The Three Musketeers (Les Trois Mousquetaires) was published in 1844 in a Parisian magazine entitled Siecle. The publication was serialized, meaning each subsequent issue of the magazine contained an additional section of the story. It caused a popular sensation: long lines anticipated each new issue of Siecle. The French public could not get enough of Dumas’s writing.
Alexander Dumas, who lived from 1802 to 1870, was raised by his mother. His father, a General during the Revolution and under Napoleon, died when Dumas was four. The family had fallen out of favor with Napoleon, so young Dumas and his mother were left without means, living in the provinces. Dumas received a limited education from a local priest, and at the age of twenty-one, traveled to Paris to make his fortune. His first play was produced in 1829; he began a successful career as a dramatist and writer, which culminated with The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo. As he grew older, Dumas’s opulent lifestyle forced him to sink into greater and greater debt, and by the time of his death in 1870, he was at the mercy of his creditors.
What best explains the enormous popular success of The Three Musketeers, and the fact that it is still so well loved today? The Three Musketeers is a rare treasure--a work that is both "important" and fun. Even more remarkably, The Three Musketeers is "important" because it is fun. We study it because it represents an important development in historical and popular fiction. Parisians stood in line in 1844 because Dumas’s developments all come down to one essential point--his stories were more exciting and accessible than those of anyone who had gone before him. However, Dumas does draw on some familiar literary traditions to tell his magical stories.
Dumas’s brilliant concept was to combine the historical novel and the Romance into a single story. Historical fiction means, simply, fiction based on historical themes or events.
Dumas brought these two forms together in a way that revolutionized the historical novel. Before Dumas, the form was plagued by slow pace, labored historicity, and archaic prose. Dumas deliberately wrote in modern, conversational prose. He made his story more important than the history surrounding it. Dumas allows his characters to drive us through the history, providing the background as the story progresses. It is not that Dumas is not interested in creating a sense of period and place--indeed, he does so masterfully and seamlessly behind the narrative, while we scarcely know it's happening. Dumas wrote fast-reading adventure stories that evoked history without being bogged down by it.
Dumas’s innovations provide us with a wonderful escape into another time and place, but in his own time in France, they may have performed an even more important function. Following the chaos and violence of the French Revolution, 19th century France was a nation in turmoil. The people latched on to Dumas’s novels because the novels gave them a sense of their own common history, something that fostered their sense of national pride. The crowning achievement of The Three Musketeers, in this light, is not its picture perfect recreation of the history, manner, or mood of the period it purports to study. Rather, it is Dumas’s successful creation of an extraordinarily satisfying and comforting make-believe world which is based on 17th century France. The novel creates a Romance of history that is sweeping, entertaining, and grand, and takes out all the bits that might have made his public uncomfortable. And we still love it today.