In this series of posts, I’ll explain how the books on my Favorite Works page made the list — essentially, why my favorites are my favorites — as well as dive into the craft lessons I learned from each.
The Three Musketeers is a rare book among my collection of favorites. When I look at the novels lining my bookshelves, I see many that I love, revere, and respect — works I consider sacred, ones that I approach with a certain sense of formality. If novels were relatives, most of my books could be likened to my maternal grandmother, a wonderful woman whose identity is the product of hard work and sacrifice, but whose character — shaped by the Great Depression — I could never hope to attain in my own life, simply because of the differences in our experiences. Most of my favorite works are, like her, powerful forces that leave me in awe of their scope and artistic dedication; with that awe comes a certain level of detachment, as well as the realization that I will never be, for example, Vladimir Nabokov. However, to continue with the relative analogy, The Three Musketeers is more like my brother: witty, clever, and accessible, uniquely intelligent in its own way, but never condescending. The Three Musketeers feels less like a book and more like a friend, and it’s a friend I revisit often.
The premise doesn’t have any high literary aspirations; it was written initially as a serial adventure novel, and stylistic evidence of the fact that Dumas was paid by the line abounds (flip to any of the dialogue sections if you need an example). Although the story is probably familiar to most readers through cultural osmosis, I’ll summarize it here: a young Gascon, d’Artagnan, makes his way to Paris with the intention of joining M. de Treville’s troupe of Musketeers. On the way, he duels with a mysterious man named Rochefort, who works for an even more mysterious woman named Milady. Despite inauspicious beginnings, d’Artagnan makes a name for himself among the Musketeers and soon finds himself with three close friends: Athos, who’s mysterious in his own right, Porthos, who’s boasting and vainglorious, and Aramis, who continuously insists, despite his womanizing tendencies, that his stay in the Musketeers is only temporary and that his soul actually belongs to the Catholic church. In aligning themselves against Cardinal Richelieu, King Louis’ adviser and sometime-rival, the musketeers soon find themselves embroiled in a plot that takes them from France to England and back again. And all the while d’Artagnan pines for Madame Bonacieux, the wife of his landlord, who is herself caught up in Richelieu’s maneuverings.
It’s action-packed, but readers tend to forget that Musketeers is also a funny book — I don’t usually laugh out loud while I’m reading, but there are several instances throughout the story that make me chuckle every time I read them. The humor extends even to the chapter titles: the section in which a chancellor, who used to live in a monastery and ring the chapel bell whenever he felt the stirrings of lust, is tasked with removing a letter from underneath the queen’s dress is called “Wherein Monsieur Pierre Seguier, Chancellor of France and Keeper of the Seals, Looks More Than Once for a Bell to Ring as Lustily as He Was Wont to Do of Yore.”
Most of the early chapters, and even some of the later ones, deliver on the humorous promises that such titles extend. Take, for example, the scene during which Monsieur Bonacieux informs d’Artagnan of his wife’s abduction:
“You were saying, ‘As sure as I am Bonacieux–’ Forgive me for interrupting, but I think your name is not unfamiliar.”
“Possibly, Monsieur. I am your landlord.”
“Ah, you are my landlord!” said d’Artagnan, half-rising and bowing to his visitor.
“Ay,” said the visitor pertinently. “You have been here three months, have you not, Monsieur? Of course I realize how with your important occupations, you have forgotten to pay me my rent. But since I have not bothered you about this, I thought you would appreciate my tact. …I have seen you constantly surrounded by musketeers, men of the proudest and most resolute bearing. …Naturally, I supposed that you and your friends would be delighted at once to do the Queen justice and the Cardinal an ill turn.”
“I also bethought me that in view of the three months’ rental about which I have said nothing–”
“Yes, yes, yes, you have already used that argument. I find it excellent.”
Or the scene in which Monsieur Bonacieux meets Cardinal Richelieu for the first time, after having witnessed his wife’s abduction, and accuses Rochefort of the kidnapping:
“That’s the man,” Bonacieux cried.
His Eminence again shook the silver bell. The officer reappeared.
“Hand this fellow over to the guards. I shall want him presently.”
“No, no, Monseigneur, it is not the man… I made a mistake… I was thinking of another man who does not look like this gentleman at all… This gentleman here is a respectable man…”
“Take away this idiot,” the Cardinal said curtly.
In addition to their humorous qualities, the scenes above both demonstrate Dumas’ ability to reveal character through dialogue, and here’s where I begin to take my craft lessons. Whereas in my previous post, I talked about Hemingway’s character development through the unsaid, Dumas is a master of the opposite. From the two brief scenes above, rendered mostly through dialogue, the reader already knows that Monsieur Bonacieux is in turn avaricious, grasping, desperate, conniving, and eager to please, depending on the situation he’s in. Cardinal Richelieu is a hard man who’s absolutely in control of his surroundings. And d’Artagnan is carefree and fun-loving, somewhat to the detriment of the demands that reality makes on him.
Of course, Dumas is a master of development through dialogue because most of the novel is dialogue: characters interrupting each other, repeating points, and dragging out conversations, all for the sake of adding more lines to the work and increasing Dumas’ paycheck. But Dumas rarely resorts to exposition through dialogue, and when he does, it’s hardly ever clunky — none of that “Now, Bob, you know I’m a dentist who’s unhappy in his marriage” stuff that plagues novice writers’ conversations. And when the characters speak, their voices shine through as well. You know how readers should be able to tell which character’s talking, even without dialogue tags? That’s true not only of the musketeers, who each have their distinct ways of speaking and preferred topics of conversation, but also of Richelieu, Louis, Buckingham, the Bonacieux family, Milady, and Anne of Austria. And everything these characters say, beyond advancing their development, also furthers the plot.
The Three Musketeers has many faults, when held up against today’s writing commandments: several of its characters are two-dimensional, it occasionally veers into melodrama, it’s ripe with non-said dialogue tags, and it plays havoc with historical fact (Richelieu was, in truth, one of the great and intelligent men of France, but Dumas needed a villain, and Richelieu filled that role). As I’ve learned to read like a writer, many books that have committed similar crimes, although formerly favorites, have fallen into disgrace. But not the Musketeers: I’ve taken the book with me to the Caribbean, to Spain, and to my father’s homeland of France (and let me tell you, there’s no greater pleasure than reading about the musketeers’ adventures in the streets around the Louvre as you’re walking those streets yourself), continuing to love it despite its faults. And as a writer wishing to study character development and voice, one could do worse than to examine The Three Musketeers.