The most curious aspect of La Dame aux Camélias by Alexandre Dumas fils is the compassion of the narrator compared to that of the society around him. The culture of this novel’s setting appears to be very superficial, for the people within it are all focused on the acquisition and display of personal wealth, a quality demonstrated by each character’s luxurious and exquisite details, particularly the females with their dresses, Indian shawls, and jewels.
To fully illustrate the wealth of these individuals, this novel makes a point of stating the specific price of each item purchased by a member of the upper class. This novel’s emphasis of the exorbitant wealth of these characters contrasts past stories discussed in this course, since although they, too, feature an abundance of wealthy characters, the other novels’ descriptions of these characters never went beyond their high rank in society, and the fact that they consequently had riches to spare. In this way, it could be said that the society of La Dame aux Camélias lacks humility since the characters are shameless consumers to the point of gluttony, and have too high a love of material possessions, status and wealth.
The novel also makes a point of showing the less sensationalized, darker aspect of wealth, however. Marguerite Gautier, for example, “had died surrounded by fabulous luxury…but no less lost in the desert of the heart which is much more arid, much vaster and far more pitiless” (15-16). Thus, since the novel shows that even though Marguerite lived in total luxury, her life was riddled with tragedy–right to the very end–the novel, rather than glorify wealth, does say that money is not what matters most in life, for it cannot save your soul, find true love, or even guarantee a happy life.
Contrary to the mindset of his peers, the narrator has compassion for the Lady of the Camelias, and condemns the auctioneers and his fellow upperclassmen for profiting off the death of this tortured young woman, likening the merchants to thieves. He questions why people stubbornly insist on conforming to society’s values, asking “why should we too turn away souls that bleed from wounds oozing with the evil of their past, like infected blood from a sick body, as they wait only for a friendly hand to bind them up and restore them to a convalescent heart?” (17). Thus, by showing compassion, the narrator rejects the status quo – and begs his peers to do the same. He goes on to insist that those who encounter women trying to find their way back to God must encourage them in their quest and share “the charity of our forgiveness for those whom earthly desires have brought low, who shall perhaps be saved by hope in heaven…if it does no good then at least it can do no harm” (18).
The narrator leads by example in his charitable relations with the less wealthy when he meets Armand Duval. When the distressed and grieving lover shows up at his door, the narrator takes pity on him and gives him the book that he desires without a second thought, even though it provides a financial loss to the narrator. One can tell by the way the narrator promptly and happily gratifies Duval’s request, despite only knowing Duval for a few moments, that he understands the power and importance of compassion. Thus, La Dame aux Camélias by Alexandre Dumas fils provides a fascinating commentary on the relationship between wealth and compassion.