) is born from the watery grave at the foot of the Christmas tree. The mission of this second son is to drive the crooked money-grubbers from the temple of the new industrial capitalism. The son has fallen, and he has risen again. In the end, he disappears to even greater adventure over the blue horizon.
Dumas got the gist of the plot from the files of the Parisian police. In 1807, a handsome young shoemaker was sent to prison by a falsehood. In prison, he learned of a hidden treasure. Once free and with the treasure, the shoemaker did not behave as the count does. The shoemaker personally murdered all but one of the people responsible for his misfortune. The one he did not murder murdered him. The count, on the other hand, does not murder his wrongdoers but instead creates events in which each wrongdoer destroys himself.
Marguerite de Valois
First published: La Reine Margot, 1845 (English translation, 1845)
Type of work: Novel
During the last two years of the reign of Charles IX (1572-1574), a political rivalry develops, with Catherine de Médicis, mother of Charles, on one side, and Henri de Navarre (later King Henri IV) and his wife, Marguerite de Valois, her daughter, on the other.
Marguerite de Valois, written with Auguste Maquet, is the first novel of Dumas’s Valois trilogy, which ranks among the author’s best works. The characters have their counterparts in the actual history of the sixteenth century. The novel is not a romance; no laws of nature are suspended, and the characters are not endowed with any magical powers. They are, however, somewhat larger than life in their actions and passions. This quality is fitting, however, for the powerful, willful royalty that the novel is about.
Dumas allows himself the liberty of compressing and altering the facts of history in order to construct a compelling story. The novel takes place during a time of religious wars that were as much political as they were religious. The rival factions represented by Marguerite and her mother were Catholic on one hand and Protestant on the other. Upon the death of Charles IX, his brother takes over the throne, becoming Henri III. Henri de Navarre flees for his life, to await the time (1589) when he may obtain the throne.
De Navarre is the protagonist of the novel, despite its title. His enemy is Catherine de Médicis, who wants her son (or, failing that, her grandson) to rule France. Dumas paints de Navarre as a brave and level-headed soldier and politician who is shrewd and capable in dealing with his enemies. He is also capable, as he needed to be to survive, of shifting his religious affiliation. This serves to bring a degree of religious toleration to his nation. Catherine de Médicis is portrayed as a monster. In historical fact it is unlikely that she could have been as evil as Dumas portrays her, although in fact she did authorize the assassination of Admiral de Colingy and his Protestant followers. Furthermore, it appears that her actions led to the infamous Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. She uses her daughter as a pawn, which her daughter resents. Catherine marries Marguerite to Henri so that one way or another her male descendants will rule France—either through Marguerite or through Charles IX.
The novel’s many other characters are also compelling and memorable. Charles IX is a bundle of opposites—now friendly, then deadly, now meek, then tyrannical, now cruel, then kind. Comte Hyacinthe Lerac de la Mole is a fop but also a brave and fierce swordsman and a sincere lover of Marguerite. Others include the perfumer, poisoner, and soothsayer René; the assassin Maurevel; and a large assortment of braggarts, killers, and family.
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