Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Friday, May 7, 2010

"Georges" by Alexandre Dumas

Georges by Alexandre Dumas (1843, translated from French by  Tina Kover 2007, 294 pages)

I am a bit late in posting this for the Classics Circuit, my Internet provider has been up and mostly down for the last few days.   

I choose to read Georges for the classics circuit for several reasons.     It deals with colonialism in a European colony  in the Indian Ocean.    I have already posted on George Sand's idiosyncratic but brilliant novel, Indiana set on the then French colony of Reunion Island.    I really enjoyed Amitav Ghosh's Sea Of Poppies set in colonial India in the 19th century and the colonial islands of the Indian Ocean.    I even suggested in that post that Sea of Poppies almost reads like a cliff hanging novel by Dumas.    Georges also has a brand new translation.   The cover says it is the only book of  Dumas that really deals with the question of race relations.    It is not 1000 pages long like has two most famous works The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers and I admit this is one of the reasons I choose it.     It is not nearly as widely read as his big books and as  far as I could see there are no other blog posts on the work.

Dumas (1802 to 1870) was a very prolific and popular author in the France of his day.   Many of his books were written with the help (sometimes quite substantial help) of assistants and collaborators.   Dumas' maternal great grandparent father was the descendant of African slaves  and Dumas' consciousness of racial issues had a personal note because of this.  (He was actually on his death denied burial in The Pantheon of Paris where great figures of French culture were buried-including writers of much less imminence at the time of their death than Dumas-because of his racial heritage.    He was reburied there in 2002 by order of the president of France who made an apology for his prior exclusion).

Georges is set on the island of Mauritius (in the Indian Ocean about 1200 kilometers east of Africa.  It is about 200 kilometers from Reunion Island, the setting for Indiana).   The book does make use of terms for the racial mix of its characters that are no longer politically correct but as to leave them out would miss much of the flavor of this novel so  I will use them.   

Georges  is named for its central character.    George is a mid-twenty year old son of a very wealthy mulatto who has a large plantation diverse business enterprises and is the owner of several hundred slaves.    Georges' father through sheer hard work and applied high intelligence made himself wealthy.   As the narration of the book makes clear, the father is known for his human treatment of his slaves.   As you read this book you will see that Dumas is very sensitive to the ways that being regarded as inferior by the accident of your racial mix can deeply scar someone and even shape their destiny.   That being said, we have to ponder if  Georges is itself properly viewed as a racist work.    Here is a description of a festival during which slaves did not have to work:

The blacks had wasted no time in beginning their three day holiday.   Primitive and uninhibited by nature, they worked and played with equal fervor, and danced until they often dropped from exhaustion.
There are at least a dozen sentences just like that in the work.   On the other hand, Dumas does do a brilliant job in telling us in a few lines how racial prejudice effects the father of Georges and Georges.  (It is almost as if Dumas can go as far as suggesting a mulatto can have the exact same feeling and a superior mentality to a European but he stops short at attributing full humanity to the slaves)    In a central episode of the opening of the novel the island is invaded by English troops.   A battle starts and Georges' father offers to join in the battle along with the French.   A French man way below the economic or intellectual level of the father or Georges (way inferior in terms of wealth and education to Georges and his father) says he does not want a mulatto fighting along side him.   The father then forms his own troop of black and mulatto troops who he leads with great bravery against the English.   Georges, fight along side his father captures the flag of the English (a very big thing).  Here is what a very powerful Frenchman says to Georges:

Give me that flag boy.   "Sir it was I who captured the flag from the British" murmured Pierre Munier.   "I am aware of that--but I won't have it known a mulatto dared to argue with me.  
Georges' father takes the flag from the hand of his son and gives it to the French men (the same man who had said he would not allow George and his father to fight along side of them) out of fear of what would happen to his son if he disobeyed the French men.  

Here is a powerful passage:

It was truly painful to see a man of such deep and noble character yield to so vulgar a bully, but it was.   Even worse, his actions surprised no one.   That sort of think occurs everyday in the colonies.   Brought up since infancy to regard white men as a superior breed, Pierre Munier had allowed his proud spirit to be crushed without even attempting to resist.....Georges had remained stoic as his own blood ran down his cheek, but now he burst into tears empty handed before his father..he clenched his fists with fury and swore that someday he would get his revenge on all white men.
There is a lot of lush description of the island and its culture.   I think the colonial islands of the Indian Ocean must have seemed very exotic and far away in Europe in the 1840s.   

About the first half of this book was a bit slow moving for me.   It is told in a melodramatic way and the characters are a bit wooden at times and seem more written to embody a type than  a whole person. The lead  female character is completely unrealized.    There is a romance in the book but it is not well done.  However I did begin to get caught up in the action as the second half and I did find it pretty exciting in places.   There is a slave revolt on the island which is lead by Georges which is just a brilliant set piece that I enjoyed tremendously.   

I think Georges is worth reading especially if you are a  fan of his big books or are interested in seeing one of the first attempts to deal with race relations in a novel.    Once I got caught up in the action I was interested and entertained.   I think Dumas probably wrote this book very rapidly and was just at the start of his career and not yet the writer he was to become in a few years.   It is the second of his novels and the big books are years away.   Like them it was originally published as a serial.   I think if I had been reading it as a serial I might have been bored with the opening pieces but would have eagerly awaited the publication of the end sections of the book.   

I think many will find elements of this novel to portray racial attitudes that seem are now very unacceptable.   That is just a fact of life for a 19th century novel.   Maybe giving full humanity to a mulatto (itself a term from a racist mentality which is used throughout the book) is all Dumas can do.   I would say if you are a big Dumas fan, an avid reader of the 19th century novel or interested in an early literary treatment of racism to consider reading this book.   It is fun and entertaining and it is also even though it attacks prejudice it is  a racist book.  

If others have read this book I would be very interesting in your opinions as to whether or not I am correct in seeing the book as racist.

I thank the organizers of the Classics Circuit for their great work and I am sorry I was late due to internet issues.


Suko said...

What a thoughtful review, Mel. I hope this post gets many visitors.

Rebecca Reid said...

Hmmm. how intersting. He was of mixed race but he portrayed mixed race people as less? Or was he trying to show how people treat those of mixed race? It just seems odd for him to treat himself like that!

I probably won't be reading more Dumas. I was not a huge fan of the huge works.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

It matters not at all for what you wrote, but you might find this interesting. Graham Robb, author of a big bio on Hugo, argues that Georges was not written by Dumas at all! The article is unfortunately subscriber only. I wish I remembered more of the details.

Jess // Curating Style said...

I really enjoyed this review! Ever since reading Dumas' unabridged The Count of Monte Cristo, I've been wanting to pick up another of his works. Georges might be it! It fascinates me when authors talk about race relations in the past (and comparing it to modern history).

Thanks again for stopping by my blog!