Lots of nightmarish events happen in The Three Musketeers. Several people are killed, including our hero’s true love. The people of La Rochelle are starving to death. The Queen is stuck in a loveless marriage and is being hounded by a guy she rejected. On the face of it, the subject matter of The Three Musketeers isn’t exactly Saturday morning cartoon material.
Yet Dumas brings an incredibly lighthearted touch to the story, milking every comedic moment and rapidly glossing over the loss of human life. Everything is a fun adventure to our heroes, who quite willingly risk their lives over issues as trivial as a funny-looking horse:
This time there could be no doubt; D’Artagnan was really insulted. […] Unfortunately, as he advanced, his anger increased at every step; and instead of the proper and lofty speech he had prepared as a prelude to his challenge, he found nothing at the tip of his tongue but a gross personality, which he accompanied with a furious gesture.
"I say, sir, you sir, who are hiding yourself behind that shutter--yes, you, sir, tell me what you are laughing at, and we will laugh together!"
The gentleman raised his eyes slowly from the nag to his cavalier, as if he required some time to ascertain whether it could be to him that such strange reproaches were addressed; then, when he could not possibly entertain any doubt of the matter, his eyebrows slightly bent, and with an accent of irony and insolence impossible to be described, he replied to D’Artagnan, "I was not speaking to you, sir."
"But I am speaking to you!" replied the young man, additionally exasperated with this mixture of insolence and good manners, of politeness and scorn. (1.14 – 1.17)
Yes. This scene is basically a precursor to Taxi Driver's "Are you talkin' to me?" scene. Except that it's motivated by some dude laughing at a hideous yellow horse... instead of one cabbie's dangerous mixture of sociopathy and PTSD.
Sword fighting + damsels in distress + narrow escapes from death = an adventure story. In The Three Musketeers, all the elements of a proper adventure story are present. But that would be way too easy for a writer of Dumas' calibre.
To make it more complicated, the adventures all act as a coming-of-age for a young Gascon gentleman named D’Artagnan who is eager to prove himself in the sophisticated world of Paris.
Providing the backdrop to all this adventuring and coming-of-age are various real and imagined historical events such as the siege of La Rochelle and the assassination of the Duke of Buckingham. So there you have it: The Three Musketeers as an adventure story, coming-of-age novel, and historical fiction.
First of all, the Musketeers were an elite French military unit charged with protecting the King. They were kind of like the Secret Service, except they could also go to war. The three Musketeers of the title are Aramis, Porthos, and Athos, three close friends and exceptional Musketeers known as the Inseparables.
Now, here’s the catch—the novel is actually about four best friends, and although D’Artagnan becomes a Musketeer only three-quarters of the way through the novel, Dumas could still have titled this work Four Musketeers without anyone calling him out on it. The novel does, after all, pertain to four Musketeers. So why three, exactly? Your guess, as usual, is as good as ours.
Here’s ours: The Three Musketeers is a title that deliberately isolates D’Artagnan, which makes sense, since he’s the protagonist and hero of the novel. And since D’Artagnan’s goal throughout the novel is to become a Musketeer, if Dumas had entitled the novel The Four Musketeers, that would have given the story away, wouldn’t it?
In the conclusion, the brave friends slay an evil dragon (in this case, an evil-yet-hot woman named Milady) and settle down to enjoy the fruits of their success. It’s your basic happy ending. Yay! Roll the credits!
But wait. There's... more?
In the Epilogue. D’Artagnan makes friends with the man whom he thought was his worst enemy, which sure: also a feel-good way to end things. But then, in the very last paragraph, we end with Monsieur Bonacieux. This is—to put it mildly—strange. Monsieur Bonacieux is an anti-hero. He’s old, cowardly, and not exactly the brightest crayon in the box.
The last paragraph of the novel tells us that Monsieur Bonacieux does not go looking for his wife, and instead one day appeals to the Cardinal, who claims he will provide for Bonacieux. The man is never seen again. His neighbors believe Bonacieux is living large in a fancy castle, but we think he probably wound up swimming with the fishes. Either way, we have to ask, what’s Dumas doing?
Our take on the ending is that it reinforces the culture of The Three Musketeers, namely, that everyone has a certain place on the social ladder, and within that place, courage, honor, and intelligence are prized above all. Bonacieux occupies a low rung on the social ladder, and possesses neither courage, honor, nor intelligence. As such, it is highly inappropriate for him to approach the Cardinal, and we assume he is dealt with accordingly.
By juxtaposing Bonacieux’s actions with Rochefort and D’Artagnan’s interactions after their duel, Dumas shows us what ideal gentlemen look like. Rochefort and D’Artagnan were once enemies, but being considered the enemy of a man carried its own cachet: it meant you were a respected equal—in the same way that if you were good enough to compete with Michael Jordan at basketball, you’re pretty awesome.
