Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3485
First published: 1848-1850 (English translation, 1857; also in 3 volumes, The viscomte de Bragelonne, 1893; Louise de la Valliere, 1893; The Man in the Iron Mask, 1893)
Type of work: Novel
Type of plot: Historical romance
Time of work: Seventeenth century
Locale: France and England
Louis XIV, King of France
Louise de la Valliere, the lady in waiting and the mistress of the king
D’Artagnan, an officer of the King’s Musketeers
Athos, the Comte de la Fere
Porthos, Monsieur du Vallon
Aramis, Monsieur D’Herblay and Bishop of Vannes
Raoul, the Vicomte de Bragelonne and the son of Athos
Fouquet, Minister of Finance
Colbert, an ambitious politician
Charles II, King of England
Louis XIV, the young king of France, was en route to Spain to ask for the hand of Marie Theresa, the Spanish Infanta. He stopped overnight at the castle of Blois to visit his uncle, the Duc d’Orleans. There he met for the first time Louise de la Valliere, the lovely stepdaughter of the duchess’ steward. Louise was betrothed to Raoul, the Vicomte de Bragelonne, son of the Comte de la Fere. Another arrival at Blois during the royal visit was the Stuart pretender, Charles II, who came to ask for a loan of a million livres and French aid in regaining the English throne. When Cardinal Mazarin, chief minister of King Louis, refused to lend the money, Charles then turned for assistance to the Comte de la Fere, who had been an old friend of his royal father. The comte was a former musketeer who had been known as Athos many years before, when he had performed many brave feats with his three friends, Porthos, Aramis, and D’Artagnan.
Disappointed because Mazarin and the king refused to help Charles, D’Artagnan resigned his commission as lieutenant of the King’s Musketeers and joined his old friend, Athos, in an attempt to place Charles upon the throne of England. Planning to capture General Monk, leader of the Parliamentary army, D’Artagnan visited Planchet, a former servant who had been successful in trade. Using funds borrowed from Planchet, he recruited fourteen resolute and dependable men and sailed with them for England. In England, in the meantime, the troops of Lambert and General Monk prepared to fight at Newcastle. While the armies waited, Athos arrived to see General Monk. He hoped to obtain the general’s aid in recovering a treasure left by the unfortunate Charles I in a vault in Newcastle. This treasure was to be General Monk’s bribe for restoring Charles II to the throne. On the general’s return from Newcastle, D’Artagnan daringly captured the Parliamentary leader, concealed him in a coffin, and took him to France. Athos, who had promised General Monk to remain in England for a time, was arrested by Monk’s soldiers and accused of complicity in the general’s disappearance.
In France D’Artagnan took Monk to Charles. After a satisfactory interview with the pretender, Monk was released and sent back to England. On his return, Monk secured the release of Athos. Won over to the Stuart cause, Monk planned for the return of Charles to England, while the pretender made like preparations in France.
When Charles became king, he made General Monk the Duke of Albemarle and commander of the English armies. The grateful king gave the Order of the Golden Fleece to Athos. For his part in the restoration D’Artagnan requested only Monk’s sword. After he had received it, he resold it to Charles for three hundred thousand livres. General Monk gave D’Artagnan lands in England. After paying off his men D’Artagnan went to Calais to see Planchet, whom he approached with a long face and a sad tale of failure. When Planchet exhibited his true loyalty to his former master, D’Artagnan did not have the heart to tease the merchant any longer; he acknowledged the success of the venture and paid Planchet one hundred thousand livres in return for the funds he had advanced.
Louis XIV had been completely dominated by Cardinal Mazarin, his minister, but Mazarin’s death eased the king’s unhappy situation. After Mazarin’s death, the ambitious Fouquet, as finance minister, and Colbert, as intendant, began a race for power. Suspicious of Fouquet, the king sent for D’Artagnan, commissioned him a captain of the King’s Musketeers, and sent him to Belle-Isle-en-Mer to secure a report on Fouquet’s mysterious activities there.
At Belle-Isle D’Artagnan found his old companion in arms, Porthos, now Monsieur du Vallon, busy with plans for fortifying the island. The former musketeer was working under the direction of Aramis, now Bishop of Vannes and also known as Monsieur D’Herblay. D’Artagnan hurried back to Paris to the king to give him the details of the situation at Belle-Isle, but he was beaten in the race to arrive there first by the two conspirators, who reported to Fouquet the discovery of the plot to fortify the island. To prevent trouble, Fouquet at once rushed to the king and presented to him the plan for the fortifications on Belle-Isle. He glibly explained that the fortifications might be useful against the Dutch.
