Write a huge jaw-breaker of a book, with nine hundred pages and a main character that has not one, not two, but eight aliases throughout the story and you're sure to have a crowd-pleaser. People love complications. They even love jaw-breaker books on occasion. And in the end, a book with revenge, murder, love, opium, and poison will hold their attention for a very long time, no matter how long the author takes in going about his plot. Such is the case with Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo, and this is the book we're going to be exploring today. It's sensational. It's controversial. It's huge. What makes a better book review than that?
Edmond Dantes stands fair to receive everything he could ask for in life--a stunningly beautiful fiancée, a ship of his own to command, and a fair start along the way to becoming a good and prosperous Frenchman. But the course of true love never does run smooth, or we would have only 9 pages to read instead of 900. Arrested just as he's about to be married, Edmond Dantes is taken unjustly to the fortress of the Chateau d' If and sentenced to solitary confinement for life on the charge of being a Bonapartist traitor.
Six years into this infernal torture, another cell mate connects to his cell--the Abbe Faria, who begins plotting with Dantes for their escape. When they're not digging a tunnel, Faria begins imparting his extensive knowledge to Dantes and eventually tells him of an island with a load of treasure that is theirs to claim if they can escape. But as day passes to day, Faria grows weaker and eventually dies; leaving everything he has to Dantes. In a bold move, Dantes places the body of the dead man in his prison cell and fastens himself into the bag used as a shroud so he can escape. And escape he does.
Sworn to avenge himself on the traitors who accused him and the magistrate who would not give him a fair trial, Dantes claims his treasure on the island of Monte Cristo and sets himself up in Parisian society as the Count of Monte Cristo. But his is a diabolical revenge, for he does not do the dirty work himself. He simply sets the evil passions of the men who wronged him against each other, ferreting out their secrets sins, exposing their most hidden shames to the public. For he does not want merely to kill them. He wants them to feel every drop of torture for sending him to solitary confinement; for letting his father starve to death; and for taking away and marrying the woman he loved so dearly.
This is revenge at its finest. But lest you think that's all there is to it, read on.
When I first picked up this book from the library at fourteen, I was quite excited to conquer something so huge, all 500 pages of it, and then found to my disappointment that 500 pages was only the abridged version. Well, I read it anyway, though it left off a great deal that it shouldn't have. One does not simply abridge The Count of Monte Cristo. However, a few years later I picked up the full version, and altogether it was best in the end that I read the abridgement first. Some of the themes in the full book I probably wasn't ready for at fourteen, and much better able to handle later on.
One of the side benefits of Monte Cristo is that it taught me the history of Napoleon like no textbook ever did. Before I read the book I had some hazy idea that he was the guy who fought the battle of Waterloo, but his history is so intrinsically connected with the plot of the book that you can't help remembering it when you're finished--his fall from power, and exile to the island of Elba, and then his return and last grab for the throne. That's a well-written story, and how a novel about Napoleon should be written, not with chapters and chapters of history before we get on to the plot again. The history and the plot are intrinsically entwined with one another in Dumas's work, and a pleasure to read.
But of course, most people reading this review are wondering what I thought of the Count and all the objectionable parts. Revenge? Poison? Murder? In just a moment we'll be addressing those. Believe it or not, the revenge didn't disturb me nearly as much as some of the other elements. The opium dreams were rather lewd, and I skipped over them; sensuous elements are just as bad in dreams as in real life. I was also shocked read in a review that one plot had lesbianism in it, specifically the running away of Eugenie Danglars with Louise d'Armily. While I can see where some might think this is the case in the latter chapters of the book, and I see some grounds for suspecting it, I have not found the evidence to be conclusive as yet. Also, many characters are in numerous adulterous relationships, but the mistress plot is not necessarily condoned, and I think it's fairly obvious that the characters who participate in this are not worthy of emulation. But due to violence and adult thematic elements, a certain amount of maturity should be evident in the reader before handing it off to them.
Even more disturbing than that was Chapter 48, in which we learn that the Count of Monte Cristo thinks he has sold his soul to the Devil in order to become an agent of Providence. If one takes the Count as the hero of the tale, this idea would be very disturbing, but when we see his flawed character, and the flawed ideology that is driving his whole life, to have him state that he sold his soul is quite disturbing, but also absolutely necessary to the plot so that the reader can see his mistaken line of thinking.
Providence is a heavy theme in this book. The Count of Monte Cristo is an agent of providence. Providence does this and does that; numerous characters refer to it. It's a superficial reference at best; the characters don't seem to much care what Providence would have them do, only that Providence controls the lot of their lives. This is where the reader has to bring in some ulterior discernment that the book itself doesn't have. We can see where bad choices lead in the story, and eventually the characters do as well, but we see it long before they do.
And now we come to the revenge plot. Many people are concerned that The Count of Monte Cristo espouses revenge; to be honest, that thought never crossed my mind when I read the book. Perhaps it was the presupposition I brought to it that revenge was already wrong, but though the adventures were grand ones, I never overlooked the sin for the sake of the sensation. The whole plot is to show that revenge is evil, and though the main character comes to this realization very late, the reader should be reaching that conclusion half-way through or even sooner. The sad waste of opulence for the purpose of revenging a past that can never be reclaimed jeopardizes both the present and the future. And if anything, this story teaches that living in past wrongs will prevent you from moving on to make a better future for yourself and those around you. The characterizations are brilliant. The young men and young women, older men and older women. This author and his plot lines are so rich that it truly would be tragic to miss at least one perusal of them. Albert, Villefort, Maximillian, Valentine, Nortier--they are all acquaintances worth making, and this is novel, for all its flaws, is probably one of the only French novels I would heartily recommend.
Be sure, if you've read the book, to check out the fascinating character relationships graph at the bottom of the Wikipedia article's plot synopsis. The characters are numerous, and their connections to each other have great bearing on the plot. I was able to keep track of them all with only a little difficulty, but the chart was fascinating to look over, and though it has spoilers, may help readers who find the numerous threads confusing.
Unfortunately there is no graph to help with the conversation; it can go for a whole page or two without referring to which speaker is which, and a lot of times you'll find yourself back-tracking to decipher who said what. Sometimes Dumas doesn't even use a new paragraph every time the speakers change--he merely puts a hyphen like I just did and goes merrily on with the new speaker's text. This can be somewhat confusing, but it's not impossible to work through, and doubtless there are some editors who have corrected that.
The Count of Monte Cristo has inspired numerous spin-offs, movie adaptations, and imitative works, not the least of which is Jules Verne's stellar novel Matthias Sandorf. While I don't think Verne resolved the revenge plot quite as well as Dumas did, it's still worth reading and a fantastic story. But be sure to read the original inspiration first.
And I suppose the final conclusion to be reached after reading this book, is that if a beautiful fiancée can be called Mercedes, then I should not be offended at the unsuspecting person who once called me Chrysler instead of Schuyler. :)