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The Three Musketeers | Themes

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Illusion versus Reality

Alexandre Dumas, much like his hero Shakespeare, plays with masks and identities in The Three Musketeers. The plot device of mistaken identity is used with the impersonation of the Comte de Wardes at the harbor and later with Milady, as well as with the confusion between Aramis with the duke.

Porthos crafts an identity to appease his vanity: he alludes to coming from a wealthy family and having noble benefactresses competing for his fidelity. He cultivates an illusion through his words, actions, clothing, home, and servant, proclaiming to the world he is rich and upper class. His friends know better. Their teasing and the shabby side of his baldric reveal the truth of his reality: his mistress is the thrifty wife of a penny-pinching procurator, and every luxury must be wrenched from their fiercely guarded strongbox. Mme. Coquenard is a willing participant in Porthos's illusion, as long as she can keep it funded by squeezing money out of her husband's reality. The illusion becomes the reality at the very end, though, when the procurator dies and leaves an enormous fortune to Mme. Coquenard. She and Porthos will live in love and luxury.

The master of illusion in The Three Musketeers is Milady. Details of her reality filter in slowly: she was born and raised near Bethune, she says, and at 16 is already a nun (although no one appears to recognize her at the convent where she meets Mme. Bonacieux, so perhaps she was with a different convent). How could one so evil convince others she was so pious? Illusion. She talks a priest out of his vows and into helping her escape, then quickly seduces the lord of the estate where they find a curacy. Playacting and creating illusions bring a simple country girl with no connections into the nobility. Dumas never states explicitly how Milady escapes death when Athos hangs her, but readers might suspect another expert acting job. She fakes her way into the heart of Lord de Winter's brother long enough to marry him, produce an heir, and poison him.

Milady creates the illusion of loving d'Artagnan when she wishes to use him as an assassin, but he knows in reality she hates him because Kitty told him. Her best performance of all is the persecuted martyr identity she puts on to seduce Felton and compel him to kill the duke. She uses her voice, words, appearance, and actions to transform herself, singing the prayers and making a show of trying to kill herself. Creating an illusion sometimes translates to outright lying, and Milady is an expert there as well: she crafts a fictional colossus of persecution and assault by the duke, meant to bring Felton to the brink of religious fervor. When she succeeds, the identity falls away and she quickly assumes the next one: a victim of circumstance, exiled by the cardinal, and ready to befriend Mme. Bonacieux. Her reality catches up with her in the form of revenge seekers—illusion cannot protect her from the ax.

Friendship

The theme of friendship is interwoven throughout the novel. It is most apparent in the relationship between Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, lifelong friends who are bound to one another through their role as Musketeers. They work together, fight together, and bleed together. Though their personalities vary drastically, nothing can separate the trio or break the bonds of friendship between them.

The Musketeers' circle of friendship is widened when they meet d'Artagnan. The young Gascon chooses to side with the Musketeers in the fight against the cardinal's guards, thus allying himself with the Musketeers. Even before d'Artagnan joins the ranks of the Musketeers, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis take him in as one of their own and begin deferring to his judgment as he gains more experience. The Musketeers' friendship with d'Artagnan grows as they face dangerous situations and fight a common enemy.

Loyalty

The Musketeers are devoted to their king and queen, and they would happily die rather than see their captain Treville's spotless reputation insulted. Not only loyal to their king and to their boss, the Musketeers and d'Artagnan are also loyal to one another. The four friends take turns supporting each other in lean times with money and food, and in duels by performing the role of "second." Athos goes to jail for d'Artagnan when the need arises and leaves his seclusion to accompany d'Artagnan when he requires protection. D'Artagnan goes looking for his friends when he realizes they never returned from their journey to England.

Mme. Bonacieux is loyal to the queen, saying, "I am ready to die for your Majesty!" Her loyalty is returned when the queen frees her from prison and hides her in the convent.

The queen does not abandon her best friend Madame de Chevreuse, even though she is exiled. Aramis is loyal to Madame de Chevreuse and extremely protective of her privacy and reputation.

Justice

Justice is an important element in the story of The Three Musketeers. In general, insults and injuries are met with vengeance as an instrument of justice. The cardinal seeks revenge against Queen Anne because she insults him by rejecting his advances. In this sense, revenge yields the sense that justice has been achieved.

Milady is brought to justice on the banks of the river Lys by d'Artagnan, the Musketeers, Lord de Winter, and the executioner of Lille. The executioner believed he had brought her to justice before by branding her for her crimes against his brother, who later died in dishonor. He avenges his brother by executing Milady, not taking a fee as executioner because his involvement is personal. Lord de Winter also seeks justice for the loss of his brother: it was thought at the time that Milady's husband contracted a mysterious illness, but Lord de Winter has since realized she poisoned him. D'Artagnan brings Milady to justice for the murder of Mme. Bonacieux. The men accuse Milady of her crimes and sentence her to death, carrying out retribution swiftly.

Pride

The dueling culture involves constant evaluation of every interaction between men: if one man bumps against the other, or if one laughs at the other's horse. D'Artagnan responds with a glare toward anyone who laughs at his silly horse. Any perceived insult, however small, is a question of pride, and swords must be drawn. It is Athos's pride that makes him unwilling to admit he is injured. Pride makes Bicarat break his sword rather than surrender it. The Musketeers would rather die than receive a scolding from Treville, and would proudly die rather than allow anyone to speak unfavorably about their beloved captain.

Gender is an important aspect of this theme. Athos will not accept money from the man he kills, and D'Artagnan will not take money from the Duke of Buckingham. Both men refuse this money from other men based on pride. However, in contrast, Porthos and Aramis have no problem taking money from their mistresses, presumably because the transactions cross genders, so pride is not at stake.

Questions for Themes

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