Georges by Alexandre Dumas
Every classic author has the book (or books) that made them famous. They tend to be well-known, well-loved, and easily accessible at any bookstore, library, and even webpage if the book is out of the public domain. And then there are the obscure “that book hasn’t been checked out since 1951!” books. In Alexandre Dumas’ case, he is not helped by the fact that some of his more obscure works have been forgotten by translators and are thus unavailable to English-speaking readers.
But after a recent trip to the Ottendorfer, I stumbled upon Dumas’ obscure Georges. Woefully, NYPL has done away with the traditional due date rubber stamping in its books in favor of an all-digital system, so I couldn’t tell when it was last checked out. I’m assuming a while back. In any event, Georges is one of Dumas’ much earlier works (published in 1843, just a year prior to his breakout The Three Musketeers) most notable for how many of the ideas in it he later reused for his more famous revenge tale The Count of Monte Cristo. It has been out of print in English for the better part of a century and was only recently re-translated by Tina Kover. But what makes Georges particularly interesting is that it is Dumas’ only book to deal explicitly with the subject of race as a whole and to touch on his feelings regarding his own mixed racial ancestry.
In short, Georges tells the story of a noble mulatto gentleman named Georges who is wronged by one particular family of whites on the island of Ile de France (located somewhere near Madagascar if I understood correctly). Angered by the whites’ treatment of his father, Georges departs the island to better himself in Europe and prove himself to be in every way superior to the whites before returning to Ile de France and seeking revenge worthy of Edmund Dantes. (If fact, Dantes does it in a much more interesting, complicated, and well-thought-out way later. In many ways Georges seems to serve as Dumas’ drawing board as he thought out The Count.) Somewhere in there, Georges also falls in love with the lovely Sara, a white woman who is a ward of the particular family of whites of so offended Georges in the first place. Drama unsurprisingly ensues.
Dumas himself had a Creole grandmother and one absolutely cannot help but think that every sentiment expressed by the impossibly noble Georges came straight from Dumas’ heart. The desire to right blatant racial injustices on Ile de France and the apparent futility of such a noble quest play against each other throughout the story and the end of the book is left ambiguous, suggesting Dumas himself wasn’t sure how things could or should play out. Georges seems to serve as a personification of what Dumas wanted the world to be racially: He is accomplished, admired, and respected by everyone in Europe despite his race. Georges upholds the ideals that everyone should be judged equally based on their accomplishments rather than their race. But in the ambiguous ending of Georges Dumas questions the possibility of his protagonist ever succeeding or even existing. It is interesting that Dumas wrote Georges before he became famous. It could well be that Dumas’ own lack of surety about his life and his talents were shining through in the ending of Georges. Could a mulatto truly succeed in the world, he seems to ask?
I won’t recount the ending or go into more detail, but I will say that Georges was a particularly rich book. I am entirely sure there were subtleties that I just did not pick up on because I am not a scholar of literature or race and that this book would be well served by such a reading. Just as a fan of Dumas in general it was very interesting to get a peek into who he was before he became “Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers.” You can see the echoes of who he will become and what greatness lies ahead for the author, but there was so much uncertainty, too.
On the whole, a very interesting read for reasons far beyond plot or writing style. At basic level, it is a short, simple story told in a lively manner (the ole Dumas style for certain). But looking at it beyond what it literally is, is when Georges becomes truly intriguing.