Study Guide

The Man in the Iron Mask Analysis

  • Tone

    Depressing, Dramatic

    This is a major departure from The Three Musketeers. Although there are moments of levity (read: comic relief) in The Man in the Iron Mask, most of the novel is about saying good-bye to a glorious past and accepting future responsibilities or death with good grace. In other words, the young men of The Three Musketeers have grown up into older men who struggle with their own mortality..

  • Genre

    Adventure, Political Thriller

    We’re guessing just the very mention of the Three Musketeers gets your heart racing. Then, once you realize that we’re not talking about the candy bar, your heart races even faster. Let’s face it, these sword-fighting, pistol-packing cavaliers set the standard for action heroes back in the day. To a certain extent, that’s still the case for modern audiences, too.

    So, yes, we get cannons and armies and plotting and evil kings in The Man in the Iron Mask, but we also get so much more. In a lot of ways, Dumas’s work can be appreciated as a political thriller. There’s just a ton of intrigue and ambition to savor here, much like in a Sopranos or A Game of Thrones. Who will gain the crown? Who will end up in the Bastille? As with any good thriller, we’re need to know these things. They’re the kinds of questions that keep us turning all those pages, Shmoopers, just as it did for readers back in eighteenth-century France.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    This is a rather tricky question. As detailed in "In a Nutshell," Dumas never wrote a novel entitled The Man in the Iron Mask. Instead, he wrote a super-long novel entitled The Vicomte de Bragelonne. For ease of reading, translators typically break the novel up into several parts, the last part being The Man in the Iron Mask.

    In our opinion, those translators didn't read the book very carefully. Yes, readers do encounter a man who wears an iron mask, but he is a minor figure in the novel. Can you think of any possible titles that would be more appropriate?

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    We'll recap for you. Raoul is dead, Athos is dead, and Porthos is dead. D'Artagnan is fighting a war in Holland, and Aramis is now a Spanish duke. The novel ends with D'Artagnan becoming a distinguished marshal of France, and then getting hit in the chest with a cannonball and dying. The narrator closes the story by pointing out that only Aramis is left alive out of the original four friends.

    Now, if you want to read The Man in the Iron Mask as historical commentary, and if you like reducing each of the four friends into single attributes, we have an interpretation for you. Jacques Zipes, in the "Afterword" to the Signet Classics edition of Man in the Iron Mask, published in 2006 states:

    Louis's rise to greatness demands cold calculation and total administration that will not and does not have any use for the strength (Porthos), dignity (Athos/Raoul), and loyalty (D'Artagnan) of the Musketeers. Only Aramis survives at the end because he is unscrupulous and cunning and embodies a modern spirit that is on the rise in France of 1848-50.

    This interpretation calls for seeing the end of the novel as signaling the end of an era. Strength, dignity, loyalty, and honor have gone out the window. Only unscrupulous cunning is left, according to this interpretation, as the King consolidates his absolute power. With this reading, you can see the marshal's baton as striking a note of heavy irony – it doesn't matter that D'Artagnan has achieved a great accomplishment, because he is already a relic of a past age. There is no use for men like D'Artagnan in Louis's empire; it is fitting that he dies.

    Lastly, we turn your attention to D'Artagnan's last words, which are possibly the most cryptic final words in all of literature: "Athos – Porthos, farewell till we meet again! Aramis, adieu forever!" Clearly Aramis is being set apart from the other three, but in what way? Is D'Artagnan expecting to see Athos and Porthos in heaven, but expecting Aramis's soul to go elsewhere? Is this an expression of anger at his old friend? Or is it simply distinguishing the dead from the living? Even the narrator tells us that only D'Artagnan himself has the answer to these questions.

  • Setting

    France, Court of King Louis XIV

    Since The Man in the Iron Mask is a work of historical fiction, its historical setting obviously plays a large role. Dumas draws on the historical setting of King Louis XIV's court to build a believable version of events. He is literally re-writing history, and uses details from the era to help him in that task.

    Since the story is mostly driven by plot and dialogue, spatial settings in The Man in the Iron Mask usually do not matter so much – the characters usually hang out in some type of room, whether it be a prison cell, bedchamber, or audience hall. Dumas does have a tendency to stage some beautiful settings for his characters, however, and when he pays attention to the setting of a scene, he really pays attention to it. The theatrical quality of the scenes tends to reflect Dumas's previous career as a dramatist. The black horse chasing a white horse across plowed fields on a moonlit night, for example, or the destruction of the Locmaria grotto, are spectacular. His quieter scenes are given no less attention. The scene between Aramis and Philippe in the forest as the prince decides upon his destiny, or Athos and Raoul's gravesites at the little chapel in Blois, are rendered in loving, poignant detail.

    But let's return to this idea of Dumas as writing an action movie. When the creators of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon wrote the final fight scene, they staged it in a bamboo forest. In The Matrix, one of the best hand-to-hand combat scenes takes place on an empty subway platform. Our point is, no matter how great an action sequence is, it looks even better when it has a spectacular backdrop. And that Dumas delivers in spades.

