Other Literary Forms

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Alexandre Dumas, père, wrote a large number of historical novels, achieving great fame in 1844 with the publication of Les Trois Mousquetaires (The Three Musketeers, 1846) and the beginning episodes of the serialized Le Comte de Monte-Cristo (The Count of Monte-Cristo, 1846). The novels grew out of his great interest in the history of France; throughout his career he published historical accounts, beginning with a few scènes historiques in 1831 and including two larger historical compilations, Gaule et France in 1833 (The Progress of Democracy, 1841) and the important Chroniques de France (chronicles of France), which began in 1836.

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Dumas enjoyed travel, and he produced numerous travelogues. Many of these appeared in the various newspapers and magazines that he published and edited and for which he frequently wrote much of the material. He also published his memoirs, and in 1837 he and Gérard de Nerval collaborated on a comic opera, Piquillo, for which the music was composed by Hippolyte Monpou. At the time of Dumas’s death, he was writing a cookbook, Grand Dictionnaire de cuisine, which was completed for him by Anatole France.

Achievements

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Alexandre Dumas, père, was the most prolific author and the most popular author of his time. He wrote more than one hundred plays, succeeding notably in both drama and comedy; he also wrote many major fictional works, including two of the most famous novels in history. At the height of his success he was called “the uncrowned King of Paris.”

His dramatic career was meteoric. While still in his twenties he wrote two plays that helped to revolutionize the drama of Paris, and within a few more years, he produced some of the most popular plays of the entire century. Before he wrote Henry III and His Court in 1829, Dumas was virtually unknown; within hours of the final curtain of this drame historique, France’s first historical drama, he was the sensation of Paris and was being lauded as the champion of the French Romantics. Although Victor Hugo’s Hernani (pr., pb. 1830; English translation, 1830) is generally considered the play that issued the Romantics’ challenge to French classicists, Dumas’s romantic drama of adultery, revenge, and political hatred came a year before Hernani.

Two years later, Dumas duplicated his previous success and inspired new controversy with Antony, the first drame moderne (modern drama). In this story of adulterous passions, period costuming was replaced by modern dress, and the setting, language, and characterization were all contemporary. Antony was a dramatic triumph for Dumas, but its attack on the social values of the age caused furious controversy that lasted for years.

The astounding success of La Tour de Nesle, staged in 1832, gives clear evidence of Dumas’s gift for drama. Two other writers had worked on this melodrama of lust, incest, and murder without satisfying their producer. The piece was then brought to Dumas, who immediately saw its possibilities. He rewrote the opening to define situation and characterizations, added several scenes, created new dialogue, and produced a terrifying story that evidently had some eight hundred performances within three years. Dumas had created the most successful melodrama of the age.

Toward the end of the 1830’s, Dumas decided to venture into comedy, and in 1839 he produced a full five-act comedy, The Lady of Belle Isle. None of his plays except La Tour de Nesle enjoyed more performances; this story of a young lady’s virtue threatened by but saved from a seducer was still in the repertory of the Comédie-Française at the turn of the century.

Dumas’s popularity in the 1830’s and 1840’s was immense. In some years, four or five of his plays were produced, and in April of 1839 he actually had three premieres at three different theaters within fourteen days. His plays had a powerful influence on the direction French drama would take for years to come.

Dumas added greatly to his fame through his novels, and it is as a novelist rather than as a playwright that he will be remembered most. The Three Musketeers has thrilled generations of readers since its first appearance in 1844. The account of the friendship of the young d’Artagnan with the three musketeers, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, and of their combined efforts to thwart the schemes of the malevolent Cardinal Richelieu and his cruel subordinate, Milady, is one of the best-known adventure tales of the past two centuries.

The only rival to The Three Musketeers in popularity among Dumas’s novels is The Count of Monte-Cristo. The story of Edmond Dantès’ revenge against the men whose lies had caused him to be unjustly imprisoned first appeared as a roman-feuilleton, a serial novel. Readers eagerly followed each installment as Dantès, now escaped from prison and known as the Count of Monte-Cristo, implacably pursued and caused the destruction of his enemies.

Other literary forms

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Other novels are attributed to Alexandre Dumas, père (dyew-MAH pehr), that some scholarship, such as that by Douglas Munro, Gilbert Sigaux, and Charles Samaran, credits more to his collaborators. Of the many editions of Dumas’s works, the standard edition, uvres complètes (1846-1877), in 301 volumes by Calmann-Lévy, is not always authoritative. The best editions of the novels are those in uvres d’Alexandre Dumas (1962-1967; 38 volumes), published by Éditions Rencontre, with excellent introductions to the novels by Sigaux. Munro lists at least fifteen English editions of Dumas prior to 1910, and countless others have appeared since. The Romances of Alexandre Dumas, published by Little, Brown and Company, has been updated several times. Virtually all of Dumas’s novels are available in English and many other languages.

