Dumas, Alexandre (1802–1870)

The French novelist and dramatist commonly known as Dumas père, to distinguish him from his writer son (also named Alexandre Dumas), was born in Villers-Cotterêts, a small town in northern France, in 1802. Dumas's own colorful life reads like a novel. His father, a general in Napoleon's army, was born in Santo Domingo to the Marquis de la Pail-leterie and a black slave, whose family name he assumed when he enlisted. The death of the father he idolized before Dumas's fourth birthday left the family in dire financial straits. At fourteen, Dumas, who had little formal schooling, began working as a clerk for a local notary. Eventually, the theater lured him to Paris, where he obtained a position with the Duc d'Orléans in 1823. An ardent republican, he took part in France's revolutions of 1830 and 1848, and joined Italian republican Giuseppe Garibaldi in 1860. His renown as a dramatist and then as a historical novelist earned him immense wealth, but an extravagant lifestyle left him almost penniless at his death.

Dumas is one of the most prolific, popular, and perhaps underrated authors of all time, but interest in popular culture is attracting new critical attention to his work. His stories written intentionally for children generally first appeared in his own newspapers, Le Mousquetaire and Le Monte-Cristo; they include La Bouillie de la Comtesse Berthe (1845), La Jeunesse de Pierrot (1854), Le lièvre de mon grand-père (1857), and adaptations of well-known fairy tales. E. T. A. Hoffman's dark, morbid story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King was transformed into a children's tale, titled Histoire d'un Casse-Noisette (1845), which inspired Tchaikovsky's famous ballet.

The works that children know best, however, are the popular historical novels he wrote for adults. Like those of Walter Scott, Dumas's novels were immediately adopted by young readers who were enthralled by this master storyteller. His exciting plots, fast-moving action, lively dialogue, and memorable characters had universal appeal. Generations of readers worldwide owe their first, indelible impressions of French history to Dumas's novels, the most popular of which are Les Trois Mousquetaires (The Three Musketeers) (1844) and Le Comte de Monte-Cristo (The Count of Monte Cristo) (1844-45). Les Trois Mousquetaires, a swashbuckling adventure tale that has become a children's classic, is the first novel in a trilogy about Athos, Porthos, Aramis, and D'Artagnan, who are legendary characters the world over, as is Edmond Dantès, wrongfully imprisoned for years in the Château d'If before enacting his delayed revenge as the Count of Monte Cristo. Few young people today read the integral text of Dumas's prodigiously long novels, especially in the English-speaking world where they have often been heavily abridged. A prime example is The Man in the Iron Mask, excerpted from the third novel in the Mousquetaire trilogy, Le Vicomte de Bragelonne, and published separately in English.

Born in the popular press, where they were serialized, Dumas's novels live on in the mass media of cinema and television. The Three Musketeers is one of the most remade stories in motion picture history. Contemporary teen audiences were deliberately targeted in films like The Musketeer (2001), with its martial arts choreography, and The Man in the Iron Mask (1998), with its casting of Leonardo DiCaprio in the dual role of Louis XIV and his twin brother.

See also: Children's Literature; .


Hemmings, F. W. J. 1979. The King of Romance: A Portrait of Alexandre Dumas. London: Hamish Hamilton.

Stowe, Richard S. 1976. Alexandre Dumas père. Boston: Twayne.