Monday, April 5, 2010

The Three Musketeers: Milady

Set in 17th century France, Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers revolves around the adventures of the protagonist d’Artagnan and his three musketeer friends Athos, Porthos and Aramis as they attempt to thwart the Cardinal and more importantly his agent Milady de Winter. The treatment of Milady is problematic, to say the least. A woman who single-handedly makes the four musketeers shiver in their frilly socks will definitely earn my respect but but but... On the one hand she is a richly layered character with independence, a strong will, evil genius and a definite mind of her own; what more could one ask for in a female villain? On the other hand her crimes are punished more than enough and in unjustifiable ways while the musketeers’ crimes are never punished or addressed severely enough. Let’s see the particular accusations and punishments that are problematic:

While she is a nun in a convent, Milady and a priest abandon their holy vows, plan to elope and steal and sell the communion plate to provide the funds. The priest does the stealing and the selling while the musketeers accuse Milady of seducing him, making him do the stealing and consider all the blame Milady’s. Granted, Milady was the priests accomplice and thus equally responsible, but she was not solely responsible. The priest was not a child, he was not physically forced to do anything; he chose to abandon his vows, he chose to steal; he was just as responsible for his actions as Milady was. Upon being arrested for it she persuades the jailer’s son to help her escape. Her fault was in seeking to escape, successfully escaping and remaining at large but the action of letting her escape was his. But no, she is again accused of corrupting the man. When the priest escapes, rejoins her and afterwards turns himself in and is executed, it is again all her fault; she destroyed him.

Milady has a Fleur-de-Lis on her shoulder which brands convicted criminals and about which she does not tell her husband Athos. Upon discovering it while she is unconscious, Athos strips her, ties her hands and hangs her from a tree, leaving her for the dead. He later justifies himself to d’Artagnan by saying “The count was a powerful noble: he had the undisputed right of executing justice on his domain”. He is never punished for his attempted murder and assault of Milady. True, Milady deceived him, true he felt shocked and betrayed, true he realised that she married him only for his position and money, true he was worried about his honour and justifiably wanted to end his marriage but does this all justify murder? Couldn’t he have got rid of her lawfully? This special brutality of dealing with offending women and specially the particular violence of stripping and hanging her has a long history in a particular brand of misogyny, the kind reflected in the manner villains -which are almost always female- are dealt with in the Brothers Grimm Fairytales or in the medieval witch-hunts. The kind in which if a woman dares to have a mind or agenda of her own, if she dares to go so far as to displease the Man of the house she must be punished and soundly and in a particularly barbarous manner.

D’Artagnan then has sex with Milady during which she is deceived and considers him Comte de Wardes and all the while d’Artagnan is aware of the fact. He later confesses to her and she furiously swears vengeance. She then thrice attempts to murder him but fails and finally murders Madame Bonancieux whom d’Artagnan loves. I’m not saying that her murder of Madame Bonancieux is justified, but the fact is that d’Artagnan is never sufficiently punished for raping Milady -and yes if during sex one of the sexual partners is deceived as to the identity of the other it is rape-, never even openly accused of rape; oh no it is all somehow due to the irresistible power Milady holds over him and other men. Her desire for revenge after this is evil and d’Artagnan’s hopping up and down waving his sword each time somebody ticks him off (just count the number of times he and his friends duel people for injuring their 'honour') is glorious. It’s all crap of the ‘anyway let’s face it she deserved it, d’Artagnan even apologised, what more do you want and it wasn’t even a rape, it was consensual and she was just deceived’ variety.

Porthos repeatedly wheedles his mistress, Madame Coquenard, into giving him her husband’s money. D’Artagnan tells Kitty -who is Milady’s maid and is in love with him- that he loves her in order to gain access to Kitty’s room which is connected to Milady’s and which allows him to eavesdrop on her. D’Artagnan also intercepts Milady’s letters to Comte de Wardes from Kitty and writes back posing as Comte de Wardes. I am not holding Porthos and d’Artagnan responsible for the actions of Madame Coquenard and Kitty, but if they were judged according to the same standard they judged Milady with, they would be just as guilty of manipulating and deceiving people as her. One part that struck me as especially creepy was d’Artagnan’s calling Kitty ‘my child’. Can anyone tell me whether that was simply because she was a maid or was she indeed extremely young?

