On Alexandre Dumas

Alexandre Dumas was a man among mice. He stood against critics, bigots, and aristocrats rising above them all to become one of the greatest authors of all time. Two pillars that provide the base for his pantheon of greatness are The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers which show how he can communicate to all peoples from gods to generals. Dumas is a rags to riches to rags story of a man who used his God given talent to revolutionize French literature by using a delicate balance of characters, representative locations, and an alternating style of dialogue  in order to discuss social, political, and moral issues that plagued the French world  Dumas lived in.

            The life of Alexandre Dumas began with no quarter. Born the grandson of a Haitian slave and an aristocrat  Dumas’ father, Thomas Alexandre, was sold into slavery by his father. Years later the son was claimed by his father, but in an effort to cut ties, joined the French military. He earned his way into the favor Napoleon Bonaparte, and at the age of 31 was given the commission of a general (Foote). By this time Thomas Alexandre Dumas had married the daughter of an innkeeper, a “prize” suitable to a mulatto of the age, however the hopes of a happy life were put on hold when the general was captured in battle. He was later imprisoned, tortured, and poisoned before an armistice allowed his return to France. Thomas Alexandre Dumas’ return to france was not a welcome one, for he no longer had the favor of the Emperor, which left him without back pay or pension. In his absence his son had been born in 1802. The young Alexandre’s heroic father returned a gaunt and broken man who soon died of stomach trauma due to his poisonings. Yet Alexandre and his mother were determined to survive. Taking up her mother’s profession Madame Dumas provided a life for her son where he could peaceably hunt rabbits in the woods, and be sheltered by the slanders and racism of the upper class (Foote). Yet slander was never far from Dumas in his adolescence. When he was a young man he wore an undersized suit to a formal ball in which he was “the fool,” yet Dumas took in the attention and merely said that he would much rather prefer people talk about him when he was not there than people not talk about him even if he was there.

            Teaching himself to read and write Dumas set his eyes on the capitol of the modern world, Paris, believing that it was with his skill as a writer that he would make his fortune. Securing himself the humble post of a copyist for the duc d’Orleans in which his literary skills as a writer benefitted him greatly Dumas ingratiated himself with the upper crust of French society. The name of his father helped his integration into the aristocracy which culminated when he secured a place at tables of the new and fantastical French Romantic Movement’s primary leaders. There he became friends with  men such as Victor Hugo and Charles Nodier (Foote). Taking the novel Romantic movement, Dumas set the pen to his own words and in 1829 released his first play, Henry III, to the public. Dumas’ Henry III was an immediate success, as were many of the other plays that he churned out one after another for the next three years. He made many millions, but managed to spend many times more than those many millions on the finer things in life. He held parties, he held events, and he held women, but pressure from his creditors forced him to flee France for Switzerland. While on his self proclaimed “vacation” Dumas wrote many notes and observations about the country he traveled through, and upon returning to France published those notes and observations in 1834 under the title  Travel Impressions: In Switzerland. Having settled his debts for the moment Dumas set his mind once again to the world of fiction, but this time it would not be to the theatre. Serialization was a new concept in literature during the late 1830s and early 1840s. Dumas used this burgeoning media form to its full potential, writing gripping novels that kept his audience wondering what would happen next, only to leave them with the question: What will happen tomorrow?  For twenty years France was Dumas’ oyster. Works such as The Count of Monte Cristo, the d’Artagnan Romances: The Three Musketeers, Twenty Years After, and The Vicomte de Bragelonne, and The Fencing Master were phenomenal hits which earned Dumas the title of the most popular writer of his time (Foote). His works did not only influence every level of French society, they permeated the culture of England, America, Prussia, and the Holy Roman Empire, conferring upon him a unequivocal greatness and fame.

When he was not the subject of praise he was the subject of criticism or scandal. With his many successes came many more millions, and as men with money are want to do he held many a woman, courting over 27 mistresses, making him a subject for gossip in the parlors of the upper crust (Foote). Yet censure and scandal caused him to be the subject of many lawsuits and duels, which only served to increase his popularity.

            For thirty years Dumas enjoyed the finest that French life had to offer, but always made it clear that in his heart he was man of the people. Flaunting his father’s past with great rebels, and often referring to his modest beginnings, sometimes in his own works, he participated in three people’s rebellions. During one such rebellion he commandeered a cab and taking up an axe, “liberated” a store of gunpowder for his fellow men to use.