  • Writing Style

    Talk, Talk

    As you might expect from a book with a title like The Man in the Iron Mask, this book is just filled with intrigue. We mean, let's face it: folks who walk around with iron masks on their heads are nothing if not intriguing. More specifically, though, this book is filled with plots and schemes, twists and turns, ins, outs, and what-have-yous. Intrigue galore.

    Now, if you're an author, you've got two choices about how to get all of this maneuvering onto the page: dialogue or exposition. In other words, you can reveal all the plotlines through the characters' speech, or you can just tell your audience all about it through the narrator.

    Dumas goes for option A: dialogue. As a result, you get a lot of yakking in this book, as characters go back and forth about their histories, plots, and schemes for the future. Just check out this lengthy exchange that takes place right off the bat in Chapter 1. Here, Aramis is revealing his plan to free the prisoner from the Bastille, who asks him,

    "And you would have kept your word, monseigneur?"

    "On my life! While now—now that I have guilty ones to punish—"

    "In what manner, monseigneur?"

    "What do you say as to the resemblance that Heaven has given me to my brother?"

    "I say that there was in that likeness a providential instruction which the king ought to have heeded; I say that your mother committed a crime in rendering those different in happiness and fortune whom nature created so startlingly alike, of her own flesh, and I conclude that the object of punishment should be only to restore the equilibrium."

    "By which you mean—"

    "That if I restore you to your place on your brother's throne, he shall take yours in prison."

    "Alas! there's such infinity of suffering in prison, especially it would be so for one who has drunk so deeply of the cup of enjoyment."

    "Your royal highness will always be free to act as you may desire; and if it seems good to you, after punishment, you will have it in your power to pardon."

    "Good. And now, are you aware of one thing, monsieur?"

    "Tell me, my prince."

    "It is that I will hear nothing further from you till I am clear of the Bastile."

    "I was going to say to your highness that I should only have the pleasure of seeing you once again."

    "And when?"

    "The day when my prince leaves these gloomy walls."

    "Heavens! how will you give me notice of it?"

    "By myself coming to fetch you."

    "Yourself?"

    "My prince, do not leave this chamber save with me, or if in my absence you are compelled to do so, remember that I am not concerned in it."

    "And so I am not to speak a word of this to any one whatever, save to you?"

    "Save only to me." Aramis bowed very low. The prince offered his hand. (1.263-282)

    Whew. There's a lot of planning in that exchange, but that's typical of how Dumas choses to advance his mutli-layered narrative. If you find that exhausting, though, consider the alternative. Would you like to read all that detail in one big, honkin' paragraph? Neither would Shmoop. We think Monsieur D. actually does a great job with advancing so many plot lines through these exchanges.

    Of course, when they hear Three Musketeers, most people expect swordfights and explosions. To be sure, this book has that element as well. But, for the most part, this last installment of the Dumas's d'Artagnan saga is one that features a lot more talking and a lot less swashbuckling. Still, the plot stays snappy through the dialogue. And, if we ever get tired or confused by all these goings on, we simply take a chill-break and put on one of our favorite '80s hits.

  • Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

    Porthos as Strength

    This is an oft-repeated theme in the novel. Porthos is described most frequently as a "giant," a "Titan," and a "Hercules." Being crushed to death under an immense load of rocks is therefore an apt mode of death for Porthos. As he manages for a time to delay the inexorable downward weight of rock, his figure is reminiscent of the immortal Atlas in Greek mythology, who bears the weight of the world on his shoulders.

    King Louis XIV as France, the Sun, etc.

    Kings are supposed to be the physical embodiment of their nation, and King Louis XIV uses this fact to his full advantage when arguing with his courtiers. On his way to being known as the "Sun King", Louis deliberately uses various metaphors for power to consolidate his rule as an absolute monarch. It is historically accurate that Louis XIV was known as the "Sun King," and that he sought to create an absolute monarchy.

    White Horse, Black Horse

    If you're so inclined, you might want to analyze the fact that D'Artagnan rides a black horse to chase Fouquet, who is mounted on a white horse. Might it signal Fouquet's innocence and purity and D'Artagnan's lack of these qualities? It seems like a bit of an obvious symbol to us, and we think Dumas may have selected those colors simply for their aesthetic qualities, but if you want to find some evidence for it signaling a good guy/bad guy dichotomy, have away at it.

  • Narrator Point of View

    Third Person (Objective)

    The third person narration reflects the plot-driven nature of the tale. Although most of the action focuses on D'Artagnan, there are quite a few chapters that concern other characters. While the narrator is omniscient in that he knows everyone's backgrounds and personal histories, s/he never intrudes nor does he ever directly reveal characters' thoughts and feelings.

    • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

      Anticipation Stage

      D'Artagnan can tell that his friend, Aramis, is plotting something dastardly.

      D'Artagnan can see that something is up with his friend, Aramis, but isn't let in on the secret. .

      Dream Stage

      None for D'Artagnan; Aramis has a short-lived Dream Stage when he successfully installs Philippe as the King.