Porthos once while staying at an inn loses all his money in gambling and when his innkeeper asks for payment he threatens to kill him. After once being accused of using fake money by a deceived innkeeper, Athos locks himself in the inn’s cellar where all the innkeeper’s food and wine is stored, in self-defence from the innkeeper's men. He remains there for almost two weeks, refusing to come out even after the innkeeper realises his mistake and apologises, eating most of the food and drinking most of the wine and breaking most of the wine bottles. Porthos and Athos’ bullying of their innkeepers, due to the just demands of one and a simple misunderstanding of the other reflects a most dishonourable side of their character. This is ironic since they both claim to esteem honour so much. Those who hold themselves and others so high for morality, chivalry and honour fail in the tests themselves and become hypocrites. This could have worked -and does work to a certain extent- if the crimes of both Milady and the musketeers had been addressed/not addressed equally instead of dragging one by the hair and cutting her head off and bearing the other upon shoulders in all his glory.

The only difference in the musketeers and Milady’s tactics is that the musketeers kill their enemies openly while Milady kills them secretly and through manipulation. Open violence vs. secret manipulation or deception. The narrative seems to consider the first method better, but is it? Milady being a woman is not allowed to engage in open violence while the musketeers use both tactics, open violence being the primary tactic. Why is deception bad and open violence necessarily about valour, honour, dignity, manhood, something to be glorified; when they both achieve the same results? Is it simply because in open violence the opponent is aware of everything going on? Big comfort it is to know you are going to be forced into fighting and probably be gravely injured or die or forced to kill/injure somebody else and have no choice. At least in manipulation nobody physically forces somebody else to do something; people are still responsible for their choices. Milady and the musketeers often act upon similar instincts with similar motives: self-preservation, preservation of honour and liberty, vengeance, following orders etc.

One thing that was interesting to see was women being the providers; Madame Coquenard gives Porthos money whenever he requires it, Queen Anne gives d’Artagnan a ring which takes care of all his and his friends monetary needs and Aramis’ mistress Madame de Chevreuse sends him a lot of money when he needs it. The narrator notes that wealthy women providing funds for their lovers was a common sight in those days. But the difference between men being providers and women being providers in the 17th century is that, men had other resources and ways of earning money while women had extremely limited sources/opportunities and unless from a wealthy background, they were almost completely dependent on men for a comfortable income.

In the book, there are several female characters besides Milady and though they have minor roles in the main action, their presence is felt throughout the story. The book surprisingly also passes the Bechdel test[1]. There is Madame Bonacieux who starts out being awesome with rescuing herself from the Cardinal’s clutches and being resourceful and authoritative but is kidnapped halfway through the story and only returns towards the end, transformed into a weak, gullible creature simply to die at Milady’s hands. Then there is Queen Anne, who is stereotypically feminine but still has authority enough to save her and the Duke of Buckingham’s neck once or twice. Kitty; Milady’s maid is extremely naïve and overall extremely pathetic what with crying her heart out over d’Artagnan and trusting him while he tells her that he loves Milady, loves her, and loves Madame Bonacieux within minutes of each! Now Madame Coquenard, Porthos’ mistress, makes for an interesting character. She’s at least fifty, not very attractive, very miserly and Porthos obviously is with her only because of her money. She is similar to Kitty in being with a manipulative man but she still doesn’t come across as a doormat. She retains her identity, is willing to argue her point, and her interactions with Porthos feel genuinely entertaining. Madame de Chevreuse; a great friend of the queen’s and Aramis’ mistress is a character I wish there had been more of in the book. We never get to meet her in person but from what we know of her from the other characters’ interactions and two letters from her, she seems a very cunning and clever woman. She also seems like an independent woman with involvement in several conspiracies. It would’ve been fun to read more about her part in the queen’s affairs.

[1] Bechdel test: It's a simple test originally intended for movies but is equally applicable to books. In order to pass the test the story must fulfill three requirements:
(a) There must be at least two named female characters in the story who
(b) Talk to each other about
(c) Something other than a man


  1. I can't tell you how wonderful it was to stumble on your analysis here. I just finished reading ‘Three Musketeers’ a couple days ago and I have honestly never felt so disturbed by a book's treatment of its female characters as I was with Milady. In hope of finding some discussion from a feminist perspective, I googled the keywords 'Milady', 'Three Musketeers' and 'feminist', and it led me to your blog.

    First of all, I *completely* agree with just you. I, too, felt that Milady was punished (seemingly 'justly', from the perspective of the narrator), in a way that none of the men were, and held up to a standard of guilt that, like you said, would have condemned many of the supposed heroes if they had been treated likewise.

