Title: The Count of Monte Cristo (Le Comte de Monte-Cristo)
Author: Alexandre Dumas
First Published: 1844-1845 (serialised in Journal des Débats)
Edition Reviewed: Project Gutenberg ebook (released 1998, accessed 2012) and the 1997 Wordsworth Classics edition (introduction and notes by Keith Wren)
Price: free to download from Project Gutenberg, available in numerous editions from £0.01 on Amazon/Amazon Market Place
I started reading The Count of Monte Cristo after having gone on a spree of downloading books that are available free because they are out of copyright. In all honesty, I’m not sure I would have ever got around to it otherwise, but boy! I’m glad I did. Even though I broke my Kindle shortly after I began reading and had to find a copy in the library to finish. Woo libraries!
It’s a curious trend that’s emerging from the popularity of ereaders – more and more people are exploring older texts they might otherwise have neglected simply because these texts are now out of copyright and hence, effectively, free. Some are available from Amazon for no charge (although The Count of Monte Cristo will still set you back at least 77p as an ebook), more are available through charitable entities like Project Gutenberg – a fabulous website that has been set up as a globally available, free repository of classic works that are out of copyright. Of course, with works in translation it can sometimes be hard to find accessible editions that are out of copyright (for example, to my mind, the John Cottingham translation of Descartes’s Meditations on First Philosophy is by far the best, but it was first published in 1986, and thus not available for free). However, most editions of TCoMC still rely on the ‘classic’ translation of The Count of Monte Cristo produced by Chapman and Hall in 1846 (I was unable to identify a named individual as the translator), and from my perspective it hasnt aged badly at all.
Edmond Dantès starts the novel as a young man with everything good in life to look forward to. After the captain of his ship dies, Edmond assumes responsibility of the crew, and gains the preferment of the ship’s owner for assuming the role of captain, despite his youth. This is particularly good news as Dantès has an aging father to support and is planning to marry a beautiful fisherwoman called Mercédès. The future is so bright it practically glows off the page with signals of ‘something bad is going to happen’.
Dantès’s success breeds jealousy in others. The scheming Danglars coveted the captain’s position for himself, and the love-lorn Fernand has been courting Mercédès, despite her protests that she is in love with, and promised to, Dantès. Dantès’s is also subject to jealousy from his father’s avaricious neighbour, Caderousse. Unfortunately for Dantès, Danglars overheard the captain pass to Dantès a mysterious letter, sent from the exiled Napoleon to someone in Paris. Whilst drinking with Caderousse and Fernand he learns of Fernand’s jealousy of Dantès and eggs him on in a plot to frame his rival. Danglars writes an anonymous note exposing the unwitting Dantès of working against the king, advising of where the incriminating letter from Napoleon may be found. When Caderousse drunkenly protests that this is going too far and starts defending Dantès, Danglars declares that it was all in jest and throws the note away; although he does so with care that it should still be easy for Fernand to take up, which he does.
Dantès is arrested at his own wedding feast, before his marriage, completely unaware of the incriminating content of the letter that has been entrusted to him. He is interrogated by Villifort, who can see that Dantès was an unwitting mule, and promises him leniency. However, upon opening that letter, Villefort sees that it incriminates his own father as a conspirator for Napoleon. Knowing that his own ambitions will be thwarted if his father is exposed, Villefort destroys the letter and condemns Dantès to imprisonment.
Shipped off to the fearful Chateau d’If, Dantès is condemned to the deepest dungeons as he continues to protest his innocence and is judged mad. After years, Dantès finally gives up, and begins to starve himself as his only means of taking his life. As he is enacting this resolution, however, he hears a mysterious scraping, and realises he has a neighbour who is endeavouring to escape. Together they make a tunnel between the two cells. His neighbour is the Abbé Faria, who has also been isolated because he is believed to be mad, on account of his insistence that he knows the location of a great fortune, which he says he will give to anyone who sets him free. Faria is disappointed to find that he has misjudged his calculations in reaching Edmond’s cell and not escape, but they are each glad for the company, and Faria begins to educate Dantès – teaching him not only languages and science, but the principles behind them so that he will have the tools of extending his knowledge further. He also reveals the location of the treasure to Dantès, on the rocky island of Monte Cristo.
