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.
Athos, Porthos, and Aramis appear to have little in common. Athos obviously belongs to the nobility. Silence, melancholy, and an aversion to women are his distinguishing attributes. He is a brilliant, honorable, virtuous man who hides a mysterious secret in his past. Porthos is his opposite: loud, coarse, vain, and ostentatious, his gifts lie in his enormous size and strength. He constantly boasts of his prowess with beautiful and highly placed women, but here, as with other aspects of his life, he exaggerates his good fortune. Aramis is handsome, charming, and elegant. His extreme discretion about his affairs makes him a mysterious figure. Although Aramis professes a vocation for the priesthood and seems pious, d’Artagnan discovers that he is the lover of one of the most highly placed ladies of the court and is involved in various intrigues. All three of the musketeers are spirited and gallant adventurers who share the traits of bravery and loyalty; they are united by their courage and a sense of common purpose.
D’Artagnan himself is a worthy companion of such men. Exceptionally proud and intelligent, he comes to Paris as a young man to earn his fortune. He brings with him no resources except his wits and his skill with a sword. He is both courageous and passionate, but these qualities are equally balanced by prudence. He is neither as well born nor as morally scrupulous as Athos; he is not as well bred as Aramis but admires the latter’s elegance and manners. D’Artagnan’s own cleverness exceeds that of Aramis, with whom he shares a talent for intrigue. D’Artagnan’s poverty sharpens his pride so that he possesses a vanity almost equal to that of Porthos. He also has a healthy amount of ambition and some greed mixed into his character. But above all d’Artagnan has the energy, passion, and enthusiasm of youth, traits that make him a likable character despite his faults.
The novel focuses on two political factions in France: one headed by the king and the other by the cardinal. The musketeers serve their captain, Monsieur de Treville, a perfect gentleman and courtier to King Louis XIII. Dumas depicts Louis as a weak and unintelligent ruler. Cardinal Richelieu’s character is the exact opposite: he is shrewd and forceful, a penetrating judge of character. The power of the government really rests with him, and he possesses a vision of France’s role and destiny. He commands both the respect and the hatred of the musketeers. Although not an evil man, Richelieu accomplishes his aims and rules efficiently by employing methods not quite in keeping with his position as a cardinal of the Catholic church. The musketeers’ mortal enemies are two of the cardinal’s favorite servants and spies: the Count de Rochefort and Milady de Winter.
Rochefort appears sporadically throughout the novel, but the truly evil person is Milady, who uses her beauty as a tool to seduce and destroy men and women. From the first moment d’Artagnan sees her at the beginning of the novel she fascinates him, and his fate becomes inextricably bound to hers.
Milady’s deeds become progressively more villainous. She steals the diamond studs from the Duke of Buckingham, forcing the musketeers to journey to England to save the queen’s reputation. She is responsible for the abduction of Constance Bonacieux, d’Artagnan’s mistress. She is revealed as Athos’s former wife, who ruined him when he discovered that she had been branded as a thief. She tries twice to murder d’Artagnan, and she seduces a young man and persuades him to assassinate the Duke of Buckingham. As her final crime, she poisons Constance Bonacieux. There is no doubt that she deserves her ultimate fate, although her trial by the musketeers and subsequent execution pose serious Questions about the musketeers’ ethical conduct.
The Characters and actions of the musketeers express the overall Themes of the book: the idealism of youth, the growth of maturity, the importance of loyalty and friendship, and the need for bravery in the struggle of good against evil. This struggle is summed up in the contrast between the two rivals for d’Artagnan’s affections: the treacherous Milady and the good Constance Bonacieux.