    For me, it was the trial scene, just before her death, that really gave me the chills. Like you said, it has a flavour of very real and still existing misogyny, where men feel they have the innate right to make themselves the judges of a woman's crimes, and to condemn her to death themselves. Like you, I found some of the 'crimes' seriously dubious, especially her supposed responsibility for the downfall of the priest and of John Felton who both, despite her acts of manipulation, acted of their own wills.

    I totally agree that D'Artagnan's deception of her meant that he was committing rape. I also found it extremely disturbing that, when she told him (thinking him to be de Wardes) that she would kill D'Artagnan, he decided that he wanted to revenge himself on her by "possessing" her sexually, both as someone else and as himself. That was the point, for me, when D'Artagnan really stepped of the deep end into a really scarily dark character.

    As for Kitty, I thought the book said she was 16, but going back and checking I can't seem to find her age. I don't know if you've seen the old black and white BBC miniseries of this, but in that version D'Artagnan calls her "little one", in a way that is nothing short of creepy.

    I agree also on your point about honor. You mentioned Porthos' and Aramis' actions at the inns, which I too thought were pretty dishonorable. While reading the book, I tended to like Aramis the best of them, because I tended to find him the most reasonable and gentle-minded. Even he, however, when someone had simply threatened to thrash him, had quit his vocation, trained in fencing for a year, and come back and killed the guy. Now if he can do that, it is absurd to say that a woman is evil who attempts to avenge herself for rape, or that she hasn't the right to leave a husband so abusive that he attempted to murder her, leaving her naked and exposed to die. He has the right to get rid of his wife by killing her, but she doesn't have the right to get rid of that same husband by leaving him? (That Athos should then be portrayed as one of the most heroic characters, that he should be a role-model/father figure for D'Artagnan and the others, and that he should continue to not only defend his treatment of Milady as his right, but actually continue to seek further revenge against her for having 'dishonoured' him, is to me a hugely disturbing side of this entire novel.)

  2. (continued)

    Just a final point: I did a research essay on duelling in romantic literature a couple years ago, in university, and some of the things I learned really rang true while reading this novel. The romantic age was all about man having personal freedom above all else, and that no other authority had the right to decide his destiny for him. Personal space represented this ideal, which is why, for instance, you sometimes see a man slap another man with his glove in order to incite him to fight -- if you were a man who valued his honor, then nobody had the right to touch you, and if so, you were almost obligated to fight. The duel was so important to this type of ideology because it was a way for two men to solve their own conflict: it wasn't a war (country vs. country), and it wasn't an execution (state vs. individual) -- a duel set two free men against each other, who both agreed freely to resolve their conflict, and to have the chance to inflict punishment for the wrong they each believed the other to have committed against them. They both also agreed to suffer the consequences, if they lost the duel.

    I just wrote this because I think those are the male ideals in Three Musketeers, and I think the great injustice is that Milady does not have access to this type of freedom or to making this type of contract. Her personal space is in no way equally respected. Where Athos can fight a duel with someone for accidentally running into his shoulder, how is it that she has no recourse to justice when burned, stripped, hanged, raped, or dragged out by the hair. The idea that the group 'pardons' her just before her death so that she can 'die in peace' is further ridiculous -- Athos and Porthos refuse to pardon D'Artagnan for the smallest blights, at the beginning of the novel, and insist on a chance at 'satisfaction' that is full of rules and insistence on equality; to say they pardon Milady, while she is tied up and screaming for release, is just painful to read, after all the earlier talk of honor and fairness. (And perhaps one of the worse moments is when she protests that they are cowardly, because they are 10 men against one woman, and their answer is: "You're not a woman, you're a demon". Just like you said, this same justification has been behind many, many real deaths in history.)

    The last thing that I found ludicrous about this situation was that, as soon as Milady was dead, all the other conflicts seemed to be instantly resolved. I expected a huge final showdown between the protagonists and the Cardinal (their enemy throughout the book), or at the very least, a serious fight between D’Artagnan and his “man of Meung”, whom he has been pursuing since the very start. Instead, the Cardinal laughs off Milady’s murder because of D’Artagnan’s possession of the Carte Blanche, and actually promotes him for his cleverness. D’Artagnan, in returns, declares that his life belongs to the Cardinal. And then one of the last scenes is D’Artagnan and Rochefort laughing together and becoming friends. Despite the fact that these two men were critically involved in the kidnapping, imprisonment, and possible torture of his love, Madame Bonacieux, D’Artagnan has no trouble forgiving them. As soon as the evil woman is dead, everything is fine between the men. Yikes.

