BORN: 1802, Villers-Cotterêts, France
DIED: 1870, Puys, France
GENRE: Fiction, short stories, drama
Henry III and His Court (1829)
The Three Musketeers (1844)
Twenty Years After (1845)
The Count of Monte Cristo (1846)
The Man in the Iron Mask (1847)
Enormously popular and prolific, Alexandre Dumas wrote two of the most widely read novels in literary history, The Three Musketeers (1844) and The Count of Monte Cristo (1845). He also helped to inaugurate and popularize Romantic drama on the French stage with his
two plays Henry III and his Court (1829) and Antony (1831).
Impoverished Youth Alexandre Dumas is generally called Dumas père to distinguish him from his illustrious son Alexandre (known as Dumas fils), who was also a dramatist and novelist. He was born on July 24, 1802. His father, Thomas-Alexandre Dumas Davy de la Pailleterie—born in Haiti to a minor French nobleman and a black slavewoman—had risen to the rank of general in the French revolutionary army. Dumas's parents met when Thomas-Alexandre was stationed at her family's inn in August of 1789. The couple was married in Villers-Cotterêts on November 28, 1792, and subsequently had three children, of whom Alexandre was the third, born a few months prior to his father's involuntary retirement from active duty.
Unsuccessful in his attempts to collect back pay, General Dumas and his family lived in poor circumstances. The general's health, which had declined during his detention in Italy, continued to fail, and he died in 1806. In Mémoires, published more than forty years later, Dumas would recall his deep affection and admiration for his father, whose image remained vivid in his mind.
An indifferent student, Dumas learned Latin, penmanship (at which he excelled), and reading. Dumas would later come to realize how poorly educated he was and would work to fill in the gaps in his studies. He would also transform his boyhood experience as a student in Villers-Cotterêts into the stuff of fiction, using it as the basis for his description of the main character's education in the novel Six Years Later; or, The Taking of the Bastille (1851).
Political Skeptic and Avid Hunter In November of 1814 Dumas's mother, whose repeated and increasingly desperate requests for payment of her husband's military pension had fallen on deaf ears, was granted instead a license to open a tobacconist's shop. It seems reasonable to assume that the ingratitude and indifference with which his father's (and later also his own) services were rewarded by the government colored Dumas's views of most political regimes. What is certain is that the rich and powerful characters who people Dumas's novels and plays only belatedly and begrudgingly reward those who have served them, if at all.
In August of 1816, Dumas began working as an errand boy. Hired to run legal documents out to area farmers unable to come to town to sign them, Dumas often took time out to go hunting rather than attend promptly to his duties. His lifelong passion for hunting and his intimate knowledge of the forest would later provide the raw materials for masterful descriptions of animals, woods, and sporting scenes. Likewise, the game that the adolescent Dumas used to supplement the family's income and diet would become the object of many of the recipes in the posthumously published Dumas on Food (1873).
A Love of Theater The year 1819 was marked by several significant events. On June 27, Dumas met Adolphe Ribbing de Leuven, a young Swedish nobleman. Destined to become a lifelong friend and occasional literary collaborator, Leuven stimulated Dumas's love of the theater. Through Leuven, Dumas would meet others who helped shape his career. In September, Dumas began a relationship with the first of his many mistresses. In October, Dumas attended a performance of Jean-François Ducis's 1769 adaptation of Hamlet in Soissons and was so overwhelmed by the experience that he purchased a copy of the text and learned the lead role by heart. When Leuven returned from a five-month stay in Paris in March of 1820, he and Dumas collaborated on two vaudeville comedies and a drama. No trace remains of any of these early pieces, which the authors tried, unsuccessfully, to have produced in Paris.
The family's financial circumstances were such that Dumas could not long remain without work. Thus, during the last days of March in 1823, the young man once again left for Paris, where he contacted some of his father's former comrades-in-arms in the hope that they would help him to find a job. It was only thanks to
General Maximilien Foy's last-minute discovery of Dumas's fine penmanship that the youth obtained a position on Louis-Philippe, Duc d’Orléans's secretarial staff.
In March of 1825 Dumas, Leuven, and James Rousseau wrote a one-act vaudeville, which was performed on September 22, 1825, and was published the same year. Dumas was reprimanded for neglecting his office duties, but he paid no attention to this advice, and in February of 1826 he, Leuven, and the printer L. P. Sétier founded and managed a poetry review named the Psyché, which appeared from March 1826 until January 1830. Dumas published many of his own poems in this review, the first of several newspaper ventures he would undertake during his lifetime.