Athos, the Comte de la Fere, asked the king’s consent to the marriage of his son Raoul, the Vicomte de Bragelonne, to Louise de la Valliere, now a maid of honor at the court. Louis refused on the grounds that Louise was not good enough for Raoul. In reality the king, a passionate lover of various ladies of the court, had, in spite of his recent marriage to Marie Theresa, fallen in love with Louise. He dispatched Raoul at once to England to be rid of him as a rival.
Aramis and Fouquet were plotting to replace the king with a man of their choice; to this end, they annually paid a large sum of money to Monsieur de Baisemeaux, governor of the Bastille. These schemers also attached themselves to Louise de la Valliere after they realized the power she would have with the king.
Also among the court plotters were Mademoiselle de Montalais, a lady in waiting, and her lover, Malicorne, a courtier. They were interested in all court affairs, particularly in the relationship between Mademoiselle de la Valliere and the king, and they stole letters with the idea of blackmail at an opportune time.
D’Artagnan moved to an estate close to the court to watch for palace intrigues. He was particularly interested in the plans of Aramis, who was trying to become a cardinal and planning to betray the king to secure his ends. D’Artagnan, interested in adventure for the sake of adventure, was devoted to the king.
As the affair between Louise and the king continued, Madame, the sister-in-law of Louis, also in love with him, grew jealous and determined to send for Raoul to have him marry Louise at once. The queen mother and the young queen disapproved thoroughly of the flirtation of Madame with the king and told her so. Madame then decided that the quickest solution would be to send Mademoiselle de la Valliere away from the court. At the same time the king learned that Louise had at one time returned Raoul de Bragelonne’s affection. In a fit of envy and jealousy, he decided to forget her. Madame ordered Louise to leave at once.
Brokenhearted, Louise resolved to enter a convent. In her flight, however, she encountered D’Artagnan, who took her under his protection and informed the king of her whereabouts. Louis went to her immediately. Convinced of her love, he returned with her to the court. Plotters in the king’s pay had a secret trapdoor constructed from Louise’s rooms to those of Saint-Aignan, a gentleman of the king, and Louis and Louise were able to meet there after Madame had made their other meetings impossible. In London Raoul heard what was happening and rushed to France. He arrived at Louise’s apartments just as the king was entering by the secret door. Realizing that the rumors he had heard were true, he went away in despair.
Aramis, who had now become General of the Jesuits, was visited by an elderly duchess who wished to sell him certain letters from Mazarin which would ruin his friend Fouquet. When he refused to buy them, she sold them to Colbert, Fouquet’s rival and enemy. Aramis, learning of the transaction, hurried to warn Fouquet, who assured Aramis that the supposed theft of state funds attributed to him in the letters was credited by a receipt in his possession. The receipt, however, had been stolen. Furthermore, Colbert had arranged for Fouquet to sell his position of procureur-general. With his immense financial backing, Aramis was able to rescue Fouquet.
Raoul de Bragelonne was grieved and angry at Louise’s faithlessness. He challenged Saint-Aignan to a duel, and Porthos promised to act as his foster son’s second. Saint-Aignan, however, revealed the matter to the king. Then Athos publicly denounced Louis over the proposed duel. When the king ordered D’Artagnan to arrest Athos, D’Artagnan, by his honest fearlessness, won a pardon for his old friend.
Backed by Aramis, Fouquet grandly and recklessly humiliated Colbert in the king’s presence. He announced a great fete at his estate in honor of the king. Although temporarily eclipsed, Colbert vowed revenge. Fouquet, as minister of the king’s finances, was tottering under the growing strength of his enemy Colbert, and he hoped the fete would secure his position.
Aramis, through his influence with Monsieur de Baisemeaux, the governor of the Bastille, visited a prisoner there and revealed to him that he was actually the twin brother of Louis XIV. The conspirators planned to put him on the throne in place of Louis. Aramis then busied himself to learn the details of the king’s costume for the fete, for he planned to substitute the twin brother Philippe for Louis during the grand ball. Although both D’Artagnan and Porthos were suspicious of Aramis, they could prove nothing.
