The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

I started reading classics because school teachers, published authors, and various other pedagogical authority figures told me I should.  In the last few years, I’ve read a number of them, ranging from The Importance of Being Earnest  to  Crime and Punishment. Some I’ve loved, some I’ve hated, and some I kept hoping would get better later in the story (they usually didn’t). The Three Musketeers isn't one of those classics. It’s a classic for a long list of reasons, most of which would spoil the story or make this post way too long. You should read The Three Musketeers, not because it’s a “classic,” but because it is a great freaking book.

Group photo from the 1921 film adaptation of The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas | Lydia Sanders #TwistyMustacheReviews
Group photo from the 1921 film adaptation. Image in the public domain.


D'Artagnan is a brave young Frenchman during the reign of Louis XIII, passionate in his quest to become a musketeer. Over the course of the story, he makes friends with Athos, Porthos, and Aramis (the three musketeers of the title), and gets involved in affairs with the state and with women. This book is a swashbuckling historical high-adventure type story, but plot-relevant social and political commentary is woven throughout. If I had to give it a modern genre designation, I’d say it’s a new adult historical adventure story.

The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas was first published in serial form in 1844.  It was originally written in French, but there are several English translations available. I listened to a Librivox reading of William Robson’s translation.

Things I Loved

1. The Characters.

There are lots of great characters in this book, but here are a few of my favorites:

  •  An adorable protagonist. In spite of d'Artagnan’s reckless decisions, I didn’t want to strangle him.  His fervor to become a musketeer makes his moments of impulsive stupidity endearing, especially after you see the culture of his family of origin, and of the Musketeers, the ranks of which he so desperately wants to join. D'Artagnan is a larger-than-life character with larger-than-life loyalty to his friends. His teenage fashion woes are also hilariously relatable.

  • A wickedly brilliant antagonist. It’s hard to believe that anyone could write a character so evil, sexy, and worthy of all of your respect, without being Satan’s personal confessor.  Dumas shows the deceitful genius of this character in action, rather than just telling us. The result is terrifying.

  • A brooding supporting character with a dark secret in his past. This character is like a modern YA love interest character, except that he doesn’t need to be objectified to be sexy. What a novel idea!

Photo from the 1927 Film Adaptation of The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas | Lydia Sanders #TwistyMustacheReviews
All for one, and one for all! Photo from the 1921 film adaptationImage in the public domain.

2. The Action.

The plot is a twisty yet cohesive drama, filled with adventure. Dumas does a great job at conveying information to the reader in an engaging way, whether that means fighting off invaders over a chatty breakfast or threatening the innkeeper who isn’t telling a friend’s off-screen story fast enough.

Somehow he manages to show, rather than tell, off-screen scenes through dialogue, adding in hefty doses of conflict to make the secondhand telling even more engaging than directly dramatizing the scene. He even makes this work when the stories the characters tell are straight-up lies.

3. The Humor.

This story is more action-adventure than comedy, but Dumas puts in plenty of hilarious one-liners and some humorous sequences. A few were even throw-back-your-head-laughing-and-clap-once funny. His humor might be my favorite style of humor.

4. The Prose.

Even the English translation I read is gorgeous and brilliant on a prose level. It makes me wish that I could just brush up on my French a little and read the original, but alas, my French reading ability was never that great, even with 3 years of A’s in high school French.

Weaknesses of the Story

The dialogue isn't always true to character. This is the trade-off that allows Dumas to dramatize past scenes through the mouth of a present character, so it doesn’t really bother me.

The action is sometimes over-the-top. This was necessary to keep up reader interest in the original serialized publication.

Sometimes the telling-past-scenes-through-dialogue technique is overused and becomes conspicuous or drags on obnoxiously long. This only bothered me once.

 D'Artagnan is romantically a jerk. He’s either an inconstant lover or else just a womanizer. While Dumas allows his female characters to be the heroes of their own stories, d'Artagnan looks at them more like objects for conquest. This works well with the rest of his character but may piss off modern readers.

The setting is sparse and difficult to picture unless you live in France. I would have liked the story to feel more grounded with less floating head syndrome, but with the serialization of the story and limited space in a magazine, I could see why this would be neglected or cut out.

The omniscient narrator sometimes makes it difficult to connect deeply with the main characters, but especially after extended periods experiencing the story from the antagonist’s perspective. For me, this weakened the impact of the story’s climax because I started to identify more with the antagonist than the protagonist. However, if the author had written from a first-person perspective or a close third-person perspective, I probably would have strangled d'Artagnan for making other stupid decisions and/or thinking stupid thoughts at the beginning of the story, so it’s a reasonable trade-off. More time with the protagonist right before the climax would have been nice though.

Bottom Line

In spite of its weaknesses, I loved The Three Musketeers. For readers, this book is worth savoring, reading slowly, reading quickly, reading again.

For writers, this book is worth dissecting and studying, working down from a telescope to a microscope. I plan to pick up a physical copy at my local used bookstore so that I can wreck it with highlights, sticky notes, and scribbles in the margins.

I'm sad that my first readthrough of this book is over. Fortunately for me, there are two more d'Artagnan Romances--the last of which is over 3x as long as this one and often subdivided into 3-4 books.

I give The Three Musketeers six twisty mustaches out of seven and look forward to reading more books by Alexandre Dumas, including the other d'Artagnan Romances and The Count of Monte Cristo.

Have you read The Three Musketeers? What did you think of it? Are there any other books you'd like me to read and review? Leave a comment below or my hairless ghost lemur will haunt your dreams.

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