Theatrical Triumph In the meantime, in the space of two months, Dumas had written a five-act historical drama in prose, Henry III and His Court. Rehearsals for the play began immediately. Because Dumas neglected his work to attend rehearsals, he was forced to choose between his job and his play. He chose the latter. The piece opened on February 10, 1829, with the duc d’Orléans and his dinner guests in attendance. The play was a triumph; it was published two weeks later.
This play includes many elements Dumas would use again in other dramas and novels: a compelling if broadly sketched picture of a society in the midst of a political conflict; real people and places used as a backdrop for an invented tale of passion and ambition; masterful dialogues coupled with powerfully dramatic conclusions; unhappy lovers, at least one of whom dies a spectacular death; a practitioner of some (pseudo-) scientific profession; characters who jump out of windows or use secret passages; women who are portrayed either as angels or devils, and men whose friendships are at least as powerful as love, if not more so.
Though suddenly a successful playwright, Dumas nonetheless resumed working for the Duc d’Orléans, and on June 20, 1829, he was assigned a position as assistant librarian at the Palais-Royal. In July, Dumas participated in the Revolution of 1830. He describes this tumultuous period in his Mémoires, highlighting in particular his seizure of an arsenal in Soisson. Life in times of revolution, much like the ones he lived through, also became an important part of his later fiction, such as The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo.
The Revolution of 1830 temporarily diverted Dumas from his writing. His liberal activities were viewed unfavorably by the new king, and Dumas traveled for a time outside France. A series of amusing travel books resulted from this period of exile.
His Collaborative Fiction When Dumas returned to Paris, a new series of historical plays flowed from his pen. He also began writing fiction at this time, first composing short stories and then novels. Almost all of the books composed during the next fifteen years first appeared in serial form. Dumas certainly profited from this arrangement but so too did the newspaper owners, who saw their readership increase whenever they printed a Dumas text. While Dumas and his collaborators continued throughout this time to write what might be called “stand alone” novels, they also developed several series of novels that are now among Dumas's best-known works. In collaboration with Auguste Maquet he wrote the trilogy The Three Musketeers (1844), Twenty Years After (1845), and Le Vicomte de Bragelonne (1850). The Count of Monte Cristo (1846) was also a product of this period. Dumas and his associates almost always adapted their novels for the theater, where they were also very well received.
Dumas had many collaborators—Auguste Maquet, Paul Lacroix, Paul Bocage, and P. A. Fiorentino, to name only a few—but it was undoubtedly with Maquet that he produced his best novels. He had assistants who supplied him with the outlines of romances whose original form he had already drawn up; then he would write the work himself.
Not surprisingly, Dumas's success during this period caused resentment among some of his contemporaries. In late February of 1845 Eugène de Mirecourt published a pamphlet entitled The Novel Factory: Alexandre Dumas & Company. Notorious for its virulent, racist attack on Dumas, Mirecourt's brochure also denounced Dumas for using collaborators and for unfairly monopolizing publishing opportunities in the newspapers. Dumas sued Mirecourt for slander and won his case on March 15, 1845. On March 26 he signed five-year exclusive contracts with the Presse and the Constitutionnel to furnish multivolume works for serial publication.
Dumas, who had never changed his republican opinions, greeted the Revolution of 1848 with enthusiasm and even ran as a candidate for the Assembly. In 1850 the Theâtre-Historique, which he had founded to present his plays, failed. After the coup d’état in 1851 and the seizure of power by Napoleon III, Dumas went to Brussels, where his secretary managed to restore some semblance of order to his affairs. There he continued to write prodigiously. After spending several years in Russia, Sicily, and Naples, he returned to Paris, where he found himself deep in debt and at the mercy of a host of creditors. His affairs were not helped by a succession of mistresses who expected—and received—lavish gifts from Dumas.
Working compulsively to pay his debts, Dumas produced a number of rather contrived works, among them Madame de Chamblay (1863) and Les Mohicans de Paris (1864), that were not received with great enthusiasm. His last years were softened by the presence of his son, Alexandre, and his devoted daughter, Madame Petel. He died in comparative poverty and obscurity on December 5, 1870.
Dumas does not penetrate deeply into the psychology of his characters; he is content to identify them by characteristic tags (the lean bitterness of Athos, the spunk of D'Artagnan) and hurl them into a thicket of wild and improbable adventures where, after heroic efforts, they will at last succumb to noble and romantic deaths. His heroes and heroines, strong-willed and courageous beings with sonorous names, are carried along in the rapid movement of the dramas, in the flow of adventure and suspenseful plots. Dumas adhered to no literary theory, except to write as the spirit moved him, which it often did.
