Chunkster Challenge Review: The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas, père

This was my third Chunkster Challenge read, the one for November, but for technical reasons (i.e. it took me 2 days to write the review) I was unable to post it until today. My final book in the challenge will be The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, which is incidentally also a Top Mysteries Challenge book.

Original French title: Les Trois Mousquetaires
Genre: Adventure, historical novel
Year of publication: 1844
Setting & time: France and England, 1625-28
Translated into English by: William Barrow (1846)
Page count: 576

The edition I read is one of the earliest English translations of this classic story. According to Wikipedia, this edition, which seems to have stayed in print all this time is “fairly faithful to the original” with the exception that “all of the explicit and many of the implicit references to sexuality had been removed to conform to 19th-century English standards”. This has made me curious to read a modern, unexpurgated version, but that will have to wait until I get a hankering to re-read it.

The book is, apart from the omissions, well translated, in the sense that I do not get a feeling of foreignness from the text like I do with another 19th century French novel I have been reading (Le Bossu by Paul Féval) that has a very French sentence structure and a stilted formality which comes across as forced and strange in Icelandic. It may be the difference between two translators, or the difference between two authors, or both, that has caused it. Some books are simply more difficult to translate well than others are.

Before I go any further, I must mention that the copy I have is published by Reader’s Digest, but is not one of their digests, but a full edition of the 1846 English translation. It surprised me to discover that RD publishes full editions, but what didn’t come as a surprise was that the book is gorgeous. This image doesn’t do it justice, as neither the red nor the blue are correctly reproduced, and gold never comes out right on the computer screen. Say what you want about Reader’s Digest, but you must admit that they know their stuff when it comes to producing books that look sumptuous and expensive.

On with the review, and best start with a short synopsis, in case someone happens across this review who is unfamiliar with the story:

D’Artagnan, a young man from Gascogne, comes to Paris to join the king’s musketeer corps. He is unable to join up immediately because of politics, but befriends three musketeers, all of them using pseudonyms for one reason or another: Athos, Porthos and Aramis. Because of d’Artagnan’s love for his landlord’s young wife he is able, with the assistance of the three musketeers, to do the queen a good turn, thereby arousing the admiration and ire of the king’s chief minister, Cardinal Richelieu, and the hatred of one of his spies, the beautiful Lady de Winter, who wreaks terrible revenge on him and indeed on anyone who offends her.

And now I must, for the benefit of the unlikely reader who is completely unfamiliar with the story, give a fair SPOILER WARNING. THE ENDING OF THIS BOOK WILL BE REVEALED BELOW. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

The Three Musketeers is first and foremost an adventure tale and as such a very effective one. The fast-paced narrative sparkles and fizzes with action and humour is never far away when describing the adventure of the four friends. D’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos and Aramis are strongly moulded types whose reactions and actions can always be predicted once one has got to know them, and in fact no character shows any kind of change or growth, except the villainess, Lady de Winter (traditionally called Milady, although not in this particular translation). Call them stereotypes or call them archetypes – people have done both. However, it doesn’t matter much, as in a story of his kind you don’t need complex, developing characters. All that matters is that the lead characters are not bland, and none of the four main characters nor the villainess can ever be accused of that.

Milady is an interesting case, as she is by far the best-developed character in the book, something most authors reserve for their protagonist. In the beginning, we see her simply as Richelieu’s henchwoman, with the implication of being clever and brave, but then she begins to unfold in stages. First we see her as a devious, egotistical schemer, then as a creature of wild, boiling passions tempered by rigorous self-control and finally, when she feels the web that she herself has helped weave closing around her, as a psychopath with only the barest intellectual control over her raging ego and murderous temper. Our final view of her is of someone broken by her own scheming having exploded in her face, a femme fatale hoist by her own petard. Broken, but not repentant.

The remaining characters, except possibly Richelieu, who is less of a plain and simple villain and more of a looming menace in the book than he is in any of the film versions, are just puppets, wooden stereotypes who never surprise the reader. But it doesn’t matter, because the narrative is plot driven and the characters are just along for the ride.

Read as a plain and simple adventure tale with no considerations for anything but entertainment value, The Three Musketeers deserves a resounding 5 stars, but...

...however I might enjoy the swashbuckling part of the story, I did find it to be strongly misogynistic. Reduced to its basics, it is very much a story of Man, or rather Men, against Woman, represented on the one hand by d’Artagnan and co. and on the other by Milady. Dumas always manages to make the men’s scheming and lies somehow seem to be a justifiable means to an end, while Milady’s scheming, both on her own and Richelieu’s behalf, as despicable and wrong. They take turns in winning their battles, but there is no doubt as to who will emerge victorious in the end. However, when the story is examined in modern feminist terms it is interesting to note that Milady is such a formidable enemy that it eventually takes a team of 10 brawny men to overcome this one physically weak but devious and clever woman: the four servants who spy and keep an eye on her, the four friends, her brother-in-law and an executioner. It is at the point where they capture and punish her that the shining heroes stop being so shiny. Their ritualistic psychological torture of her (which may be read as a kind of exorcism or as a kind of rape) and the biased mock trial tarnishes them and makes them, in the end, really no better than their victim, and the ignominious dumping of her decapitated body in the river, which Dumas no doubt intended to show that she deserved no better, today comes across as a hiding of the evidence of a plain and simple murder.

For this reason, I can really only give it 3 stars.

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