Alexandre Dumas was born on July 24, 1802, in Villers-Cotterets, a small village in France. His grandfather was a nobleman, the Marquis de la Pailleterie, and his grandmother was a black slave, Marie-Cessette Dumas. After quarreling with the marquis, Alexandre’s father renounced the family and enlisted in the army as Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, using his mother’s name. In a remarkable career, Thomas-Alexandre rose from the rank of lieutenant to general under Napoleon in less than two years. His boldness in battle prompted the enemy to nickname him “the Black Devil.” While serving in the army, Thomas-Alexandre married Marie-Louise-Elizabeth Labouret, the daughter of a prominent hotel proprietor, and the couple had one child, Alexandre. In 1806, when young Alexandre was four years old, Thomas-Alexandre was killed.
The Three Musketeers is a historical romance, filled with adventure. Its brave and gallant heroes are generous to those who need help, chivalrous to women, and above all loyal to each other as their famous motto proclaims: “All for one, one for all.” Their adventures may sometimes appear far-fetched, but the musketeers believe in their own abilities so strongly and carry off their deeds with such style that the reader has little difficulty in believing them capable of all that they do. The individual Characters are easily distinguishable, but they are not profoundly developed, for fast-paced and suspenseful action is more important to Dumas’s storytelling than is character. Dumas clearly differentiates good and evil Characters, although the novel’s treatment of good and evil is not as straightforward as it might first appear. The society of the period differs considerably from today’s, and the novel provides an interesting look at 17th-century social hierarchy, religion, and relationships between men and women.
The story is set in 17th-century France. Dumas’s portrait of the time, which was already two centuries past when he wrote about it, is unquestionably idealized. The novel is intended to play on the reader’s sense of nostalgia with a look back to a more romantic and picturesque time when men were gallant and chivalrous. Dumas constructs his tale around three historical events of the time: the affair of the queen’s diamonds, the siege of La Rochelle, and the assassination of the Duke of Buckingham, each of which dominates approximately one third of the novel. Many of most famous and powerful people of the time appear in the novel as Characters: King Louis XIII; his wife, Anne of Austria; his priest, Cardinal Richelieu; and Charles I’s prime minister of England, the Duke of Buckingham. Dumas intertwines the lives and actions of his fictional heroes with those of these important historical figures, depicting the latter as genuinely human Characters with a complex variety of motives, abilities, and faults. Many translations of the novel retain a smattering of French phrases and titles of address that add to the French atmosphere.
The Three Musketeers focuses on d’Artagnan, who is the hero of the book, and his three friends: the musketeers Athos, Porthos, and Aramis. D’Artagnan’s great ambition in life is to become a musketeer, a member of the elite group of King Louis XIII’s personal bodyguards. His three friends embody the best qualities of the corps. A rivalry that exists between the king’s musketeers and Cardinal Richelieu’s guards grows into the musketeers’ active resistance to the cardinal himself, and to his servants.
The Three Musketeers draws on the literary conventions of the three genres to which it belongs: the romantic, the Gothic, and the historical novel. As a romantic novel, its main interest lies in action rather than character: love, adventure, and combat form the basis of all the episodes of the story. The period seems exotic because of its remoteness, and so possesses a nostalgic attractiveness. The Characters appear heroic and larger than life, and the musketeers accomplish almost impossible deeds. At times the trappings are almost Gothic: damsels need to be rescued and won, enigmatic and inscrutable strangers come and go mysteriously, and the Characters live under the threat of being arrested and locked in a dungeon.
Because The Three Musketeers takes place in the 17th century and was written in the 1840s, the standards and customs of the society pictured differ considerably from those of today. Modern readers, particularly American readers, may not always understand the social relationships of a complexly hierarchical society. The main Characters almost all come from the upper classes and assume their superiority on the social scale quite unconsciously. The terms “gentleman” and “lady” had different connotations then than they do now, and they were applied only to nobility. Attitudes toward religion and the church differed then, too. France was an almost wholly Catholic country in which the Protestants were persecuted. The church was one of the few careers open to the younger sons of the nobility and had far more secular influence than it does now. Thus, Aramis’s attraction toward it is based on more than just natural piety, and Richelieu’s position as a cardinal is a logical stepping stone to his political career as the prime minister for King Louis XIII.
1. The title of the book is The Three Musketeers, but the story seems to be mostly about d’Artagnan, who does not become a musketeer until late in the story. What point is Dumas making with the title?
1. How does d’Artagnan’s character change from the beginning of the novel to the end? What episodes reveal these changes?
Because of the huge success of The Three Musketeers, Dumas wrote two sequels to it. Both of them are set much later than the original novel and show the effects age has on the musketeers and the friendship they share. The events of Twenty Years After occur, as the title suggests, two decades after the events of the first book. France is suffering from political turmoil, and the musketeers, now in their 40s, find themselves in opposite factions. Their differences threaten their former friendship and loyalty; even after resolving not to let politics destroy their unity, they often end up working against each other. They are no longer the invincible foursome of their youth. Readers who know little about French political history will probably find much of the book hard to follow, for the events are much more complex than those of The Three Musketeers. The portion of Twenty Years After that lovers of the original novel will probably enjoy most concerns the musketeers’ adventure in England, where they try to rescue Charles I from execution but are foiled by Mordaunt, the son of Milady.