This quote is fittingly stamped across the back of the book (the Oxford University Press edition), along with a short anecdote about the origins of the story. In 1844, Alexandre Dumas-fils fell helplessly in love with the courtesan Marie Duplessis, and remained infatuated with her until her death in 1947. Ridden with grief, Dumas translated his sorrows into 256 pages worth of concise yet poignant writing, substituting Marguerite Gautier for Duplessis and Armand Duval for himself in a story of fragile hope, inevitable despair and tenacious love.
"The lady has been an ideal, an inspiration, a consolation. [...] Marguerite Gautier is a necessity," writes David Coward in the introduction. The depictions of women in literature are multifaceted - on one hand we have the tyrannical Ms. Havisham who lives vicariously through her adopted daughter in Dickens' Great Expectations and on another we have the bright yet innocuously nosy Emma from Austen's Emma.
So what distinguishes Marguerite Gautier from all the other women in literature, and why is she "a necessity?" This book explores the cruel tragedies of prostitution from an elegant and humane perspective - it rightly dispels (in clean, beautiful writing, may I add) the insensitive stereotypes that are often impulsively associated with courtesans.
Poor creatures! If it is wrong to love them, the least one can do is to pity them. You pity the blind man who has never seen the light of day, the deaf man who has never heard the harmonies of nature, the mute who has never found a voice for his soul, and yet, under the specious pretext of decency, you will not pity that blindness of heart, deafness of soul and dumbness of conscience which turn the brains of poor, desperate women and prevent them, despite themselves, from seeing goodness, hearing the Lord and speaking the pure language of love and religion.
But to be truly loved by a courtesan is a much more difficult victory to achieve. In such women, the body has consumed the soul, the senses have burnt out the heart, debauchery has buckled stout armour on to feeling. The words you say to them, they first heard long ago; the tactics you use, they have seen before; the very love they inspire in you, they have sold to others. They love because love is their trade, not because they are swept off their feet. They are better guarded by their calculations than a virgin by her mother and her convent. [...] But when God allows a courtesan to fall in love, her love, which at first looks like a pardon for her sins, proves almost invariably to be a punishment on her. [...] They have lied so often that no one believes them any more and, beset by remorse, they are eaten by their love.So, although Duval is enthralled by Gautier, her vocation is a hindrance to their relationship yet a necessity for her subsistence; therefore, Duval can "never give a kept woman any right to say that [...he owes] her anything whatsoever" because coursetans like her are "abandoned the moment [...they are] no more use for feeding the vanity" of men.
2 lovely quotes from the novel:
I am of those who believe that the whole is in the part. The child is small, and yet he is father to the man; the brain is cramped, and yet it is the seat of thought; the eye is but a point, yet it encompasses leagues of space.
Life is no more than the repeated fulfilling of a permanent desire. The soul is merely the vestal handmaid whose task is to keep the sacred flame of love burning.