Dumas also wrote many plays, several in collaboration with other authors and a number based on his novels. A total of sixty-six are generally ascribed to him, among them Henri III et sa cour (pr., pb. 1829; Catherine of Cleves, 1831, also known as Henry III and His Court, 1904), Christine: Ou, Stockholm, Fontainebleau, et Rome (pr., pb. 1830), Kean: Ou, Désordre et génie (pr., pb. 1836, with Théaulon de Lambert and Frédéric de Courcy; Edmund Kean: Or, The Genius and the Libertine, 1847), Mademoiselle de Belle-Isle (pr., pb. 1839; English translation, 1855), Un Mariage sous Louis XV (pr., pb. 1841; A Marriage of Convenience, 1899), Les Demoiselles de Saint-Cyr (pr., pb. 1843; The Ladies of Saint-Cyr, 1870), and L’Invitation à la valse (pr., pb. 1857; adapted in English as Childhood Dreams, 1881). The plays are available in the uvres complètes, occupying twenty-five volumes in the Calmann-Lévy edition. The best contemporary edition is Théâtre complet, edited by Fernande Bassan.

Dumas’s other writings include histories, chronicles, memoirs, travel notes, articles, and essays. Among the more interesting of these are “Comment je devins auteur dramatique” (“How I Became a Playwright”), “En Suisse” (in Switzerland), Quinze Jours au Sinai (1838; Impressions of Travel in Egypt and Arabia Petraea, 1839), Excursions sur les bords du Rhin (1841, with Gérard de Nerval; excursions on the banks of the Rhine), Le Midi de la France (1841; Pictures of Travel in the South of France, 1852), Le Spéronare (1842; travels in Italy), Le Corricolo (1843; travels in Italy and Sicily), Mes Mémoires (1852, 1853, 1854-1855; My Memoirs, 1907-1909), Causeries (1860), Les Garibaldiens (1861; The Garibaldians in Sicily, 1861), Histoires de mes bêtes (1868; My Pets, 1909), and Souvenirs dramatiques (1868; souvenirs of the theater).

Achievements

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The Larousse Grand Dictionnaire du XIX siècle of 1870 described Alexandre Dumas, père, as “a novelist and the most prolific and popular playwright in France.” Today his novels are regarded as his most durable achievement; they are known to every French person and to millions of other people through countless translations. Indeed, for innumerable readers, French history takes the form of Dumas’s novels, and seventeenth century France is simply the France of the Three Musketeers. Dumas was an indefatigable writer, and his production is impressive by its volume alone: more than one hundred novels, including children’s stories and tales. Although Dumas worked with many collaborators—the most famous being Auguste Maquet, Paul Meurice, Hippolyte Augier, Gérard de Nerval, and Auguste Vacquerie—a Dumas novel is readily distinguishable by its structure and style, sparkle, wit, rapid action, and dramatic dialogue.

Dumas’snarratives teem with action and suspense; like the works of Eugène Sue, Frédéric Soulié, Honoré de Balzac, and Fyodor Dostoevski, most of Dumas’s novels were first published in serial form, appearing in La Presse, Journal des débats, Le Siècle, and Le Constitutionnel, and later in his own journals, such as Le Mousquetaire and Le Monte-Cristo. He thus attracted a continuation. Sometimes he himself was uncertain what direction the plot of a given novel would take, and certain inconsistencies and discrepancies occasionally resulted from the serial format, but these are generally insignificant and surprisingly few in number. Often melodramatic, Dumas’s novels nevertheless combine realism with the fantastic. Historical personages in his fiction maintain their roles in history yet sparkle with life: the haughty Anne of Austria, the inflexible Cardinal Richelieu, the independent Louis XIV. Like a careful puppeteer, Dumas never allows the intricate plot to escape him, nor does he resolve it until the end.

A gifted dramatist, Dumas was above all a master of dialogue. The critic Isabelle Jan has analyzed Dumas’s dialogue as the very life’s breath of his characters, noting that Dumas succeeded in making even the dumb speak—the mute Noirtier in The Count of Monte-Cristo. Dumas’s characters communicate by gestures and body language as well as by speech; indeed, in Dumas’s fictions even stovepipes and scaffold boards are eloquent. The action in a Dumas novel is carried forward through dialogue; a Dumas plot is not described, it is enacted.

Though Dumas did not possess Balzac’s profound analytic intelligence, he shared Balzac’s powers of observation. Lacking Victor Hugo’s awareness of the abyss and his visionary gift, Dumas nevertheless had Hugo’s sparkle and wit. Indeed, both Balzac and Hugo admired Dumas greatly, as did Nerval, one of his collaborators, with whom he shared a taste for the occult and the supernatural. Unlike Stendhal, whose unhappy Julien Sorel was created “for the happy few,” yet, like him, a true Romantic in spirit, Dumas wrote for all, proving that the novel could be both popular and memorable.