Since The Three Musketeers is a work of historical fiction, its setting is pretty much center stage, 100% of the time. Dumas uses history for his own literary ends. For instance, in real life the Duke of Buckingham may have been gay. But in the land of fiction, he can be head-over-heels in love with the Queen of France. Why not? Sure beats the whole (yawn) religious freedom explanation for the war between England and France.
For the most part, the micro-settings of The Three Musketeers are unremarkable—typically various apartments around Paris or inns in the countryside of France. This dovetails well with Dumas’s reliance on dialogue to tell the story.
The settings Milady finds herself in, however, are quite dramatic. When she is taken prisoner by Lord de Winter, she is brought to a castle overlooking a steep cliff. When she makes her escape, it is storming. Later in the novel, the chapter detailing her execution begins with a classic Gothic introduction: "It was a stormy and dark night." (Seriously!)
She is executed on a river bank; "a moonbeam fell upon the blade of the large sword." Both settings are deliberately eerie and draw upon the Gothic novel tradition, which sought to combine horror and romance. In Gothic novels, innocent virgins are typically trapped in castles by cruel men and persecuted by various tyrants. Dumas offers a twist on this tradition, as Milady is anything but an innocent virgin. It is instead the men who are portrayed as being righteous and upright.
Dumas frequently manages to condense a lot of information into a small space. Masters are calling for their lackeys, notes are being sent all over town, and plots are being hatched while the conspirators are under enemy gunfire. We'll get entire plot points summarized in single paragraphs:
Richelieu, as everyone knows, had loved the queen. Was this love a simple political affair, or was it naturally one of those profound passions, which Anne of Austria inspired in those who approached her? That we are not able to say; but at all events, we have seen, by the anterior developments of this story, that Buckingham had the advantage over him, and in two or three circumstances, particularly that of the diamond studs, had, thanks to the devotedness of the three musketeers and the courage and conduct of D’Artagnan, cruelly mystified him.
It was, then, Richelieu’s object, not only to get rid of an enemy of France, but to avenge himself on a rival; but this vengeance must be grand and striking and worthy in every way of a man who held in his hand, as his weapon for combat, the forces of a kingdom. (41.10 – 41.11)
But, although Dumas never loses the overall thread of the story, he’ll sometimes drop a minor thread or two and forget to account for characters’ movements. For instance, D’Artagnan goes home one day and calls for Planchet, who we last saw exhausted in London.
Dumas doesn’t bother explaining how Planchet got home, but continues barreling along into the next adventure. We can’t say we really complain—it’s the guy’s style, after all, and it makes for some awesomesauce storytelling.
This reflects the action-packed, plot-driven nature of the Three Musketeers. 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 s/he knows everyone’s backgrounds and personal histories, s/he never intrudes nor does s/he ever directly reveal characters’ thoughts and feelings. Luckily for us (and the purposes of the novel) we still get access to all the swashbuckling and nefarious things that they do.
This stage takes up just about the first half of the novel. We are distracted by other adversaries—the Man from Meung, Cardinal Richelieu. In Chapter One, our first encounter with Milady is when the Man from Meung relays instructions from the Cardinal. In Chapter Twenty-One, her connection to the Cardinal becomes more explicit as it’s revealed she is the agent who cut the diamond studs.
These are all vaguely ominous evil glimmerings that become more apparent only when D’Artagnan tries to get information from her about Constance.
Although he tells Athos that he’s really just wooing Milady in order to get information on his true love Constance, in Chapter Thirty-One D’Artagnan is clearly falling in love with Milady. Even though he realizes her monstrosity in Chapter Thirty-Two by eavesdropping on her conversation with Kitty, he still can’t help feeling a deep attraction to her.
Later, overcome with his feelings for her, D’Artagnan confesses the trick he played on her, convinced that love will conquer the day. He’s proven wrong when she comes back at him with a dagger instead of open arms.
By now, the full extent of Milady’s evil nature has been exposed. We know that she is a branded criminal, that she broke Athos’s heart, that she tried to kill D’Artagnan (once with a dagger, once with hired assassins, and once with poisoned wine), and that she is charged with facilitating the assassination of the Duke of Buckingham. Her evil power is incredible and seems almost unstoppable.
The side of Good prevails momentarily as she is locked up in what seems to be a completely secure jail. She manages, however to destroy her jailer by convincing him to free her and assassinate the Duke of Buckingham. She gets off scot-free; this incredible turn of events displays the full extent of her power.
Milady has still one more evil act to accomplish—the fatal poisoning of D’Artagnan’s true love Constance Bonacieux. Not only does she successfully befriend and then poison the woman, she does so scant minutes before Constance would have been saved by D’Artagnan and his friends. This is the final ordeal, however, before the destruction of Milady is accomplished.