Alienation and Infidelity The experiences of Dumas's life formed recurring themes in his work. In his early play Antony (1831), for example, he highlighted the conflicts between the individual and society in contemporary Paris. The central figures in the play are a wife and mother who, when forced to choose between her lover and her reputation, bows to social pressures; and Antony, a man of exceptional merit whose illegitimate birth and unjust ostracism have brought him to despair and then to revolt. Dumas would use illegitimacy again in many of his works: Captain Paul (1838), The Vicomte de Bragelonne; or, Ten Years Later (1848–1850), The Two Dianas (1846–1847), and The Regent's Daughter (1844). The alienated hero whose superior intelligence, pride, and frustrated passion render him an outsider would also reappear in such works as George (1843) and The Count of Monte Cristo (1844–1845), while the theme of adultery would figure prominently in Diana of Meridor (1846) as well as The Three Musketeers (1844) and The Queen's Necklace (1849–1850), among others.
The Merit of Popular Literature “Popularizer” though he may have been, Dumas was not and should not be regarded as merely the author of entertaining adventure novels for adolescents. He considered himself a historian, and he believed that his works, with their reappearing characters and their broad chronological scope, might accurately be compared to those of Honoré de Balzac. Thus, he wrote that “Balzac wrote a vast and beautiful work with a hundred sides to it entitled The Human Comedy. Begun at the same time as his, our work… might be called The Drama of France.” In the end, though, no collective title ever became attached to Dumas's works, perhaps because his writings could not be categorized under any single heading, however broadly defined. The author of novels and plays, short stories and fantastic tales, travel writings and memoirs, newspaper articles and recipes, Dumas chronicled the political experiences and personal adventures of innumerable real and imagined characters across the ages.
Historical Drama and Beyond The view of Dumas as the “French Walter Scott,” based as it is on a series of novels written from the mid-1840s to the mid-1850s, is an oversimplification. Although Dumas may be particularly remembered as the author of historical romances, when those works began appearing he was already famous for a run of successful plays. It is important to remember, too, that Dumas never abandoned his career as a playwright, although once his success as a novelist was confirmed, he came increasingly to adapt his novels for the stage rather than to write original pieces for the theater.
Despite their unflagging worldwide popularity, their near-universal availability, and their innumerable movie adaptations, the works of Alexandre Dumas have been largely unappreciated by critics. There has been, for some time now, a specialized journal devoted to Dumas studies, and articles on Dumas have regularly appeared in other scholarly publications. Still, Dumas's novels and plays receive little attention in the standard histories of nineteenth-century French literature and are rarely found on lists of required reading at French or American universities.
LITERARY AND HISTORICALCONTEMPORARIES
Dumas's famous contemporaries include:
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893): Russian composer perhaps best known today for his 1812 Overture and his ballet The Nutcracker, which was based on Dumas's adaptation of a story originally written by E. T. A. Hoffman.
Louis-Phillipe I (1773–1850): The “Citizen-King” of France from 1830 to 1848, and also the last king of France, placed on the throne during the July Revolution of 1830 that deposed Charles X. His reign was marked by initial support from working-class citizens that gradually turned to resentment, then open rebellion in 1848, when he abdicated the throne and fled to England.
Honoré Daumier (1808–1879): Painter, sculptor, draftsman, and caricaturist whose bitingly satirical political cartoons had the capacity to seriously sway public opinion. Just as famous for his lithographs and paintings, Daumier was one of France's most respected nineteenth-century artists.
Auguste Maquet (1813–1888): French author and playwright best known for his frequent collaborations with Dumas. Unlike Dumas, he used his book earnings wisely and lived in comfort until his death.
Too Many Books Throughout his long career, Dumas wrote works in virtually every literary genre, sometimes publishing two or more novels simultaneously in serial
form. From the nineteenth century to the present, critics have tended to be suspicious of this level of output, and they will often dismiss as unworthy of respect any author who writes a great deal. This attitude is apparent in the imaginary conversation Delphine de Girardin included in one of her Parisian Letters (1845) to explain why Dumas, like Balzac, failed to get elected to the French Academy:
Messrs. Balzac and Alexandre Dumas write fifteen to eighteen volumes a year, one can't forgive them for that.—But they are excellent novels.—That's no excuse, there are too many of them.—But they are wildly successful.—That's one more thing to hold against them: let them write a single, slim, mediocre volume, let no one read it, and then we'll see. Too much baggage is an impediment to admission to the Academy, where the orders are the same as at the Tuileries Garden; those who carry oversize packages are not allowed inside.”
