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The Count of Monte Cristo

June 19, 2008

Blogger General’s Warning: This product may contain spoilers as well as peanuts and other assorted tree nuts. Spoilers have been proven by the Department for Public Broadcasting, the Postmaster General, and Suzie that sits behind you in third-period English to significantly lessen the impact of books, stories, movies, and other narrative medium. And also to cause warts. Do not consume products that may contain peanuts and other assorted tree nuts if you are allergic to them, as this may cause a severe allergic reaction. You have been warned.

Cover of the Penguin Classics edition of The Count of Monte CristoThe year is 1814. Napoleon has been removed from the throne of France and exiled to the Isle of Elba, and a young sailor named Edmond Dantès has just returned home to Marseilles after months at sea aboard the merchant vessel Pharaon. Everything is looking up for young Dantès: he has been promised the captaincy of his ship, he is set to marry his true love, and his aging father is there to be proud of his son. However, not everyone is so proud of young monsieur’s success. A conspiracy is hatched to defame Dantès and he is arrested and imprisoned on false charges.

For fourteen years, the once-hopeful man rots in the deepest dungeon of the island prison, the Château d’If . He befriends a peaceful abbè in the neighboring cell, and they adopt one another as father and son. The priest educates Edmond, and tells him of a fabulous treasure: the inheritance of a great family, hidden on an island and forgotten by time. With this fortune, a man would be able to unleash great blessings on his friends… or powerful retribution on his malefactors.

At long last, this tortured man escapes from prison. With his new-found wealth and education, he casts away Edmond Dantès and returns to France as the Count of Monte Cristo, to visit his wrath upon those responsible for his suffering:

“I wish to be Providence myself, for I feel that the most beautiful, noblest, most sublime thing in the world, is to recompense and punish.” –Edmond Dantès

Alexandre Dumas wrote these words in 1844, basing his tale (more loosely than a Hollywood adaptation) on the true story of a shoemaker named François Picaud from the archives of the Paris police. This absolutely gut-wrenching tale of revenge, egotism, and impatient despair has climbed to a well-deserved position as one of my favorite stories of all time. Dumas writes with incredible feeling, bringing the reader to care passionately for the Count and his quest, so that we begin to feel, as the Count does, the horrible cost to those he once loved that must be exacted for him to complete his vengeance.

The Count of Monte Cristo contains many colorful and memorable characters. There is Edmond Dantès, embodying innocence, naivety, and bright-eyed cheeriness. Edmond has nothing but hope for his future. He is sharply contrasted by The Count of Monte Cristo, Edmond Dantès’ persona embittered by fourteen years of imprisonment. Monte Cristo is calculating, brilliant, and capable of both extreme generosity and startling violence.

The conspirators of Dantès misfortune, and the targets of his quest, are the Pharaon’s one-time purser, Danglars; the cousin of his fiancée Mercedes, Fernand; and his neighbor Caderhousse. Both Fernand and Danglars have become very wealthy during Dantès’ time in prison. Monsieur Danglars is now a Baron, having made his fortune through cunning speculation and banking maneuvers. Fernand is now the Count de Morcerf, a renowned General and military mind. Danglars and Fernand represent the Financial and Military arms of the aristocracy, respectively. Caderhousse, who was an unwilling participant of the conspiracy and strove to prevent the slander of Dantès, is the poor owner of a failing Inn. He represents the virtuous common man, falling on hard times despite his merit:

“It is thus that God rewards virtue, monsieur. Just look at me: I have never done a wrong action apart from the one I related to you a moment ago, yet I live in poverty while Fernand and Danglars are rolling in wealth.” – Caderhousse

These archetypes, the Military Nobility, the Corrupt Financier, and the Suffering Everyman, are social roles important to Alexandre Dumas. His father was the son of a Marquis of Normandy, and his mother an innkeeper’s daughter. This family background gave Dumas a unique first-hand perspective on both the peasantry and the nobility. The story can also be seen as a picture of “class struggle” of a sort, with the vengeful Count representing the empowered populace attacking the corrupt aristocracy and war-machine.

Revenge is the primary motif of The Count of Monte Cristo. Dumas explores how a blind desire for retribution, when that is all one lives for, is a poisoning influence that drives one to be willing to sacrifice all that one holds dear merely for the satisfaction of watching one’s foes fall. In fact, as the story concludes with Dantès’ vengeance completed, he comes to the realization that he has “gone beyond the limits of rightful vengeance and that he could no longer say ‘God is for and with me.’” Leaving his two remaining friends on the isle of Monte Cristo and bestowing all his wealth unto them as a wedding gift, Edmond Dantès now sheds the Count of Monte Cristo as the Count buried Edmond Dantès. Taking only his loving slave Haydee, Dantes sets forth on a journey of redemption for his soul. He leaves his friends with these words:

“There is neither happiness nor misery in the world; there is only the comparison of one state with another, nothing more. He who has felt the deepest grief is best able to experience supreme happiness…Tell the angel who will watch over your life to pray now and then for a man who, like Satan, believed himself for an instant to be equal to God, but who realized in all humility that supreme power and wisdom are in the hands of God alone.”

…okay.

Page-and-a-half semi-intellectually rant? Check. Jibber-jabber completed, it is now time to set that aside to talk about how I felt about the book.

The Lord of the Rings aside as my permanent unimpeachable favorite of all time, The Count of Monte Cristo is my new favorite book. The passion of Dantès is sweeping, soul-stirring even. You can’t help but empathize with his lust for retribution, his desire to see those who have destroyed his life crushed like grapes in the winepress of vengeance (ooh, I’m feeling poetic.) I felt the pangs of regret as the Count began to realize that to satisfy his wrath, he must sacrifice both himself and all those he holds dear. He must wrap himself in darkness, bury his heart beneath a cloak of hatred. As Dumas writes:

“And now, farewell to kindness, humanity and gratitude. Farewell to all sentiments which rejoice the heart. I have substituted myself for Providence in rewarding the good; may the God of vengeance now yield me His place to punish the wicked.”

The bottom line of the sordid tale of Edmond Dantès is this: be wary of feeling empowered to deal death in judgment. Edmond’s quest for vengeance did not bring him the closure he sought, and in fact cost him much that he had hoped to reclaim. Only at the last line, when Edmond discovers that true value is found in charity, love, and brotherhood, does he realize this truth, one of the most meaningful lines ever written:

Until the day when God will deign to reveal the future to man, all human wisdom is contained in these two words,—‘Wait and hope.’

שלם

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