When Faria dies, Dantès conceals himself in the sack into which Faria’s body is placed, and escapes. He makes his way to Monte Cristo and is stunned to find that the treasure is just as astonishing as Faria promised. Dantès uses this fortune to travel the world and plot for the downfall of those who condemned him to living death for fourteen years.
How was is?
Gripping, exciting, thoughtful, escapist, and surprisingly progressive. The Count of Monte Cristo is not what I expected it to be at all. The basic premise, a wronged man who escapes prison and enacts revenge with a massive fortune, had long appealed to me. Indeed, I now recognise it as what must have been some of the inspiration for the wonderful televisions series, Life, which could be described in much the same way, and which I thoroughly enjoyed. But even as a student of English literature I sometimes found that the ‘classics’, admirable as they were, could be a bit of a struggle. I was not expecting such an exciting romp.
The style of TCoMC changes over the course of the book. The earlier parts, which deal with Dantès’s happy beginning and his imprisonment, read almost like a modern YA novel. The style is simplistic and easy to read, which is not a thing you expect of a book that is nearly 900 pages long. There is an odd break, however, perhaps a third of the way through, as we move from Dantès’s perspective to viewing the introduction of the Count of Monte Cristo to aristocratic society through his interactions with others. The style becomes more detached from Dantès’s viewpoint just as Dantès becomes more detached from himself, assuming the guise of the Count, and so consumed by his revenge that he believes he can hold himself apart from those around him, sitting in cold judgement, helping only those who win his friendship. At the same time, the description becomes much more detailed and full. The text does not become difficult and impenetrable in the manner of some classic works I have struggled through, but it does contrast starkly with the free and easy style of the first third.
Another way in which the book changes after Dantès’s escape and inheritance of Faria’s treasure is that we move from a close focus on his story to a presentation of lots of different stories. We not only see the world from different characters’ eyes, but each frequently has cause to digress to tell some other tale which informs the present circumstances. It took a bit of time to adjust to this, as it was an unexpected and unfamiliar style. However, I soon realised that this was a deliberate stylistic choice, mimicking the embedded narrative structure of One Thousand and One Nights, which is frequently mentioned (indeed, Dantès takes ‘Sinbad the Sailor‘, the hero of some of Scheherazade’s tales, as one of his aliases).
I suspect the embedded multi-narrative technique is employed to highlight the sense of multiple perspective. As Dantès becomes more narrowly focused on his revenge and the ways people have wronged or helped him, we see more of other people’s perspectives. Dantès is our protagonist, and we are clearly meant to sympathise with him, but the text constantly encourages us to take a broader view, and to be aware of how each character has not just one tale to tell, but many – that all of us have not only secrets, but also simply other parts of our lives that our friends, enemies, and family members may be completely unaware of as they make assumptions about us and judgements upon our actions.
There is a surprising psychological depth realised. It’s tempting, at the beginning, to read Danglars as a flat villain, or as an Iago figure who encourages others to commit crimes, but stands back from action himself. But even he is shown as capable of having complex relationships. I wouldn’t say he is ever sympathetic, rather, I felt we were presented with a rather modern portrait of a sociopath. Not that I am attributing to Dumas psychological theories of which he could not have been aware, but I see in his writing the product of a careful observer of people and their characters. Danglars is not ‘evil’ as such, he simply doesn’t care about other people. He marries and raises a daughter and interacts in society as is expected of him, but he views everything as a transaction, always looking for what benefits himself. He thus hardly seems bothered by his wife’s infidelity, as long as it does not affect him financially. Nor does he evince any evidence of shame or pity, as other characters do when the Count’s revenge falls upon them. It’s a careful line to walk, presenting such a character and not making him a stereotype. There is clearly a condemnation of bankers and of Danglars’s obsession with money over people, but in a choice between money and his personal comfort, Danglars ultimately chooses his own comfort and safety.
