By Alexandre Dumas
Translated by Jacqueline Rogers
All posts contain spoilers.
This book is badly named.
For starters, it is not about a man in an iron mask. A man fitting that description makes a brief appearance, but he is largely peripheral to the plot of this book.
Also, ‘plot’ is perhaps too strong a word for the structure of this novel. If a plot is a central story which involves and therefore justifies the characters and which resolves in a climax, then this book lacks one.
This is partly because ‘The Man in the Iron Mask‘ is not meant to stand alone as a work of literature; it is actually the novel-length epilogue of ‘The Three Musketeers‘, and rather than tell the story of a man in an iron mask, it is meant instead to wrap up the tales of the four men who formed the heart of that story: Aramis, Athos, Porthos, and D’Artagnan.
This novel opens in the Bastille with Aramis, who is meeting with Philippe, a young man who had been imprisoned eight years earlier but committed no crime. Aramis, now the Bishop of Vannes, tells this young man that he is the secret and identical twin brother of King Louis XIV of France, imprisoned and doomed for his resemblance to the King and, crucially, for his equal claim to the throne of France.
Aramis proposes to spring this young man and replace Louis. Philippe understandably agrees, and, with very little effort, Aramis effects the miraculous escape. The King is at Vaux for a party thrown by his minister Fouquet. There, the switch is accomplished with no trouble whatsoever, via a bed which can be levered down through the floor into a cave (sure, of course). Louis is sent to the Bastille; his brother put on the throne, no one the wiser.
So far, this will all be at least somewhat familiar to anyone who has seen the movies. But, now, things take an odd turn, pacing-wise. Aramis tells Fouquet his plan; Fouquet is appalled, loyal to the old King, he rushes to the Bastille, frees Louis, and reveals the imposter. Louis comes face to face with his brother, quails, and orders him banished to an island prison and locked in an iron mask. D’Artagnan himself bears the prisoner thus.
You are now about 50% of the way through the novel. If you are like me, you will spend the rest of the book waiting for D’Artagnan to realize that he has chosen wrong, supported a wicked king, and finish what Aramis started.
You will wait in vain. The rest of the novel will be spent following the four musketeers to their deaths, both dismal and heroic. Nothing more will be heard of the imposter King after his fresh imprisonment; he will presumably spend the rest of his wretched life in the iron mask. It is weird, and anti-climactic, and, frankly, sort of pointless.
Perhaps the least satisfying part, from a narrative point of view, is the character of Louis himself. I longed for him to be a villain, but he wasn’t – he was merely a king. He has moments of juvenile, petty vindictiveness, but he also moments of strength, maturity, and mercy, and is eventually reconciled even with Aramis, who had him imprisoned overnight in the Bastille.
All this ambivalence of plotting would be easier to bear if ‘The Man in the Iron Mask‘ were beautifully written, but it isn’t. Of course, it’s never really fair to judge a book’s language by its translation, but ‘The Man in the Iron Mask‘ is so ornate and highfalutin that it’s really quite arduous to read. There are a lot of exchanges like this:
“You intend to look after me, then?”
“Yes, monseigneur; I do, upon my honor.”
“Upon your honor? Ah! that is quite another thing. So I am to be arrested in my own house!”
“Do not say such a thing.”
“On the contrary, I will proclaim it aloud.”
“If you do so, I shall be compelled to request you to be silent.”
“Very good! Violence toward me, and in my own house, too!”
“We do not seem to understand each other at all. Stay a moment; there is a chessboard there; let us play, please, monseigneur.”
“Monsieur D’Artagnan, I am in disgrace, then?” (p. 161)
And these are meant to be normal conversations – this is everyday discourse. The whole book is like this!
Things are made even less clear by the fact that all the major characters (except the King) have about eight names. Aramis, for example, is the Bishop of Vannes, Monsieur d’Herblay, and the General of the Jesuits. Add to this that they all refer to each other not by their names but as Monsieur and you’ll see that much of the dialogue is incoherent.
One does begin to suspect that Dumas is being paid by the word – nothing that could be said in ten words is said in fewer than a hundred, and there are entire sub-plots which are no more than cul-de-sacs, and therefore completely unnecessary (and, as with Moliere and the artists’ house, completely unintelligible).
But, of course, amidst all these words, it is almost a statistical inevitability that there would be moments of sublimity, and there are certain high emotions which are, perhaps, best expressed in fruity, Baroque French. Take, for example, the moment when Athos bids farewell to Raoul, his son, forever:
“Athos sat on the mole, stunned, deaf, abandoned. Every instant took from him one of the features, one of the shades of the pale face of his son. With his arms hanging down, his eyes fixed, his mouth open, he remained one with Raoul – in one same look, in one same thought, in one same stupor. The sea, by degrees, carried away boats and faces, until men were nothing but dots; loves, nothing but memories.” (p. 285)
For some authors, these lovely moments are worth bad plot. And it may be that Dumas in his stronger books is also worth it. I really enjoyed ‘The Count of Monte Cristo‘ (even though that also had some odd plot choices) and I would want to read ‘The Three Musketeers‘ before I form a firmer opinion. But ‘The Man in the Iron Mask‘, at least, is emphatically not worth it.