Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 934

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The Chevalier de Maison-Rouge takes as its subject matter the so-called carnation conspiracy, the attempt by the Chevalier de Rougeville to rescue Marie Antoinette from prison following the French Revolution. As a novel, it is an excellent example of the ability of Alexandre Dumas, père, to interest and enthrall his readers when the ultimate result of the action is a foregone conclusion. The title of the novel is taken from La Maison Rouge which, under the monarchy of pre-Revolutionary times, was one of the companies of the King’s Household Guard, so named because of the brilliant red cloak that was part of the uniform.

The carnation conspiracy is a relatively little-known incident that occurred in September, 1793, while the French queen Marie Antoinette was in prison awaiting execution. An officer in the Household Guard, the Chevalier de Rougeville, entered the queen’s cell in disguise, escorted by a municipal officer named Michonis. De Rougeville caught the queen’s attention and then dropped a carnation behind a stove in the room. The flower contained a note that detailed the plans for a conspiracy to rescue her from captivity. Unfortunately for the plotters, the action was observed by a gendarme, Gilbert, assigned to watch the queen. The incident was reported, and the revolutionary government, under the impression that there was a widespread plot in Paris to rescue the queen, took severe protective measures, including the arrest and imprisonment of everyone deemed by the officials to have had a part in the conspiracy. The queen’s guard was replaced by a new and more numerous force, and a number of the people around her were placed in prison themselves. The harsh measures were effective and, as every student knows, the queen went to her execution as planned.

This footnote to history constitutes the framework on which Dumas chose to hang his plot. The author of a historical novel is certain to be somewhat hampered in his pattern making by the stubbornness of facts and events well-known to the reader and by the discrepancies of time and place. Yet in The Chevalier de Maison-Rouge, Dumas demonstrates small care for historical accuracy and the constraints of fact. At the same time, however, he exhibits a tremendous faculty for seizing the characters and situations that best render historical atmosphere. To write a good adventure story, an author must have rich materials with which he is naturally, and also by education, in sympathy. That these materials have been processed by other authors and are based on fact is of little consequence because adventure, not history, is the author’s prime concern. In this novel, history provided the skeleton that depended on Dumas for life and development.

Dumas takes the reader into the open air of an extremely realistic world. His characters are active, not reflective. Their morality is that of the camp and field. Dumas never gloats over evil and shows no curiosity regarding vice and corruption. His heroes, Maurice Lindey and Louis Lorin, are moved by strong passions, their motives are universal and, as a rule, brave and honorable. Friendship, honor, and love are the trinity that governs their movements. In many respects, these two characters, like most of Dumas’s protagonists, represent extensions of the author’s own personality. Maurice is the romanticist and lover, an embodiment of the author, who goes from mistress to mistress, frequents the society of actresses, and tends to pattern himself upon the flamboyance of the romantic author Lord Byron. Lorin is the perfect gentleman and, like Dumas, the proponent of the virtues commonly found in aristocratic society.

Dumas’s characterization, however, represents the most serious problem in the novel. Dumas was essentially aristocratic in temperament, and these qualities, when projected into the personalities of his protagonists—who ostensibly represent the post-Revolutionary common people—cause a serious contradiction in character delineation. Dumas’s readers may wish simply to overlook such inconsistencies, concentrating instead on the action and adventure of the narrative.

The action and adventure of the narrative constitute the strength of Dumas’s style in this as in the majority of his novels. The illusion of vitality comes across strongly to the reader. The author—a physically active man—reveled in his own physical exuberance and reveals this personal trait in the novel, especially in the two characters that are Dumas in disguise. In the era depicted in The Chevalier de Maison-Rouge, there was much material of a gruesome and painful character that could have found its way into Dumas’s novel. The author, however, never dwells on the horrors of the torture chamber. He is all for the courage shown, not for the pain and cruelty inflicted and endured.

Accordingly, although his action scenes are not historical, Dumas is a master in depicting a duel or battle. The quarrel between Maurice and Dixmer, resulting in the mortal wound to Dixmer near the end of this novel, is an indication of that ability. The gusto of the novel’s action scenes, however, is matched by the simplicity and yet the grandeur of his epic diction. Only such language is capable of portraying the enthusiasm of the protagonists, their loyalty, their courage, and the zest with which they approach a mystery or a beautiful woman.

On the other hand, The Chevalier de Maison-Rouge is not flawless, especially in terms of plot. The structure of the novel occasionally tends to be loose, and there are a number of inconsistencies in characterization. Yet, if judged in terms of the readers’ reactions rather than according to codified mechanics, Dumas’s novel has much unity and coherence.