Despite the psychological realism, the dialogue remains somewhat stilted. Some of this may be a product of translation, as well as the passing of time, but some of it is not. The dialogue of Maximillien Morrel and his secret love, Valentine, is the most striking example. Pages and pages are filled with them explaining in excruciating detail exactly what they mean as they describe to each other the passions of their love and debate how they may resolve the fact that Valentine is promised to someone else, and that her father, Villefort, would never condone the match. It’s a tedious exposition that one doubts would get past a modern editor’s red pen. And yet, this still only makes for minor inconvenience. There’s a lot of what we’d now describe as ‘telling rather than showing’ in this novel which would no doubt be dismissed by those who subscribe rather too fiercely to writing-by-numbers, but most of it adds to the style of the piece more than it detracts. We hear the narrator’s voice in the description of events, and that voice is often accompanied by a wry wit that, whilst it might lack the immediacy of ‘showing’, compliments the work in other ways.
The origins of the novel in a serialisation no doubt account for its gripping pace over what would usually be regarded as an unweildy length, each chapter leaving us with something new to anticipate and wonder about. One might expect a tale with such a premise to be characterised more as a revenge than as an adventure, but the genre fits. Fantastic wealth has enduring appeal, as do charismatic and enigmatic strangers (as the Count is, both to the aristocracy of Paris, and to us, as he differs from the Edmond we met at the start of the novel). It’s action packed escapism and suspense as much as it is dark and psychologically deep.
What was really surprising was how progressive the novel is.
Not in every way, I hasten to add. There are some serious issues of presentation of race. Dumas was mixed race himself, and the descendent of a slave, but some of the attitudes of the time are still present. People are not represented as evil on the basis of their race, but they are certainly exoticised. The characters of Haidée and Ali especially. Haidée is the Count’s slave – a greek princess whose father was overthrown. She is consistently described as exotic and oriental. Far more attention is devoted to her appearance than her character, and although she is presented as beautiful, the terms in which her beauty is described are othering. She is interesting because she looks different and dresses differently to what is normal in France. Ali is similarly exoticised and described as a slave (and seems happy in his slavery). Moreover, he is mute – literally robbed of voice, although he is able to communicate through signs. The Count himself is presented as a very cosmopolitan man, and, in truth, the French society is not held up as superior to any other. Indeed, although countries are presented with reference to distinctive national characters, none are prized or vilified above others – the consistent characterisations of Englishmen in comedic terms is an amusing mirror on my own culture. Nonetheless, the othering and exoticism of non-white people remains disquieting.
In other ways, however, the novel is progressive. The treatment of women was strikingly egalitarian. Although characters at certain points express their own prejudices, the rest of the text provides ample examples to contradict them. There are plentiful female characters, each an individual (with the exception, perhaps, of Haidée, whose sense of self seems almost non-existent) with a character just as rich as that of any male character. Be it the fragile Valentine, the independent Eugénie, the scheming Madame de Villefort, the passionate Madame Danglars, or the intelligent and virtuous Mercédès, each is unique and has qualities that are directly opposed to some of the others.
The most interesting of these is Eugénie. Frankly, I was shipping Eugénie with her friend Louise long before I realised that Dumas was intentionally presenting them as gay. Slight spoiler here: I couldn’t have been happier than when they ran off with each other, leaving very little doubt that the author conceived of them as a couple, and did so with no condemnation whatsoever. There are references to transgender characteristics, too, although I’m not sure our modern concepts map perfectly on how it would have been regarded at the time. Eugénie is frequently described as ‘masculine’, and describes herself as ‘Hercules’ to Louise’s ‘Omphale’ – referencing a tale in which Hercules dresses as a woman. Moreover, when it comes to disguising herself as a man so that she and Louise may travel together, Dumas writes:
… with a promptitude which indicated that this was not the first time she had amused herself by adopting the garb of the opposite sex, Eugénie drew on the boots and pantaloons, tied her cravat, buttoned her waistcoat up to her throat, and put on a coat which admirably fitted her beautiful figure
There is absolutely no sense of condemnation of Eugénie for assuming a masculine role or masculine clothes. And when Eugénie and Louise are rudely interrupted in a hotel room later on, they are found to be sharing a single bed in their twin bed room.
Although one male character dislikes Eugénie for her ‘masculine’ characteristics, they don’t stop most people (or the author) from describing her as very beautiful, and there is no doubt in my mind that Eugénie and Louise’s running away together is meant to be regarded as a positive side-effect of the Count’s revenge.