            Years of lavishness left Dumas a penniless man and throughout his years he often was forced to flee the country with creditors in hot pursuit, only to return with a brilliant new travel journal to sell. But as the years moved from the 1850s to the 1860s literary form began to change, as did the times. Dumas’ last writings were overshadowed by other more current writers and he was largely pushed to the side. A life of partying had finally caught up to him. He died in 1870 and was buried in the place of his birth, Villers-Cotterets. He left the world penniless, but left the world with some of the greatest literary works of all time.

            Alexandre Dumas is a name that will be known in the annals of history for all time. He was a visionary leader in literature to the point where his themes, tropes, and styles are used to this day in not only literature, but radio, television, and cinema. Dumas had the unique ability to tie people, places, and events together in ways that no one else had ever done before him. Furthermore, he wrote not solely for the aristocracy. In fact, many of his works are aimed towards the bourgeois, the common man. He was among the first to give the common man a well crafted story that  tied history, geography, action, and life into one solid masterpiece.

            History is something that every person who contributes to society knows about, but they do not know the fine details, they know the broad strokes: the names, the places, the events. Historical fiction is popular because a writer can add fine details, true or not, between the broad strokes. “As with most historical fiction, part of [a] book’s appeal is that it makes history ‘come alive,’ ­­ it turns the lists of names of kings and dukes into people with characters, virtues, and vices. But dramatized history by itself does not make a novel, and indeed runs the risk of resembling a textbook for children (Dill 36).”  Dumas used characters from France’s greatest eras and gave them life. For some critics it was too much life.  In Victoria Foote-Greenwell’s The Life and Resurrection of Alexandre Dumas, she states, “He was [often] attacked for playing fast and loose with historical facts. When accused of raping history, he responded, ‘Yes, but look how beautiful the children are.’” His audience, the bourgeois, did not care that he took creative liberty, they cared about the fun thrilling action of The Three Musketeers, and the mysterious intrigue of The Count of Monte Cristo, because in the end, the middle class is what influenced Dumas the most. Catherine Nesci states it plainly, “ Historical changes and revolutionary disruptions [had] made the Romantic writer a ghost, and [had] disengaged him

[from the people.]

Dumas questioned the Romantic writer’s function in [the changing] post-revolutionary world.” The sense of French Pride that had arisen with the revolution, and later Napoleon, had faded in Dumas’ time, but the memory of the glory was intact. That national pride, that hope that glory would come again was what Dumas gave to the people. He wrote France a history that could reignite its national patriotism.

Dumas drew in readers of all social backgrounds by using unique dialogue types. His dialogue, by modern, realistic standards, is often long winded and full of preposterous declarations of adoration, fidelity, patriotism, and other noble sentiments. Not all of his dialogue is flowery and unrealistic: He acquired a reputation for writing whole pages of one ­line verbal exchanges full of tension and information. This kind of dialogue writing is realistic and engrossing (Delaney 5). Dumas’ characters came to life, illuminated by dialogue any man could understand, but dialogue advanced enough that the more intelligent of his readers could find deep meaning in.

Dumas draped complex and advanced plots and themes around thrilling narratives, often providing two sets of protagonists and antagonists. The first set would be main characters, the Three Musketeers, d’Artagnan, Edmond Dantes, and others. These men were loveable characters who all people grew to love. The second set would be the historical figures. The kings and queens of the past’s plots and ploys added another level of figurative action that complemented the swashbuckling adventures and stories of the rugged heroes.  For a long time Dumas was treated with condescension by academia as a mere plebeian entertainer….[but the ability to create] instinctive heroes, voluptuous atmosphere, a galloping narrative and breakneck dialogue [gave him favor with the bourgeois] (Foote). Dumas’ critics are gone, and his stories are still told again and again.

The Three Musketeers is unquestionably Alexandre Dumas’ most popular piece of literature. Memorable characters, important pieces of history and a fantastically designed and executed plot make this novel great. There have been over twenty film and television adaptations of the famous d’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, providing each generation with their stories in one way or another (Foote). They are so ingrained into our lives that even candy bears their name. The action of the book is what captures the hearts of the majority of readers, yet embedded in the flashy characters and flamboyant exchanges between the men and women are discussions of the moral philosophy of the day in the form of murder, infidelity, and bastardization, all issues which Dumas felt strongly about. Additionally, Dumas uses duality between parallel plots and settings in the form of Cardinal Richelieu and Anne of Austria in France, and Lord Buckingham and Lady de Winter in England in order to give his readers more than just an adventure.

