The Count of Monte Cristo, by Dumas, is the famous classic of a good young man, Dantes, who is wrongfully accused by his enemies and imprisoned without a fair trial. Naturally, the thoughts of the young man, living all alone in his wretched dark cell, turn to revenge against those who sent him there…
I finally read this rather fat tome – a modern Penguin translation which is literally twice the size of the original translation I’d unwittingly bought, not realising that earlier edition was heavily edited and abridged. I think the abridged version gets through the action more quickly, but naturally it doesn’t do so well at building reader suspense and interest by giving you that extra insight into character motivations, personalities, etc.
(Spoilers for first part of book ahead.)
The first quarter of this book focuses on the plot against Dantes, and then the poor man’s experiences in prison – the long years spent waiting for a chance at freedom. While in prison, he learns a great deal from a fellow prisoner – knowledge which will empower him later in the story – and in particular gains knowledge of a fabulous fortune hidden on a rock in the sea, Monte Cristo.
Once Dantes is free, he immediately sets about recovering this treasure. With the prodigious wealth he now has, he has the power to track down former friends and enemies to reward or punish them. But his punishment is sophisticated and his traps long and well laid. Each of the treacherous men responsible for his imprisonment has Achille’s heels and other crimes in their own pasts… and the newly named Count of Monte Cristo proves himself remarkably good at finding out about other people’s skeletons in closets…
This book is sometimes described as a ‘children’s book’, but isn’t really (nor was it, apparently, originally intended as one). There is a great deal about fashionable society life (which younger children would be unlikely to find interesting), not to mention slow building of intrigues and webs of relationships, violence, affairs, quite a lot about the general misery of life, etc…
If it were considered a children’s book, you can see why in the fate of the Count himself. The prison break, the discovery of a fabulous fortune, the transformation into a near god. To go from a simple sailor to prisoner, wretched and destitute, to one of the wealthiest and most brilliant men in the world, pouring out millions left and right, always in command of every situation, able to do whatever he wishes, knowing everything about everything (and everyone) – it’s all quite fantastical.
(Lots more spoilers from now…)
Melodrama and death
Another point in favour of its being a children’s book is the melodrama; ie, how vividly most characters act out their emotions. Every character takes every misfortune very strongly to heart. No doubt, the characters all suffer heavy blows – great financial loss, the public humiliation/dishonouring of themselves or family members, deaths of family members. But they all respond to them by wallowing, fleeing overseas, loud dramatic wails, despairing monologues, fainting (especially the women), and by embracing death.
This last one really stood out to me, because it’s a recurring theme: if something goes wrong, life is no longer worth living.
-Dantes’ father, who refuses all care and food in his despair over his son, effectively killing himself
-Fernand (admittedly, he had good reason)
-Mercedes, who suggests, the last time we see her, that she will not linger much longer before dying, alone and sorrowful (but why? I can see that she’d be very upset over all that has happened, but she has Dantes’ forgiveness, enough to live on, a loving son who will ultimately look after her…)
-Morrel, who immediately wants to die once Valentine is dead, despite having a number of friends and family members whom he loves and who love him
-the Count himself, near the end of the story, and then Haydee, who doesn’t want to live without him because she loves him
And numerous other characters who at some point speak or think of death as a way out of their dilemmas.
This fatalism (failure/loss = no future) keeps cropping up despite the fact that a lot of the key characters in this story have, in the past, through their own hard work (and ruthlessness) transformed their own fortunes before. The Count has gone from imprisonment and destitution to wealth and power. Danglars and Fernand both went from being fairly poor non-entities to becoming men of prestige. Caderousse had good fortune drop into his lap several times, including when he was at his poorest and most despairing. And numerous characters have met new friends, new loves, etc. In short, the characters’ own histories prove that one’s present despair isn’t necessarily permanent and irrevocable. Where there’s life, there’s hope, right? The Count almost says this at the very end of the novel, and certainly all characters in this book could benefit from that perspective.
I suppose there is one difference: in the matter of shame. Before, they were poor but their names were clear; there was no obstacle to prevent their rising… Once shamed, though, they seem to feel they can never recover. I suppose the rich and influential all move in the same circles, and once cast out, they’d be rejected by former friends and associates with long memories…
I guess some of this despair is due to the melodramatic tone of the book, and some to the cultural attitudes of the day. One recurring attitude is that shame is worse than death, and shame can never be overcome. For example, all characters take it as a matter of course that any offended gentleman has the right – nay, the obligation – to duel and thus kill or be killed. A man who didn’t do this would be considered a coward. It is far better to murder (though killing in a duel is not considered ‘murder’) than take an insult. Clearly, shame and honour were powerful social forces.
