Being francophone, I can say I’m a little ashamed I haven’t read this book earlier in my life. It’s not like we don’t know the story; their motto, “all for one, one for all” (yes, that’s how it goes in the book, actually), is part of our language. There have been several movies and TV series based on it (I have memories of animated dogs) and the book itself remains a favourite classic.
It’s easy to see why this story has remained popular for over 150 years. It is a gripping story of adventure, male friendship, court intrigue, coming of age, love and courtship, and many other things that would take a long time to list. But in its heart, this story is about simpler times and simpler lives.
Throughout the novel, the narrator keeps mentioning how manners and expectations were without artifice and without guile. Men cry freely and accept money gifts graciously. They shamelessly entertain love for married women and use sex to obtain what they want. For 19th century readers, it must have been a breath of fresh air against the stifling mores of their time.
I’m starting to think of Dumas as the French Walter Scott: the same sense of nostalgia for the past, the same kind of chivalric adventures and the same kind of popular success in his country. However, contrary to Scott, Dumas has this way of skimming over tragedy and loss in a way that left me a bit unsatisfied. I thought that maybe the end of the Count of Monte-Cristo was a fluke, but this one also left me wanting more: more consequences, more acknowledgement of death and of pain. The ending basically says that D’Artagnan is young and will forget everything in time. It is, in the end, a joyous celebration of the soldier life in the 17th century, which our modern sensibilities might find slightly unnerving.
But I think the long-lasting appeal of the book resides in exactly that: its carefree adventures, foiled villains and the triumph of friendship. The unfailing loyalty of these four men calls, even today, to our sense that if people stick together, they can achieve great things. In our increasingly individualistic and independent culture, I think this kind of story calls us back to our childhood, when friends were there in thick and thin, when we made pacts about not telling our parents what bad thing we had done, and when we shared our pack of gum without expecting anything in exchange.