Too Much Assistance Another factor also appears to have detracted from Dumas's critical stature: his use of collaborators. “Dumas does not have the kind of imagination that invents things, but one that puts things together,” writes one of his more recent biographers, Claude Schopp. Schopp goes on to suggest that, with the possible exception of Auguste Maquet, most of the author's collaborators contributed little more than the initial idea for a work, which Dumas then developed and wrote by himself. Still, at least since the time when the Romantics redefined literary genius in terms of originality and individuality, literary critics have been reluctant to praise authors who, like Dumas, relied on collaborators to help them research and develop their texts.
Too Easy to Read There are also those who, like Michel Picard, would argue that while Dumas's writings are engaging and even seductive, they do not display the characteristics of serious literature. A Dumas text reads so easily, contends Picard, that one is not even conscious of reading it; it operates “in such a way as to deprive the reader of the capacity to think.” Behind this lies the belief that “real” literature is defined by its complexities.
Critical appreciation of Dumas's achievements has increased over time. During his lifetime, he was beset by accusations of plagiarism and outright fraud. He defended his practices, minimizing the contribution of his collaborators and arguing that he had reworked rather than copied the writings of others, but his reputation was severely damaged nonetheless. His tendency late in his career to pad his works for the sake of profit further jeopardized his fame. However, Dumas's literary stature rebounded shortly after his death, as critics showed a greater tolerance towards his authorial practices. Many of these commentators emphasized that Dumas was indeed responsible for the original quality of his works regardless of his borrowings and collaborations. Still, most critics grant that Dumas neither aspired to nor achieved profundity. Instead, he is usually discussed in terms of his unmatched storytelling ability and depicted as an entertainer par excellence.
Dumas used his plays and fiction to explore the changing face of France both in his own times and in the past. Other works that cover similar ground include:
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831), a novel by Victor Hugo. Set in fifteenth-century Paris, this novel makes a powerful statement about social justice, as well as being an impassioned plea against “modernizing” the great cathedral.
The Phantom of the Opera (1911), a novel by Gaston Leroux. Based partly on Leroux's research into various legends surrounding the Paris opera house, this Gothic thriller tells the story of a deformed man's doomed love for a beautiful opera singer.
A Tale of Two Cities (1859), a novel by Charles Dickens. The second historical novel Dickens wrote, this chronicles the turbulent days of the French Revolution during the last decades of the eighteenth century, climaxing with the bloody Reign of Terror.
La Come´ die humaine, a collection of fiction by Honoré de Balzac. This sequence of ninety-five finished and forty-eight unfinished works depicts French society in the time between the Restoration of the French Monarchy after Napoleon (1815) and the July Monarchy of Louis-Phillipe that ended in the Revolution of 1848.
- Read about Cardinal Richelieu's real life and compare it to his life as portrayed by Dumas in The Three Musketeers. How accurately did Dumas portray the Cardinal?
- Dumas presents the siege of La Rochelle as an amusing picnic for the Musketeers. Research conflicts like the Thirty Years War and English civil war. What was war really like in the seventeenth century for the average foot soldier? Were there many opportunities for glory? Why did soldiers fight, if not for glory?
- Dumas enthusiastically supported the revolutions of 1830 and 1848. What was the cause behind these revolutions? Did they achieve any lasting effects on European politics and society?
- Critical opinion of Dumas's work has suffered incomparison to his contemporaries in large part because of the perception that Dumas only wrote “popular” fiction and did not aspire to create literature. Do you think this is a valid opinion? Is it possible for mass-market fiction to achieve greatness? Can you think of any modern examples of popular fiction that you would classify as great works of literature?
- Many of Dumas's best-known works are set in the past. Can you think of other examples of stories set in specific historical time periods that you have read? Do you think these types of books are valuable instruments for learning about the past? What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of learning about history through historical fiction?
Bell, A. Craig. Alexandre Dumas: A Biography and Study. London: Cassell, 1950.
Hemmings, F. W. J. The King of Romance: A Portrait of Alexandre Dumas. London: H. Hamilton, 1979.
Maurois, Andre. Alexandre Dumas: A Great Life in Brief (translated from the French by Jack Palmer White). New York: Knopf, 1955.
Stowe, Richard S. Alexandre Dumas, Pere. Boston: Twayne, 1976.