What does it say about me as a critic when the best book I’ve read all year was first serialized in the 1840s? From start to finish thoroughly enjoyable, Alexandre Dumas’ 1200 page revenge epic The Count of Monte Cristo
wastes little time in not thrusting the plot along, quite violently so at times, and includes within a brief, sketchy history of the return of Napoleon and his subsequent second defeat, a primer on hashish, and a proto-seed for the detective tale that would later blossom under Poe and Doyle.
The story is less well known than that in The Three Musketeers
, though the outline is familiar to anyone who’s spent time reading and watching noir fiction and movies. A young sailor, Edmond Dantès, engaged to be married to the beautiful Mercédès, is accused of a crime he has not committed by a man in love with his fiancée. The accuser, Fernand, is assisted in his perfidy by one of Dantès’ shipmates, Danglars, and an envious neighbor, Caderousse, as well as the political calculations of the young royal prosecutor Villefort. Cast into prison for fourteen years, Dantès befriends an Abbé written off by prison officials as crazy who bequeaths to him on his deathbed a hidden fortune. Escaping from prison, Dantès finds the treasure, buys himself the title of Count, and returns to France to put into effect his long-nurtured schemes of revenge.
All of that takes place within the novel’s first 250 pages. The remaining one thousand allows the plot of slow-planned revenge time to stretch its legs, look about, and move forward with the inexorable pacing of Fate. Dantès, now in his persona of the Count (as well as in other various disguises such as the Englishman Lord Wilmore and the Italian Abbé Busoni), plots a revenge that capitalizes on each character’s weakness and vanity.
Sensing the malevolence in Villefort’s young wife, he introduces her to a sleeping draught/poison of his own devising, with which she begins to poison members of the prosecutor’s family in an attempt to secure a sizable inheritance for her son by a previous marriage. Through one scheme after another he reduces the proud banker that Danglars has become to a penniless wreck. A similar betrayal in Fernand’s past is resuscitated in part by the Count and rises up to disgrace him permanently. Caderrouse destroys himself through his own base greed and cunning.
All of this unfolds with delicious grace, and you relish each move the Count makes in his ongoing revenge, but underneath it all, a creeping note begins to sneak into the story. When Dantès himself was sent to prison, it was an action aimed solely at him by the three conspirators, and yet the ripples of this violence stretched outwards, consuming his fiancée Mercédès; crippling the business of his former employer Morrel, who never found a young captain equal to Dantès; and crushing the life out of Dantès’ father, who eventually died of starvation. The Count comes to see, through his friendships with the next generation of all the major players, how his actions cause grief and suffering that extend beyond the targets of his own revenge.
This realization makes up the novel’s closing chapters wherein the Count mulls over the right of vengeance and the notion of redemption and comes to peace with his idea of a godly revenge. Partly this is inspired by an earlier episode when he is required to save the life of Villefort’s daughter as she is in love with (and is loved by) Morrel’s son Maximilian. But also a great deal of this has to do with Dantès’ love for Mercédès, as well as his newfound love for Haydée, a young Greek, daughter of the Ali Pasha, and his (Dantès’) slave.
In fact, these are the twin threads around which the entirety of the story revolves, love and revenge. It is Fernand’s love for Mercédès that leads to his conspiracy against Dantès. It is Dantès love for Mercédès that keeps him alive in prison. It is Maximilian Morrel’s love of Valentine Villefort that saves her life, as much as it is Dantès’ love of Maximilian’s father. Likewise, Madame de Villefort’s love of her son directs her toward her poisoning scheme.
And while it is Dantès’ revenge that brings every character to a reckoning, there is in each of the characters’ pasts delinquent accounts that eventually must be paid, a revenge against them by Fate of which Dantès is only the tool. Caderousse’s backstabbing and betrayals will eventually get the better of him; Villefort’s illegitimate child will also return to play havoc with his name and reputation; Danglars’ cupidity will trap him in a bandit’s layer; and Fernand’s own treachery will lead to his public humiliation.
In this, it is as if Dumas is saying that all wicked men carry within them the seeds of their own destruction, carry it close to their hearts as part and parcel of who they are. Those who live to a ripe old age without a calling to the judge, jury, and executioner of Fate are only blessed in that they never double-crossed a Dantès.
In part based on a true story, Dumas’ novel runs through its 1200 pages with a leonine hunger and rapidity. While he may have been paid by the line, the man was such an elegant craftsman that it is hard in thinking back through the novel to come up with any one part that could be successfully pared away without hurting much of the novel’s concerns and central conceits. To lose many of the complicated subplots would make a hash of not only Dantès’ schemes and plans, but would also fatally weaken Dumas’ central message of justified vengeance versus pure malevolence.
If there is any part of the Count’s character that at times must give the reader pause, it isn’t his heartlessness toward his enemies or his financial profligacy en route to his revenge (he literally tosses around millions of francs), it’s that he lives so strongly for a certain structured effect. The scene of the Morrel family salvation, when Dantès, in his first act since coming to his wealth, rescues his former employer from ruin and suicide, plays itself out up to the very last second. This is no doubt Dumas playing suspense thriller with his readership, but it leaves somewhat of a bad taste. We are given a Count who prefers design to humanity, and while this is all very good for one’s enemies, a bit more heart toward one’s friends would be appreciated.
It’s a minor enough quibble in well over a thousand pages that, let me repeat unequivocally, barely lets up or gives you time to turn your attention elsewhere. But it remains, long after other larger scenes have left my memory, as a kind of capricious cruelty. Perhaps we need to be somewhat frightened of the Count ourselves; perhaps it is a warning, slyly inserted well to the beginning of the revenge scenario. See, before you plot yourselves, the author seems to imply, see what inhumanity revenge can make you capable of. It is a haunting suggestion.