Speaking of which, some character actions are rather over-the-top. One of the most ridiculous wrong-headed over-reactions (to this modern reader’s mind) was Albert’s response to his father’s public condemnation. Basically, his father committed a terrible crime, betraying someone who had trusted him and causing the deaths of a number of people. This fact was first hinted at by a newspaper, then widely publicised thanks to the efforts of the Count. Instead of Albert being horrified at the extent of his father’s crime and its effects on poor innocent people, he rushes out to insult and challenge his former friends to duels. He really wants to kill his newspaper editor friend, and then, the Count. Shouldn’t he, rather, be upset with his father?
Part of the rationale for his anger is that it’s none of the Count’s business; if his father Fernand *did* betray and kill people, why should the Count take it on himself to publicly disgrace him that way? Firstly, his father brought it on himself; the Count was not ‘disgracing’ him; Fernand had already disgraced himself with his vile conduct. Secondly, even without knowing about the Count’s past with Fernand, it’s clear that it *is* the Count’s business – the man Fernand betrayed was the father of the Count’s adopted ‘daughter’. Shouldn’t he care about her well-being? Why are the feelings of a murdered girl, who suffered, became a slave and faced exile thanks to Albert’s father, so much less important than Albert’s own wounded pride?
Another ridiculous series of actions came from the Villeforts. Surely, Madame Villefort, if you kill off four family members – all previously healthy – within a few weeks, you must expect people to realise something is suspicious. You should also, naturally, expect your husband to be unhappy about this. Finally, Villefort does find out, and rather than have her go to the scaffold, he would have her poison herself – so as not to shame the name of Villefort. How does that work? Wouldn’t it be better for him to denounce her, so that at least blame would fall on her and not on himself? Surely if *five* family members all died and Villefort alone was left alive, everyone would suspect him? Isn’t there a bit of shame attendant on having five people mysteriously die within a month??
Then, Madame Villefort kills herself and the beloved son. Now, note that this son is the reason she killed all those people. She would do anything for this boy; she killed four people just to get more money for her son (not that he was destitute in any case). Would someone take such desperate measures against someone she loved so much? Her final message was that she wanted him to be with his mother. Surely she would realise that Villefort also loved his son and would take care of her if she could not. Why deny the little brat a chance at life? Did you just want to get square with Villefort for making you kill yourself? Or were you just crazy from your own imminent doom and really did want him to ‘stay with you’?
On the whole, I enjoyed this story. I think I liked it at its best in the first quarter – the drama kept moving steadily at that point, with several sympathetic characters. I liked the character of Dantes, an upright and innocent man. Although he suffered a terrible fate, he had moments of hope and help while a prisoner, which stopped the reading being too grim.
Later, when he become Monte Cristo, he became a far more enigmatic, ruthless, competent – and less likeable character. It’s natural that Dantes would want to equip himself to take down his enemies – learning about poisons, training himself in fighting, looking into the lives and histories of the men he wanted to destroy – but his excessive level of competence and learning in every single area made him less convincing as a person. Clearly he was more of a legend than a ‘human’ and that was the point; he was such an item of mystery to all those around him. It’s understandable, though, that his experiences would have brought darkness over his life and character.
It was good once he spoke to Mercedes and the two acknowledged each other. This was the first time Monte Cristo revealed himself once more as a real person; he was moved; he could have his mind changed; he showed self-doubt. This made him a more interesting character in the end. He really thought of himself as an agent of God’s judgment, but even he learned to somewhat question himself.
Once the story changed to focus on Monte Cristo rather than Dantes, it took a while to get going again – lots of introduction of new characters, all with various positions in Parisian society – and intrigues gradually being revealed. Over time, we started to see how different characters fit into the overall narrative. It was fitting that every one of the men brought down by Cristo was really brought down by his own sins; in some cases, Cristo just had to bring a few elements together – a hint, a new acquaintance, a message to the newspaper – and watched the events play out.
I tried to consider which of the four men who destroyed Dantes’ life most deserved their punishment. Of these pretty ghastly people, who was most culpable? I lean toward Danglars. He originated the idea and got the others together; none of it would have happened if not for him. Also, unlike Fernand (who loved Mercedes) and Villefort (who was protecting his father), Danglars had no motivations or considerations of love; his emnity was purely about getting gain for himself and bringing down someone he envied, just because he hated him. Caderousse was an accomplice and should have helped save Dantes, but was not really responsible in the same way the others were – he was just a nasty, weak, greedy man.
So, did Danglars get the worst punishment? Not exactly, but I think he was punished very fittingly – taking away all the stature and wealth he’d sold his soul for – and having to experience a bit of imprisonment and fear of his own.
I think that on the whole, if I were to compare this with the other ‘big fat classic novel by a French writer’ I’ve read, Les Miserables, I probably slightly preferred Les Mis – the action and characters kept me firmly glued to find out what would happen next; there were more engaging protagonists. However, Les Mis did have a lot of filler and random unimportant chapters to skip over. The Count of Monte Cristo, while long, introduced everything for a purpose; while a few bits were a bit slow, none of it felt pointless. Some parts do start to feel a bit repetitive though, like everyone’s dramatic moaning and crying and falling into despair.
In conclusion – just personally, I liked it, didn’t *love* it.