      Since D'Artagnan is not involved in the plot at all, it is Aramis who reaps the short-lived rewards of having pulled a switcheroo on his royal highness. He experiences a few brief minutes of glory as King Philippe's most trusted adviser before having the rug yanked out from under him by Fouquet.

      Frustration Stage

      D'Artagnan is ordered to act contrary to his nature.

      D'Artagnan admires and respects Philippe, but has to lock him up anyway per order of the King. D'Artagnan really likes Fouquet, but has to arrest him anyway per order of the King. He becomes increasingly frustrated by the King's demands.

      Nightmare Stage

      King Louis orders D'Artagnan to capture Aramis and Porthos. The King thwarts D'Artagnan's attempts to allow them time to escape.

      D'Artagnan's worst fears are realized when King Louis sends him to capture Belle-Isle and its defenders. What makes this a nightmare is that, despite his best efforts, D'Artagnan cannot prevent the army from firing on Belle-Isle. The King has anticipated his every move.

      Destruction or Death Wish Stage

      D'Artagnan has bowed to the Sun King's will and is waging war. Then a cannonball hits him and he dies.

      If you want, you can read D'Artagnan's death as partly self-inflicted. He has bowed to the supremacy of King Louis and is waging war on his behalf when he is killed.

    • Plot Analysis

      Initial Situation

      King Louis's twin brother languishes in the Bastille.

      They say information is power, and when the novel opens, this very tantalizing piece of information has made its way to the already-powerful-but-always-scheming Aramis. Swapping King Louis XIV for his twin brother would be a major political coup for Aramis. He could ascend to the papacy, save his friend Fouquet, and be one of the King's top advisers. The conditions are right for change, and that's exactly the requirement necessary for us to identify an Initial Situation.

      Conflict

      Twin brothers are pitted against one another.

      For five minutes in Chapter Twenty-Four, King Louis XIV and his brother Philippe have a showdown in the King's bedroom. It goes along the lines of, "I'm the real king!" "No, I'm the real king!" The conflict here isn't just between the two royal twins, but also concerns the reactions of court members when they learn of Philippe's existence. Upon seeing Philippe, Fouquet faces pangs of remorse for siding with Louis. Anne of Austria is clearly distraught when she comes face to face with the son whose existence she has denied. Even D'Artagnan is taken aback during those shocking five minutes that the twins stand face to face. His internal conflict is weakest, however, as he almost automatically reacts and arrests Philippe.

      Complication

      Fouquet saves the real king but is in danger of arrest anyway.

      Fouquet panics when it becomes clear that although he single-handedly saved King Louis from going mad in the Bastille, he's going to get arrested anyway. The situation is made even more complicated because D'Artagnan doesn't want to arrest Fouquet and keeps trying to circumvent the King's orders.

      Climax

      Athos and Porthos kill over a hundred men as they make their escape from Belle-Isle.

      There are many climactic points in the novel (a product of it being published in serial form), but if this were a movie, this would be the big battle scene. Two men versus an army. Talk about being outnumbered. What gives the sequence added poignancy is Porthos's death at the very end as he struggles against the weight of several tons of rock with Aramis, seconds away from making his escape. He is the first of the four friends to die, and in a sense this is what we've been building towards throughout the book – the end of an era.

      Suspense

      D'Artagnan and the King engage in a battle of wills.

      We're nervous for D'Artagnan as he storms back to Nantes in a deadly rage. It's clear that nothing ensures safety with the King (you've only got to look at poor Fouquet).

      Denouement

      Porthos has a funeral, Athos dies, Raoul dies.

      If you give us a moment, you'll see that this resolves the suspense created in the earlier stage. The King wins the argument with D'Artagnan by pointing out that he is king. In other words, he is an absolute monarch and D'Artagnan has no business trying to manipulate or sidestep him. As we argue in "What's Up With the Ending?" this type of absolute sovereign has no use for either the strength of Porthos or the dignity of Athos. By killing off the two friends, Dumas simultaneously glorifies the pre-Louis days and critiques the post-Louis days.

      Conclusion

      D'Artagnan becomes a marshal of France, then dies.

      Death is always conclusive, isn't it? See "What's Up With the Ending?" for more thoughts.

    • Three Act Plot Analysis

      Act I

      Aramis tries to increase his power and do his friend, Fouquet, a favor and swap out a hostile King of France for a more amenable version.

      Act II

      Fouquet saves the real king but gets arrested anyway. Porthos and Aramis become rebels hunted by D'Artagnan.

      Act III

      Porthos dies. Athos dies. D'Artagnan dies. Aramis retreats to a Spanish estate.

    • Allusions

      Historical References

      Note: The book is a work of historical fiction, so almost every character, place, and event is a reference to actual characters, places, and events. The three glaring exceptions to this rule are the existences of Athos, Porthos, and Aramis. (Yes, D'Artagnan really did exist.) We list a few of the most glaring historical references below.

      • King Louis XIV
      • Maria Theresa
      • Anne of Austria
      • Maria Theresa
      • Nicolas Fouquet
      • Colbert
      • Molière
      • La Fontaine
      • Le Brun
      • Madame de Chevreuse