Contribution

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Although Alexandre Dumas, père, was an extremely prolific playwright and novelist, he owes his fame largely to Les Trois Mousquetaires (1844; The Three Musketeers, 1846) and Le Comte de Monte-Cristo (1844-1845; The Count of Monte-Cristo, 1846). In these works, Dumas made use of well-known events in French history to tell fascinating and well-structured tales. These two romances have remained popular both in France and elsewhere since their publication. }

In his biography of Dumas, Richard S. Stowe stressed similarities between The Count of Monte-Cristo and works in other literary genres, specifically mystery and detective fiction. Stowe’s insight reveals an important element of The Count of Monte-Cristo: Edmond Dantès, the main character in this novel, does in fact become a private investigator after his escape from a prison near Marseilles. Dantès first seeks to identify and then to punish those responsible for his unjust imprisonment. He uses numerous disguises, obtaining relevant documents from unsuspecting individuals. This information enables Dantès to prove the treachery committed against him. He then prepares and carries out a systematic and fearful revenge against the four men whose actions brought about his fourteen years of imprisonment.

Discussion Topics

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Investigate the complex social codes in Alexandre Dumas, père’s The Three Musketeers.

Show how The Count of Monte-Cristo both fulfills and defies the writer’s devotion to historical reality as a basis for fiction.

Compare the attitude to history reflected in the novels of Sir Walter Scott and Dumas.

By what techniques does Dumas make convincing larger-than-life characters?

Discuss the more memorable aspects of Paris found in Dumas’s novels.

Bibliography

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Beaujour, Elizabeth Klotsky. “Dumas’s Decembrists: Le Maitre d’Armes and the Memoirs of Pauline Annenkova.” Russian Review 59, no. 1 (2000): 38-51. Describes Dumas’s meeting with the Russian subjects of a historical novel he had written eighteen years previously, and considers the relationship between history and fiction in his works.

Bell, A. Craig. Alexandre Dumas: A Biography and Study. London: Cassel, 1950. As the subtitle suggests, Bell pays significant attention to both the life and the work. The introduction deals succinctly with the phenomenon of Dumas’s popularity and the need for a careful treatment of his entire body of work. Still a helpful and thorough guide.

Castelar, Emilio. “Alexandre Dumas.” In The Life of Lord Byron, and Other Sketches. Translated by Mrs. Arthur Arnold. New York: Harper & Row, 1876. A chapter of rhythmic prose on Dumas in a collection composed of a lengthy life of Lord Byron and brief treatments of Dumas, Hugo, and three lesser-known writers.

Fabre, Michel. “International Beacons of African-American Memory.” In History and Memory in African-American Culture, edited by Genevieve Fabre and Robert O’Meally. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. Considers Dumas’s African heritage.

Galan, F. W. “Bakhtiniada II, The Corsican Brothers in the Prague School: Or, The Reciprocity of Reception.” Poetics Today 8, nos. 3/4 (1987): 565-577. Approaches Dumas’s The Corsican Brothers using the critical apparatus of Mikhail Bakhtin.

Gorman, Herbert. The Incredible Marquis. New York: Farrar and Rinehart, 1929. Remains a reliable and very readable biography.

Hemmings, F. W. J. Alexandre Dumas: The King of Romance. New York: Scribner’s, 1979. A well-illustrated, popular biography, with detailed notes.

Lucas-Dubreton, J. The Fourth Musketeer: The Life of Alexandre Dumas. New York: Coward-McCann, 1938. Less detailed and scholarly than Bell, but a lively introduction to Dumas’s life and career. No illustrations or bibliography.

Maurois, André. Alexandre Dumas: A Great Life in Brief. Translated by Jack Palmer White. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964. For the first reader of the life of Dumas, provides the basic facts in readable and limited fashion. Maurois is one of the recognized authorities on Dumas.

Maurois, Andre. The Titan: A Three-Generation Biography of the Dumas. Translated by Gerard Hopkins. 1957. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1971. A classic in Dumas studies by a seasoned biographer. Includes notes, bibliography, and illustrations.

Munro, Douglas. Alexandre Dumas père, a Bibliography of Works Published in French, 1825-1900. New York: Garland, 1981. A discussion of Dumas’s original popularity.

Nesci, Catherine. “Talking Heads: Violence and Desire in Dumas père’s (Post-)Terrorist Society.” SubStance 27, no. 2 (1998): 73-92. A poststructuralist reading of two of Dumas’s novels of the French Revolution, The Thousand and One Ghosts and The Woman with a Velvet Necklace.

Schopp, Claude. Alexandre Dumas: Genius of Life. Translated by A. J. Koch. New York: Franklin Watts, 1988. A detailed, lively narrative. No notes or bibliography.

Stowe, Richard S. Alexandre Dumas père. Boston: Twayne, 1976. The best short introduction in English, with a chapter of biography, followed by chapters on Dumas’s dramas, novels, and other fiction. Includes notes, chronology, and annotated bibliography.

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