Lord de Winter, Athos, D’Artagnan, Aramis, Porthos, and an unnamed executioner manage to corner Milady, restrain her, try her for all her myriad of crimes, and execute her on a riverbank. Even at this critical juncture, her power and beauty still hold some sway, as D’Artagnan is clearly affected by vestiges of his love for her.
Her position as the novel’s truly evil antagonist is cemented when Cardinal Richelieu, upon hearing of her death, feels "something like a secret joy at being forever relieved of this dangerous accomplice." Her evil portrayed as much worse and far more dangerous than any machinations produced by the Cardinal, and when even he’s glad she’s dead, this is truly the death of a monster.
A penniless youth arrives in the city who has a lot of pride and mad sword fighting skills, so let’s see how he makes out in the sophisticated world of 17th Century Paris.
D’Artagnan’s pride leads him to challenge three different Musketeers to a duel. He schedules them back-to-back, but before the first fight can commence, the Cardinal’s Guards ride up and attempt to arrest them. (Dueling is illegal, but everyone does it anyway.)
The four men decide to take a stand and resist arrest. It ends up being quite a good fight, with the Musketeers plus D’Artagnan victorious. A friendship is born.
This is the Conflict stage because the conflict has been firmly established between the royalists and the cardinalists. Being on the side of the royalists, D’Artagnan gets to make friends with other royalists, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the greater conflict that frames the novel.
Queen Anne is desperate to retrieve her diamond studs from her lover, the Duke of Buckingham, since her husband the King wants to see her wear them at the upcoming ball. Unfortunately, Queen Anne has no one she can trust.
One of her attendants, Constance Bonacieux, offers her aid. Constance then turns to D’Artagnan, who is renting the apartment above hers and has already saved her once from would-be captors. D’Artagnan quickly agrees to take the mission. His love for Constance is a nice bonus to the glory of being able to help the Queen.
This mission will be dangerous, since the Cardinal has spies everywhere determined to ruin the Queen’s honor, so D’Artagnan takes new friends Porthos, Athos, and Aramis along for the ride. D’Artagnan succeeds in obtaining the studs from the Duke of Buckingham and saves the Queen’s honor. Our young hero arrives back only to find that his love, Constance, has been abducted.
Complicated enough for you? We have the Cardinal determined on sowing dissent and anger in the royal marital bedroom. We have an abducted Constance, who, by the way, happens to be married to D’Artagnan’s landlord. Then we have the fact that D’Artagnan hasn’t heard from any of his three friends who were all waylaid on the road to London. Lastly, the Cardinal is really angry at whoever got the diamond studs back to the Queen. (That person would be D’Artagnan.)
Our penniless youth’s life has gotten complicated in a hurry.
There are many climactic points in the novel (a product of it being published in serial form), but the main climax concerns D’Artagnan’s trickery of Milady. D’Artagnan sleeps with Milady pretending to be the Comte de Wardes, then sleeps with her as himself. Milady pressures him to kill the Comte de Wardes. Believing that she loves him for himself and not his prowess with the sword, D’Artagnan confesses that he had pretended to be the Comte de Wardes.
Milady is furious and tries to kill D’Artagnan. This qualifies as the climax of the novel because it is at this point in the storyline that Milady is revealed as the primary antagonist our heroes have to worry about.
While in previous chapters she had been a murky, vaguely ominous presence (see the Seven Basic Plots Analysis), here in the climax she is shown to be one scary adversary. This climax is heightened and extended as she orders two attempts on D’Artagnan’s life, showing the extent of her reach and power. As a result, D’Artagnan is forced to sleep with one eye open.
Milady has demonstrated the extent of her evil power, and our heroes wait anxiously hoping that they can stop her in time. Although Lord de Winter locks her up, she is not powerless. She successfully seduces her jailer, (John Felton), convinces him of her innocence, and arranges for him to murder the Duke of Buckingham.
She then heads back to France, destined for a convent housing Constance Bonacieux—the same convent that D’Artagnan and his friends are riding towards. This is the Suspense stage because Constance’s life is in danger, but the Musketeers may be in time to save the day and bring Milady to justice.
Our four young heroes arrive minutes too late to save Constance’s life, but they do manage to track down, try, and execute Milady. The suspense is resolved. D’Artagnan and his friends are safe from Milady’s perfidy.
All the loose ends are wrapped up. Porthos gets married, Athos continues to serve in the Musketeers until he inherits some land, and Aramis enters the priesthood. D’Artagnan makes a new friend, and Monsieur Bonacieux disappears.
D’Artagnan arrives in Paris with not much more than the big dreams of becoming a Musketeer.
D’Artagnan becomes best friends with three Musketeers, and together the four of them have all sorts of glorious adventures.
D’Artagnan becomes a lieutenant in the Musketeers.