I ended my first reading of La Dame aux Camelias with a period of contemplation. Naturally, I had a great deal to consider, but more pressing to my current situation was the need for a topic worthy of address. To avoid saying much more, I will note that I was entirely drawn to (and inclined to discuss) Dumas’ incorporation of a “mission statement” (p.16-18). This was an inclusion I was not overly familiar with in the context of historical fiction—or in all truth, of any sort of fiction—and thus it warranted the good graces of my curiosity.
Dumas’ digression, though explicit, is not entirely transparent. It is openly stated to be a means of reconciliation for those wary of youthful tolerance, and a reassurance that the reader’s time will not be squandered, as Alexandre Dumas would put it, on “an apology for vice and prostitution.” Dumas further intends to advocate a belief that the path to salvation is perhaps a more thorough test of faith than a life lived exclusively in the grace of God—that one’s virtue lies in one’s ability to be saved. Certainly, he says, “there is more rejoicing in heaven for the repentance of one sinner than for a hundred just men who have never sinned.” In context, he is alluding to the idea that prostitution, or any similar vice, though inherently wrong, is not reflective of the sinner’s virtue or capacity for repentance.
It would be naïve to suggest that the prostitute or the gambler casts aside their morals entirely of their own inclination; rather, Dumas recognizes that it is circumstance which drives men and women to err, and the good will of God that can lead them home. Interestingly, by that reasoning, sin is not a fault of the sinner, but a condition of their environment. It is society’s prerogative, then, to right the wrongs in their environment and “give heaven cause to rejoice.” As such, while La Dame aux Camelias is not in the business to advocate the immoral action of others, it is certainly critical of our own inaction.
I would therefore argue, that followed through to its conclusion, Dumas’ irreverence for the idle and indifferently faithful is entirely more abrasive and constructive than the misunderstanding Dumas had set out to avoid: that his work defends the virtue of immoral acts. It is why I have chosen to describe his intentions as explicit, but unclear. Why would Dumas bother reassuring his reader of his disdain for prostitution, if he simultaneously posits that consistent faith limits ones potential for virtue? Now because I have neither the heart nor the poor judgement to suggest that Alexandre Dumas is mistaken, I must consider the alternative.
Thus, my intuition draws me to conclude that Dumas fully intends his audience to take from those few words what they will, in confidence that human nature will always interpret new ideas in such a way as to most thoroughly preserve the old — that we hear, as it is often said, what we want to hear. Thus, the faithful reader will find reassurance that sinning, in and of itself, is inherently wrong and the skeptic will choose to consider the circumstances of the sinner instead of his sins. In this way, by providing each reader with a mirror to reflect their own pre-existing beliefs, Dumas is able to dissuade the retribution of his critics without compromising the integrity and gravity of his original message. With these few pages, Dumas appeases his target audience, in the hopes that the dynamic story to follow will succeed where disagreement and discourse have failed. It is both a testament to Alexandre Dumas’ tact and commitment to the truth.