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.
By modern standards, The Three Musketeers undoubtedly appears sexist: the main Characters are men, and the women often seem passive and usually have to be rescued. Milady, the one woman who takes an active role, is a villain who hardly serves as an appropriate role model. The treatment of sexual relations in the narrative depends a good deal upon whether or not the reader has an abridged edition of the novel. In the unabridged edition, it is clear that d’Artagnan’s relationships with Milady and her maid Kitty are not celibate. Abridged editions touch only obliquely on the sexual aspects of the love affairs. D’Artagnan’s conduct in these two affairs is neither admirable nor gentlemanly, especially given that he is supposedly in love with the missing Constance Bonacieux at the same time. His behavior provokes the narrator to comment that d’Artagnan’s lack of scruples springs mostly from two of his dominant characteristics, pride and ambition, but also from the looser morals of the era. Admitting that d’Artagnan is a flawed young man, the narrator tries to present him in the best light possible.
The novel also contains a great deal of violence because of the conventions of the romantic tradition into which it fits. Duels and battles occur regularly and usually end with casualties. But the violence is not sadistic; the musketeers and even most of their adversaries observe rules of fair play. The distant historical Setting also tones down the impact of the fighting.
The execution of Milady at the climax of the novel raises major ethical Questions. Although she has committed many monstrous crimes and unquestionably deserves to be punished, the fact that the musketeers privately try and execute her is deeply disturbing. Horrific as her crimes have been, her terror during the trial and on the way to her execution is also horrific-to the point that readers can feel some sympathy with d’Artagnan when he is moved by Milady’s pleas for mercy.