Amongst a spate of literary works set in the glittering city of Paris in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, one of the most popular novels was the Lady of the Camellias
, or Camille
. The novel has also spawned several films,plays as well as an immortal opera by Verdi known as La Traviata
Published in French in 1847, it became a super-success and also gave birth to one of modern cinema's "stock characters" - The Golden-Hearted Prostitute. Modern cinemagoers are familiar with two superhit films which took the box-office by storm in the last century - Pretty Woman
starring Richard Gere and Juliia Roberts and Moulin Rouge
starring Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman. In both the films, the female protagonists are portrayed in a sympathetic fashion,as women whose sins are redeemed by the power of love.However, the two films end differently. While Julia Roberts gets her Richard Gere, Nicole Kidman's Satine meets the same fate as the unhappy courtesan in the novel -- she dies of consumption. Still, one might add that Satine is luckier than the original Lady of the Camellias, Marguerite. She dies in her lover's arms, surrounded by mourning friends and a stage audience who thinks that her death is a part of her stage performance.On the other hand, Marguerite dies in agony, misunderstood by and estranged from her lover, who comes to know of her 'noble sacrifice" only after it is too late.The novel is a love story with the highly romantic theme of an affair between an aristocrat, Armand Duval, with the most beautiful , popular and charming courtesan in Paris, Marguerite Gautier.
The structure of the novel incporporates the principle of double-nareration.The unnamed first narrator of the novel comes across a sale in Paris, and learns that all the assets of Marguerite were being auctioned to repay her debts. In the aucion, the narrator buys a book which belonged to the courtesan, gifted to her by one "Armand Duval
". His imagination is fired by this simple gift as only a true lover could give a simple book, as against those who would want to pamper her for their own pleasure. (Here, one remembers Madonna's first video, Material Girl
, where she falls in love with the hero after he gives her a bouquet of flowers and takes her out in a taxi, whereas everybody else showers her with diamonds and takes her to their five-star hotel rooms in limousines). After a few days, the above-mentioned Armand , sick and sad, knocks at the narrator's door, begging him to return the book to him as a memento of the dead woman he loved. The two of them become friends and the first narrator nurses Armand back to health. At this point of the novel, Armand himself takes over the narration. He recounts his romance with Marguerite -- how he met her, how they fell in love, Marguerite's efforts to change herself into rspectability and her ultimate sacrifice which cost her ,her life. Armand's father, informed of his son's relationship with a demi-mondaine,a fallen woman, meets her and entreats her to leave Armand so that his family name would not be tainted and his sister, Blanche could get married, as her fiance's family has refused to accept her unless her brother cleans up his act. He tells her, " You love Armand; prove it to him by the sole means which remains to you yet of proving it to him by sacrificing your love to his future. " The objection here is not that Armand has a mistress - there is nothing more natural in nineteenth-century Paris - but that he loves a fallen woman and has pledged a lifetime of commitment to her.Well, Marguerite leaves Armand and comes to a very poor end. She flits from man to man, her consumption becomes worse and she after much suffering, her conditin worsened by her separation from Armand. It is only after her death that armand comes to know of his father's hand behind her decision to leave him, through a long letter the unhappy woman wrote ed.After completing his narration, Armand feels more relaxed . He and the first narrator travel to Armand's hometown where they spend an enjoyable time with his family. The narrator remarks that Armand's sister, the pure and pious Blanche, had no idea that another woman had sacrificed her life at the mere invocation of her name.It might be mentioned here that the novel is partly autobiographical.
The character of Marguerite is based on Marie Duplessiss, a lovely courtesan who died of consumtion at the age of twenty-three, and with whom, the author, Alexandre Dumas fils
(son of Alexandre Dumas pere, the creator of The Three Musketeers), had a passionate love affair. Marie, much like Marguerite, had died neck-deep in debt, and at the auction of her things, all the Page Three equivalent of Paris (including Chales Dickens) had turned up to drool over her riches.In a nutshell, the novel explores , behind the facade of a heart-breaking love affair, the questions of sin and redemtion. Marguerite is redeemed from her sinful life thorugh love and dying for love. Yet, as feminists and columnists like Lyn Gardner has pointed out, Marguerite needs to be redeemed because she is a woman with all the doors of respectability closed upon her,whereas the men who buy her body do not need to save their souls.