As regards the revenge itself… Dantès makes a curious character. I’m more familiar with revenge tragedies than tales of this kind, which bring in elements of romance – even happy endings. One expects to sympathise with the character’s motives, even if one personally disapproves of revenge. And it’s hard to blame Edmond Dantès for any action he may take, given what he has been through. And yet some of his decisions made me uncomfortable. Whilst the Count has the power to be very good to his friends, and frequently is, he seems perfectly content to allow them to suffer excruciatingly first – indeed, he almost seems to think it necessary. That true happiness can only be awarded to those who have suffered terribly. In particular, his treatment of the Morrel family, whilst presented as an act of friendship, seems heartbreakingly cruel. (Minor spoiler:) He risk’s his mentor, Morrel senior’s, suicide so as to be able to leap in and save the day at the last possible moment, and he never reveals to the old man that he did not die in prison. The extreme lengths he goes to to punish his enemies are understandable, but it is harder to see why he does not reveal the truth to his friends and simply give them the money they need.
My sense is that we are to take it that this is a consequence of Dantès’s sufferings and long imprisonment. Like his conviction that he is an agent of Providence, Dantès does seem, in some ways, rather unhinged. I can accept this as an aspect of the psychological realism of the novel – I can even praise it. To have endured such punishment only to receive such incomprehensible wealth could conceivably impart odd beliefs about the balancing of happiness with pain, and a general desire to inflict pain on others as one has received unjustified pain one’s self. It is natural to search for reasons to explain suffering in one who has done no wrong. I can accept and even enjoy that Dantès has become rather broken in this way.
It doesn’t mean I don’t think he’s also a bit of a tosser.
And I think we’re meant to. A bit. But, the paperback I borrowed from the library has a note from the donor of the book which reads ‘I adore Dantes. A hero.’ and I just can’t get behind that. He’s likeable and charismatic and he has suffered and his actions are understandable. But he’s also arrogant, cruel, and flawed. His actions are not what I would call heroic. Even where he saves lives he does so with the feeling that it is his right to do so. I enjoy flawed characters, and I like to acknowledge that he is flawed.
Lastly, I want to discuss one thing that really didn’t chime with me, but it’s a bit of a spoiler, so you may wish to leave this part of the review until later, if you haven’t read the book. Be content to know that I enjoyed it and heartily recommend it. For the rest of you, read on:
The part that read wrongly to me regards who Dantès ends up with at the end. All through the book I was rooting for him to get back with Mercédès, but he leaves her in poverty and takes up with Haidée. I’ve seen criticism of the book for its outdated morality, and for the most part, I disagree. I think that Dumas presents us with the flawed actions of a man who believes he is the agent of Providence, but who is really a broken man, struggling to deal with an experience of incomprehensible suffering, which leads to consequences where even slight crimes are awarded disproportionate punishment. Perhaps the punishment of Mercédès was motivated by an outdated attitude to an unfaithful woman, but the flaw is more one of the dramatic expectations set up in the novel. One is encouraged to root for Mercédès and Dantès, and those hopes are disappointed. Moreover, one is given real reasons to believe in their relationship as real love, whereas his relationship with Haidée is not at all satisfying on this point. Haidée serves as more of a plot-point than a fully fledged character. She is presented as beautiful and exotic, and as having had terrible things happen to her, but I never really felt like she had a personality beyond ‘has a tragic back story and loves the Count’.
I’m also just squicked by the fact that she was his slave, still regards herself as his slave even after he has freed her, and that both of them regard their relationship as parental. There’s really just no way not to see Dantès taking her as a lover as an abuse of power. Sure, she begs for it, but he’s still taking advantage of a woman whose sense of self has been so destroyed that she cannot conceive of herself other than as his slave. A slave that he has raised since childhood. Maybe that is my modern sensibility, but I think it is backed by an otherwise empty characterisation of Haidée. She’s basically a male fantasy – a beautiful woman who adores you and begs to be your slave to use however you like. It’s creepy, and I don’t think you can use the defence of the times having been different to claim that it’s not.
This note gave the novel an unsatisfying ending, for me, but I would not eschew the rest for this flaw. I was disappointed by it, but the journey up to that point was exciting and consuming. This is a wonderful book, rightly remembered and deserving of your time, which is all that you need sacrifice, given that it’s available for free.