The Three Musketeers is a marvelous journey and should be appreciated foremost for its engaging story. The techniques Dumas employed to such success in 1840-- particularly his mastery of the form of the Romance--still work today.
As we saw in the closing portions of the book, Dumas gives us a fully developed Romance within his historical framework. He starts with levity and confidence, and ends with moroseness and doubt. The ending, indeed, seems to question many of the books dearly held values. D'Artagnan becomes a lieutenant in the Musketeers, but his promotion comes from the Cardinal--the Cardinal whom he and his four friends had fought so valiantly against for the first half of the novel. In the epilogue, d'Artagnan befriends the Comte de Rochefort, a Cardinalist agent. Was all that earlier fighting really worth it, then? Or was there something futile in all the Musketeers' efforts? Both the possibility of futility and this return to the normal at the end of a great Quest, characterize the form of the Romance as much as do its lighter aspects. Dumas sees the form through.
With Dumas’s historical context in mind, the melancholy of the Romance becomes even more pronounced. It is almost as though Dumas presents this wonderful Romantic adventure, providing people with a chance to escape day to day toil and immerse themselves in better thoughts about their country, and then spurns it. He cannot bring himself to see the lie of Romanticism through to the end. Even bearing in mind that this turn to ambiguity is typical for the end of the Romance, it is hard not to interpret the ending of the novel as Dumas’s rejection of Romantic values.
There are two sequels to The Three Musketeers, which Dumas wrote to capitalize on the success of the novel. They are entitled Vingt ans apres, published in 10 volumes in 1845, and Dix ans plus tard, ou le vicomte de Bragelonne, published in 26 parts from 1848-1850. The latter opens in 1660, and tells of a matured, powerful d'Artagnan, captain of the Musketeers. It also contains the account of Porthos's heroic death. But despite these sequels, Dumas never fully recaptured his success of 1844. His estate and his health declined until, after a period of furious attempted productivity to recoup his debts, he died in 1870. The Romance left his life as well.
But The Three Musketeers is not merely a Romance; it is also a great historical novel, and Dumas’s interesting approach to history also contributes to the success of his book. While he keeps his characters away from being major players in national events, he is not afraid of brazenly attributing human motives to history. In Dumas’s version, France and England very nearly fight a war simply because the Duke of Buckingham loves Anne of Austria: John Fenton assassinates Buckingham because of personal reasons provided by Milady, and so on. Part of the entertainment of The Three Musketeers is that, in seeming to avoid the great events and focus on petty affairs, Dumas explains the great events more satisfyingly and entertainingly than any direct explanation of affairs of state could hope to do. History does not have a face-- d'Artagnan has a face, and a handsome one at that.
Dumas’s formula serves his story well. His incorporation of Romanticism into the historical novel lifted an entire genre of literature into public adulation, and gave the French people a story that reassured them about their country even as it brought them away from their country's troubles. Popular literature must be considered on two fronts: aesthetically and socially, as literature and as a popular artifact. The best popular literature, like the work of Alexandre Dumas, supercedes the latter category to come into our minds as a work of literature in its own right. It is not necessary to know about Dumas’s life, or about French history, or about the genre of Romance, to enjoy The Three Musketeers. The superlative entertainment of the novel speaks for itself--which is why it remains so important and so interesting to study it.