Critical Evaluation

(Essentials of European Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 1311 words.)