The Three Musketeers is a grand action thriller based loosely on history, a romance, and a mystery novel. It combines all the elements of an incredible tale successfully. One protagonist, the famous Gascon, d’Artagnan, was a real musketeer whose memoirs inspired Dumas to write his three romances, the first of which is The Three Musketeers. Memorable lines such as the famous credo of the musketeers “All for one and one for all, united we stand divided we fall (67),” inspire grand scenes of thrilling action. Other lines from the novel are pieces of charming dialogue. “I do not often laugh, sir, as you may perceive by the air of my countenance; but nevertheless, I retain the privilege of laughing when I please(7),”  and “The merit of all things lies in their difficulty (221),” provide a witty banter for the characters to come alive in. This alert and focused langue ensnared the hearts of readers which kept them yearning for what Dumas would write next.  

Another quality that contributed to the success of The Three Musketeers was Dumas’ brilliant characterization of societal tropes in his characters that are connected through location. In making the hero, d’Artagnan, a Gascon, Alexandre Dumas early establishes the region’s association with boastfulness and flamboyance. He repeatedly demonstrates that d’Artagnan deserves his Gascon reputation for passion, daring, and astuteness (Goscilo 1). D’Artagnan is a dynamic character who grows and changes throughout the story, but his companions who are more caricatures of characters than real characters are not connected to a place and are not given any dynamic progression.  Other characters who seem to be static are actually quite dynamic. Two antagonists, Lord Buckingham and Milady de Winter, are English, which at the time would be considered quite evil. But although the narrative alludes to England at one point as France’s “eternal enemy,” its prominent English figures, Buckingham and Lord de Winter, prove quite sympathetic characters, even while the English are supporting La Rochelle. (Goscilo 2) This is how Dumas blurred the lines of history. He reduced Buckingham’s politics, including his alliance with the Huguenots, to romantic gestures motivated by love for Queen Anne. Once Lady de Winter’s plots on behalf of Cardinal Richelieu and herself take her to England, she is clearly the far greater enemy for the French heroes — a satanic femme fatale from whom they would save the dashing English lover (Goscilo 2). These very real characters in history are humanized in a backwards struggle between two countries.

            Dumas was an innovator, he was among the first to use serialization to full effect. According to Patricia Ann King, “[Dumas] kept his public in a constant state of suspense by detailing romantic love affairs, intrigues involving impersonation, dastardly murders and betrayals, suggestion of perversions, and multiple other complications and subplots that increased tension and delayed denouement as long as possible (King 5).” These love affairs and intrigues caught the eyes of the reader, and drew them into the story. King continues by saying, “It kept the income flowing for the writer, who shamelessly padded his prose with asides and other details to flesh out the story installments (117 in all) to necessary length (King 5).”  The “fluff” “ is what made Dumas such a fabulous writer. He filled the spaces between dialogue with fantastic descriptions of the 16th century world. King concludes by saying“it provided inexpensive and regular entertainment for a relatively captive readership (King 5).” Serialization allowed Dumas to know where his money was coming from, it was secure in the subscriptions his readers held which allowed him to explore and develop his literature in his own unique way.

            Alexandre Dumas’s greatest success was The Three musketeers. It was his grand entrance onto the literary stage of the world, but it was also a story of brotherhood. Four men who were inseparable pledge their lives to each other in the greatest testament to brotherly love. Even while they lay surrounded by overwhelming odds our heroes, and heroes they were indeed, were undaunted. “It was like the eve of a battle; the heart’s beat, the eyes laughed, and they felt that the life they were perhaps going to lose, was after all, a good thing” (Musketeers 143). Such noble and powerful characters are what propelled Dumas into the annals of history.

            Edmond Dantes, better known as the Count of Monte Cristo, is not Dumas’ most famous protagonist, but he is the greatest protagonist Dumas offers up in his career. Following in the same format as The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo is a delicate novel which replaces the brazen shows of force with meticulous planning, detailed plots and subplots, and brilliant characterization. The book addresses social concerns of many eras, as well as providing a mix of static and dynamic characters that keep any reader engaged and interested.