    Anyway, this comment really ballooned into something of pretty ridiculous length, I hope you don't mind. But as I said, I'm just so glad to have come across your blog entry about this, and I really appreciate the things you said.



  3. Thank you so much, Emma, for your response. You are the first official commenter on my blog and I'm delighted that somebody finally came here. Your were spot on and I think summarised everything in a much more precise manner than I did. The male ideals and freedoms denied to women makes the women criminals when they try to claim the freedoms for themselves. It's like starving a person, dangling a piece of bread labelled as your property in front of hir and branding the person as a thief when ze eats it. Basically, 'You do what we say or go to hell!' This kind of society needs to create its villains to maintain and reinforce the structure of the society or it wouldn't be the society that makes it the kind of society it is.

  4. Haha, well I'm honoured to be the first official commenter! :) I really like your blog, and I'm glad to have found it.

    "The male ideals and freedoms denied to women makes the women criminals when they try to claim the freedoms for themselves."

    ^I think that puts in in the most precise manner of all. Well said.

    I also really liked your post about gender neutral pronouns, and "gentleman" vs. "lady". I agree that "gentleman" has much more admirable values associated with it. Similarly, the gender-related titles that have always bugged me the most are "sir" and "ma'am". To me, "sir" sounds entirely respectful, but a lot of people find the word "ma'am" uncomfortable, if not sometimes even offensive, both to call someone and be called. It really bothers me that they are supposedly equal/equivalent respectful terms of address, but that the female one has such negative connotations for a lot of women. Though I'm born female and mostly identify as female, I would *far* rather be called "sir", and sometimes wish that it could be used for both genders, since it seems the most respectful. I'd love to hear what you think of those terms!

    (And sorry for posting the question here -- it might be more appropriate under your "gentleman/lady" post, but I figured I'd just add it on to this one. My gosh, I'm writing on and on. I blame it on school being done and my essay-writing instinct kicking in to compensate for the lack of assignments :P)


  5. I'm glad you like the blog. :D
    Here in India I've always been called 'ma'am' by cashiers, salespersons, restaurant staff, police officers or strangers etc. and I'm only 17. Here, we don't really use the term 'miss' by itself for young women so we don't have the miss/ma'am dichotomy. Ma'am is used as a polite epithet for all women. To me, it always felt like the perfect age neutral and marital status neutral counterpart to 'sir'. Therefore, I didn't realise the connotations it has for a lot of women in other regions of the world until you mentioned it. I've spent the last one hour reading about it and I'm not very sure about my opinion. Looking at its dictionary meaning, I can see the problematic aspects. It used to be used for married women and still implies a woman’s age if not marital status. There should indeed be a female equivalent to 'sir' which does not depend upon a woman's age or marital status. So what can we use? 'Miss' is just as bad as 'ma'am', if not more and that leaves 'madam' and 'Ms.'. I don't see too much of a problem with 'madam'; it's not perfect but it can do. The main objection I saw people raise against it is that it can also be applied to the owner of a brothel. The feminist issues regarding sex work are complex but that doesn't make exchanging sex for money inherently immoral. Shaming women who earn money in exchange for providing a service is just plain misogynistic and does nothing to help promote equality. 'Ms.' or 'miz' is completely fine but I see it as more of counterpart to 'Mr.' or 'mister' than to 'sir'. In the end, I suppose, what matters is self-identification. If a woman wanted me to call her 'ma'am' or 'miss' I'd, regardless of my choice, respect that and address her as such.

  6. I have one thing to say in response to your review. Read the succeeding books! In the sequel, Vignt Ans Apres (Twenty Aears After), the implications of Milady's murder are revisited, and the Musketeers, as middle aged men, have lost much of their youthful recklessness and begin to experience a degree of remorse for their actions. Also, her son comes back to kick some ass.

  7. I just finished reading The Three Musketeers and came away with quite the same impression. It deepens the sense of unfairness when you consider that Milady's actions in having Buckingham assassinated actually help France, whereas the musketeers, by trying to prevent this, are effectively betraying their country in wartime.

    I read a lot of 19th century literature, so I'm prepared to overlook a lot, but the misogyny in this book is so strong that it overshadows all else. It was a really disturbing read.

  8. What makes Athos' behaviour towards Milady even more atrocious is the strong implication, in Twenty Years After, that Mordaunt was his son. So, he hanged his wife, while she was pregnant with his own child.

    For Athos to hang his own wife for concealing her criminal past just seems like a ludicrous overreaction. Interestingly, D'Artagnan does describe it as murder, when Athos is telling him the story - and Athos doesn't attempt to deny the accusation.


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