Term Paper: Man in the Iron Mask

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Man in the Iron Mask

Plot Summary

When author Alexandre Dumas wrote Man in the Iron Mask in 1850, he no doubt had a sense of the curiosity he had sparked amongst readers in his own time, but whether or not he suspected that more than 150 years later readers, researchers, scholars and historians would still be attempting to solve the mystery of the Man in the Iron Mask, will never be known. What is certain, is that Dumas' book forefronts one of the most strange and unusual and intriguing mysteries in the history of France's King Louis XIV. Dumas weaves fact and fiction - the man in the iron mask in fact existed, as did Athos, Aramis, Porthos, and d' Artangnan - into a tale of intrigue and mystery (Macdonald, Roger, 2005). Since the publication of Dumas' Man in the Iron Mask, others have offered theories as to the identity of the man who was, according to some accounts, locked away, his identity locked by key within an iron mask, concealing his face from the limited world of his prison island of St. Marguerite, escorted there by the Muskateer d' Artangnan, who was also a real person and one who remained loyal to the king throughout his entire life. It is this man, who remains to date unidentified, but is the subject of much speculation as to his identity. The exploration of the subject is limited here to that as fictionalized by Alexandre Dumas in his Man in the Iron Mask.

Dumas' storyline follows the theory that the man in the iron mask is the identical twin to Louis XIV, and in a power struggle for the crown, one twin has succumbed to the greater guile and strength in forces behind the one who then reigned as Louis XIV. The idea, according to Dumas' storyline, is that the possibility of a second and perhaps equally entitled heir to the throne of France would give the French citizenry more choices than they needed, and serve to cause the future monarchy unnecessary problems and instabilities. Aramis, having been called to hear the prisoner's confession, gives insight as to this concern on pages 18-19 in Chapter 1 of the book. In speaking to the prisoner, Aramis says, "Now you understand," pursued Aramis, "that the king (Louis XIII), who with so much pleasure saw himself repeated in one, was in despair about two; fearing that the second might dispute the claim of the first to seniority, which had been recognized only two hours before, and so the second son, relying on party interests and caprices, might one day sow discord and engender civil war in the kingdom, by these means destroying the very dynasty he should have strengthened." Here, Dumas has clarified for the reader the motive behind maintaining secrecy as to the identity of the man in the iron mask.

That the prisoner was afforded certain comforts and privileges that extended beyond those of the ordinary prisoner was also indicative of the prisoner's higher level on the social ladder (p. 1). The privileges afforded the prisoner allow Dumas to make King Louis XIV complicit in the plot to conceal the man's identity; because only the King could have caused a man to be imprisoned in such a fashion and then afford him the luxuries of extended lantern light, and other personal amenities of comfort. Dumas helps the reader to gain a sense of the feeling that King Louis XIV might be suffering some measurable amount of guilt as to the plight of his twin. "According to custom, the prisoner was without a light. At the hour of curfew he was bound to extinguish his lamp; it may be seen how much he was favored in being allowed to keep it burning until that hour. Near the bed a large leather arm chair, with twisted legs, held his clothes (p. 1)." Thus, we know that this was a very special prisoner whose imprisonment and care was a concern of King Louis XIV him self, otherwise the prisoner would not have been afforded such amenities.

As the story unfolds, the three Muskateers, who are loyal to King Louis XIV, are charged with responsibilities and duties that demonstrate the King's trust in them, and as such is indicative of the fact that the Muskateers have proven their loyalty to the king in a way that would be unchallenged. This is essential to Dumas' telling, because it is the Muskateers who use their position of trust to pull off the scheme that becomes central to the story and gives rise to a never ending conspiracy theory surrounding the life and reign of Louis XIV. The Muskateers, having been convinced by Fouquet that Louis was bent on a course of destruction to France and the monarchy; become conspirators in the plot to switch the man in the iron mask from Louis' twin, Philippe, to Louis.

In Dumas' story, Philippe is originally the man in the iron mask, Louis' twin. "The musketeer had no longer any doubt as to the reason which had urged the unfortunate Philippe to reveal his character and his birth. Philippe, hidden forever beneath a mask of iron, exiled to a country where the men seemed little more than slaves of the elements; Philippe, deprived even of the society of d'Artagnan, who had loaded him with honors and delicate attentions,- had nothing more to look forward to than spectres and griefs in this world; and despair beginning to devour him, he poured himself forth in complaints, in the belief that his revelations would raise an avenger for him (Chapter 34, p. 1 of 8)."

Fouquet has come to be suspect in Louis' mind for all kinds of treachery. It is in Fouquet's best interest, self-interest, to overthrow Louis. It is not in Fouquet's best interest to topple the monarchy. Thus, the plot to switch Louis with Philippe becomes tangential to Fouquet's best interest, and, as is demonstrated by Dumas' story, the best interest of France.

Settings

The two main settings of the French Court and the Bastille are essential to the theme of plot and conspiracy in Dumas' storyline. The French Court is a place that rife with gossip, intrigue, distrust, mistrust and plotting the downfall of powerful men - including the king. Only in this setting could the reader be convinced that the events of the day warranted an intervention so drastic as to pull the switch, and that the true heir to the throne is the more grounded twin who is held hostage in the Bastille.

The Bastille and its security as a lifetime prison is, too, essential to Dumas' storyline. It is, after all, where political prisoners were often sent to spend the rest of their lives in solitude, especially if executing them would give rise to such an adverse public reaction as to cause civil unrest or rebellion. It also gives the storyline the added element of challenge, in that the conspirators must secretly switch the prisoners unbeknownst to anyone. That the prisoner is in the Bastille, where the governor is aware of the prisoner's secret, would add plausibility to claims made by Louis as to his identity after the switch, which would ultimately be ignored by the guards and governor.

So the settings of the French Court, where secrets and plots are continually being hatched, and the setting of the Bastille are tangential to the conspiratorial aspect of the story; and to the climax of the switch of prisoners.

The French Court also serves to contrast the life between the privileged wealthy, the middle class - like the Muskateers - who are allowed to mingle with the wealthy, but whose own fortunes and social position prevent them from being elevated to the highest levels of society. It does, however, afford them enough freedom and power to be able to assist in carrying out the plot to switch the prisoners. In fact, the middle class Muskateers are essential to a successful plot against the king. This is true in Dumas' story, as it would be in reality. Without the assistance of the middle class privileged, those upper class elites could not alone hope to be successful in their power plays.

The life of the lower class people was a life of abject poverty. This is best described by Pelisson, who, in Chapter 8, makes a plea on behalf of Madame Fouquet. The plea contrasts the life of the lower classes with that of the middle and upper classes. Pelisson's plea is as follows:

Sire," continued Pelisson, "the accused leaves a wife and a family. The little property he had was scarcely sufficient to pay his debts, and Madame Fouquet since the captivity of her husband is abandoned by everybody. The hand of your Majesty strikes like the hand of God. When the Lord sends the curse of leprosy or pestilence into a family, every one flies and shuns the abode of the leprous or the plague-stricken. Sometimes, but very rarely,… [END OF PREVIEW]

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"Man in the Iron Mask."  Essaytown.com.  August 3, 2007.  Accessed May 19, 2019.
https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/man-iron-mask/15474.