Aramis freed the young prince from the Bastille and coached him thoroughly in the details of the role he was to play. By means of trapdoors in Fouquet’s house, Aramis overpowered Louis XIV and hustled him off to the Bastille to replace the released prince. Philippe, in gratitude, was to make Aramis as powerful in the kingdom as Richelieu had been.
Aramis, however, made a grave error in revealing his deeds to Fouquet. When Fouquet heard of the abduction of the king, the minister, hoping to win the king’s gratitude, rushed to the Bastille and freed Louis. Aramis and Porthos fled hastily. D’Artagnan was instructed to capture Philippe, cover his face with an iron mask to hide his resemblance to the king, and imprison him for life in the Ile Sainte-Marguerite fortress. He faithfully executed these orders.
Raoul de Bragelonne, who had never forgiven the king for stealing Louise de la Valliere, decided to kill himself as soon as possible and joined the Duc de Beaufort on a campaign to Africa. When he went to say good-bye to his father, Athos realized sadly that he would never see his son again.
Louis XIV insisted that D’Artagnan arrest Fouquet, despite Fouquet’s efforts in the king’s behalf. After a mad chase in which both of their horses were raced to death, D’Artagnan captured Fouquet. Colbert then rose completely to power.
D’Artagnan was ordered by the king to go to Belle-Isle-en-Mer to take the fortress in which Aramis and Porthos were hiding and to shoot the conspirators. D’Artagnan, too good a friend of each of the plotters to take their lives, planned to capture the fortress but to allow the two to escape. Louis had realized that this possibility might occur and had forewarned his officers so that D’Artagnan’s scheme failed and he was ordered to return to France. A fierce battle ensued at Belle-Isle, and Porthos was killed after many deeds of great heroism. Aramis escaped to Bayonne.
D’Artagnan, out of favor with the king over his disobedience to orders, resigned his position as captain of the Musketeers and the king accepted, only to send for him later to ask him to take back his resignation. D’Artagnan agreed and won a pardon from the king for Aramis, who had settled in Spain.
Athos died of shock upon hearing that his son had been killed in Africa; they were buried in a double funeral. Louise de la Valliere, who had been replaced as the king’s mistress by a younger favorite, attended the funeral. There D’Artagnan reproached her for causing the deaths of both Athos and Raoul de Bragelonne.
D’Artagnan remained in the service of Louis XIV and died four years later while fighting against the Dutch. His death came only a few moments after he had received the baton of a marshal of France.
The figure of Alexandre Dumas offers a unique paradox in the history of French and world literature. Since the days of his earliest acclaim and through the years of his greatest literary triumphs, he was frequently dismissed as a mere entertainer. Yet his works, for the most part, have lasted far longer than those of other, supposedly greater, talents and longer than those of a mere entertainer.
Dumas had an enormous capacity for work; the French edition of his collected works fills 277 volumes. He collaborated with dozens of other writers in the course of his career as dramatist and novelist. One would suppose, in fact, that he was willing to sign his name to anything. Yet Dumas was a genuine artist of undeniable talent and succeeded in giving life to facts and bare outlines conceived by others. Indeed, though he collaborated time and again, he was most successful when he could impress himself, his own personality, on a drama or romance.
There have been numerous attempts to explain the great and lasting popularity of Dumas’ novels such as THE VICOMTE DE BRAGELONNE, a brilliant sequel to THE THREE MUSKETEERS (1844). The novels are said to have mass appeal on the basis of adventure, setting, action, and other strictly literary features. These features must be noted, but what is most fetching in all Dumas’ best work is Dumas himself. The great man—his generosity, strength, and goodwill—shine through his pages. For this reason, the most valuable background for THE VICOMTE DE BRAGELONNE, and Dumas’ other popular novels, is knowledge of Dumas himself. It was his own humanity, after all, which he was able to impart to his fiction.
The novelist’s grandfather, the Marquis de la Pailleterie, left France for the Caribbean in the eighteenth century to seek a new fortune and, probably, to escape old obligations. There he had a son by a black woman, a slave. This son was to be the father of Alexandre Dumas, père. At the age of eighteen, the son went to Paris with his father. He grew into an enormous man—tall, muscular, and fearless. He joined the army, using his mother’s name of Dumas. His exploits and heroism in the service of France, and of Napoleon, became legendary. Finally, however, he was imprisoned in Italy and lost his health and great strength; and, because he had a disagreement with Napoleon, he was denied a pension.