            “The Count of Monte Cristo,” claims Patricia King “ might be based on a true story that occurred some thirty years before the writing of the book, a story concerning a man named François Picaud who had been betrayed by friends and falsely imprisoned. He had inherited a large fortune from a fellow prisoner and, upon his release, successfully sought revenge against those who had denounced him (4).” With this broad framework Dumas wove a thrilling novel into history in which Picaud is replaced with the noble and endearing Edmond Dantes. Edmond Dantes is the loveable rogue who goes through a trial by fire, unjust imprisonment, in order to rise and enact his revenge. Though Edmond is a fully rounded, complex, and memorable character, most of the others who appear in Most who appear in The Count of Monte­Cristo are one-­dimensional and more stereotypes than portraits of actual individuals (King 5). However, the mix of static and dynamic characters is what makes the tale come to life. If the antagonists were fully alive characters who the audience empathized with then the reader would not be so willing to accept their comeuppances. The primary antagonists, against whom Edmond seeks revenge, represent facets of humanity’s baser instincts. These facets are the fatal flaws that Dumas saw in the aristocracy, for in the end all of the characters find wealth only to die with nothing of meaning.  Fernand, who through subterfuge gains Edmond’s intended love, symbolizes lust — for flesh, for power, for wealth — and suffers death, the ultimate price, as a result of his fatal flaw( King 5). Fernand represented the shallowness of the aristocracy. Danglars, the eventual banker, stands for jealousy and avarice and is accordingly ruined financially, an outcome that will hurt him most (King 5). The spirit of greed is Danglars’ fatal flaw.  His actions mirror the movements of the greedy idle rich. Lastly Villefort, the rational prosecutor who has subverted the law for his own ends, is a metaphor for blind ambition; in condemning his own murderous wife to death (she poisons herself and her young son), he condemns himself to madness, the loss of his rationality, as the result of a series of increasingly profound misfortunes that befalls him. (King 5) Not even Edmond remains wholly pure. As a result of his trials he is left with barely a vestige of the man we knew, but just enough for the reader to still see.

Edmond Dantes, the poor sailor, rises from the ashes of a death sentence of imprisonment, gains aristocratic status but retains his humanity in order to slay evil of the aristocracy that sought to force him down. In writing a book that so perfectly depicted the good and bad of the upper class of society Dumas gave his readers a window into another world, but that world was as dark as the prison cell from which Edmond Dantes escaped.

            The Count of Monte Cristo is a dynamic piece in its own right. The novel changes character dramatically from beginning to end. The first half consists of a relatively straightforward plot with a limited number of characters, and most of what takes place is seen through the eyes of Edmund. The second half becomes very complicated, with conflicting loyalties and motivations and a very large cast of characters, several of whom assume the role of narrative focus (King 2). This change in point of view is necessary. We begin our story with the poor Edmond Dantes, a young man brimming with energy and life. The audience falls in love with Dantes’ charm, and empathizes with his struggle. We are overjoyed when he finds a treasure that is worth incalculable millions at the end of the first book. But at the end of the second book there is a change in Dantes as he seeks his revenge. Dumas distances Dantes from his readers so they do not think that it is wrong for Edmond, the Count, to play chess with the lives of those around him. This “gray-zoning” of moral character added a darkness to The Count of Monte Cristo.  “If I die, remember, Maximilian, my corpse is that of an honest but unfortunate man” (The Count 158 is a line that legitimizes suicide.  “Farewell kindness, humanity, and gratitude! Farewell to all the feelings that enpend the heart! I have been heaven’s substitute to recompense the good – now the god of vengeance yields to me his power to punish the wicked (160)!” Is another line that causes the audience to support a man who is promising to hunt down those who wronged them and ruin them.  Dumas used inventive and cunning writing to twist the strings of morality into a darker shape. It was out of darkness of the aristocracy where the readers sees the virtue of being middle class.

            Dumas was a titan when it came to adding detail to a story. Don D’Ammassa states that “it provides the modern reader with information about that historical period, which adds another level of realism.” That realism into the upper class of society showed the grandeur in which a poor man falls into. Edmond Dantes fell into his fortune, and by showing how one comman man could do it, every other common man begins to hope that maybe one day he could find a treasure as Dantes did and gain wealth beyond the dreams of avarice. In The Count of Monte Cristo the common man sees one of their own punished and rewarded by life in one of the greatest novels of all time.

            Alexandre Dumas will never be forgotten, and his works will never cease to be adapted and readapted, his stories are too dynamic. Every time period, every generation, finds a way to spin the Three Musketeers or Edmond Dantes into their own heroes. His brilliant gift of storytelling causes a reader to fall in love with this Frenchman. Dumas, as a young man, pledged that he would define his name  through the pen. It could be argued that the pen is more defined by Dumas than Dumas was ever defined by the pen. He left the world a bankrupt but gave the world something more valuable than any amount of money.

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