It was, then, in an atmosphere saturated with tales of adventure, physical heroism, and action that Dumas, père, grew to manhood. Unwilling to remain in the provinces where he was raised, Dumas was attracted to the life of Paris. He was looking for adventure and for success, and he found both.
Dumas broke into the literary world as a dramatist, and his best work reflects this early training. His melodrama HENRI III ET SA COUR (1829) played more than one hundred performances in Paris alone. Dumas made (and spent) fortunes. He gave huge, successful banquets, accumulated medallions and honorary ribbons, bragged endlessly, and enjoyed dozens of mistresses. He was a large, cream-colored, attractive man with curly black hair who loved to tell stories, was capable of endless hours of work, had a famous, telling wit, and was incapable of holding on to his money.
D’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis reflect this liveliness and movement. It is undoubtedly Dumas’ sense of life and the joyful, romantic possibilities of life that account for the popularity of all the D’Artagnan romances, and the stories which comprise THE VICOMTE DE BRAGELONNE. This novel has particular interest because it deals with the last adventures of the swashbuckling hero D’Artagnan. The story itself is the characteristic Dumas type, filled with vivid action, humorous incident, and interesting characters. In reality this romance contains four different but related plots—the restoration of Charles II, the story of Louis XIV’s infatuation for Louise de la Valliere, the intrigues and downfall of the ambitious Fouquet, and the perennially popular tale of the mysterious prisoner in the iron mask. From time to time, these stories have been taken from the longer romance and printed as novels complete in themselves. As a result, some confusion has arisen over the titles and order of the D’Artagnan series.
Furthermore, it is also useful to describe the techniques and subjects chosen by Dumas which helped him to communicate his sense of life. First, there is incessant action, from beginning to end, in the four volumes of THE VICOMTE DE BRAGELONNE. This action occurs on a number of levels. There is physical movement from country to country and within France by horse, carriage, and boat. This physical motion literally sustains the pace of the narrative.
Combined with the geographical movement are scenes of action. There is swordplay, shooting, knife play, wrestling, and virtually every form of human conflict. Furthermore, this violent action is placed in every kind of setting from stables, to dusty roads, to the palace of the king.
Dumas was also a master of the trappings of such action. THE VICOMTE DE BRAGELONNE is filled with disguises, trapdoors, secret messages, codes, and ambushes. Moreover, all of this external action is united with political intrigues, actual historical facts, romances (royal and otherwise), and the ideological and historical conflicts of the times, including those between Church and state and between factions in the court itself.
Dumas does not employ lengthy passages of description either for establishing character or landscape. Instead, he gives barely enough physical description of place so that the reader can visualize the action. Character is not pictured through analysis but through action. Again, there is enough given to help the reader understand the action and to become partial toward a character, but not enough to develop the full human potential of any single character.
The presence that seems most impressive and interesting in THE VICOMTE DE BRAGELONNE is the author himself. He communicates himself not through a single one of the musketeers but through all of them at once. He is good-natured, generous, sly, lazy, and adventurous all at once. In THE VICOMTE DE BRAGELONNE, there is no room for another complete character. Yet at the same time, one may sympathize with D’Artagnan, and certainly one supports him (applauding his successes, grateful for his good luck); however, one never fully comprehends him. When he dies in a patriotic pose at the end of the final volume, there is a feeling that he has lived an exciting, interesting life. Somehow, though, he is never quite so alive as to be thoroughly gone.
In addition to his influence on characterization, Dumas’ strong presence manipulates history itself in THE VICOMTE DE BRAGELONNE. Because historical processes are transformed into complicated adventures, the audience experiences the sensation of the unveiling of history, although the historical outcome of those events has long been determined. Dumas then molds this process, shaping it through his humor and his abundant dialogue. (Paid by the line in these early romances, he was tempted to write lengthy and exceedingly terse dialogue.) Thus, what Dumas had accomplished (as critics have noted) is little short of the annexation of French history.
Indeed, he himself becomes—through THE VICOMTE DE BRAGELONNE—that historical process. Dumas, more than any mere entertainer, lends himself and his life to his work. The reader participates in history not only through the manipulation of events but also through the living substance of Alexandre Dumas. That is why the ending of THE VICOMTE DE BRAGELONNE, wherein the joyful D’Artagnan dies after receiving the baton of Marshal, leaves the reader less sad than wistful. A visit has been paid to a certain time, an era of delight, romance, and action in the company of a most agreeable friend. The visit is over, but it is possible to return. There is death but no darkness.