The Count of Monte Cristo

Despite its 1300-page length, the essential plot of The Count of Monte Cristo is fairly simple. Edouard Dantès is the kind of person for whom things go right. He is a successful merchant sailor, engaged to his true love Mercedes, and surrounded by friends. He accepts a commission from a dying man to deliver a letter of which he does not know the contents, however, and this provides the occasion his jealous “friends” have been looking for: they accuse him of Bonapartist treason. Dantès is incarcerated for years. During his time in prison, he meets an ally, an Italian priest, who educates him and bequeaths a fortune to him. When Dantès escapes prison, he can buy the island of Monte Cristo and the title that goes with it, and can embark on his long-simmered plans of revenge. The rest of the novel revolves around the elaborate execution of those plans, and what revenge does both to the victim and the perpetrator.

Jenny: I read this for the first time either in late high school or early college. I remember loving it then: the drama, the cleverness of Dantès’s plots and disguises, the way everything fit together so neatly. And there is a lot to like about this book. I still love the prison scenes and the education of Dantès — it reminds me of how important education was during the 18th and 19th century as part of the formation of the nobility. This is kind of a spoof of that: a merchant sailor in prison for treason, learning all the noble arts! But this time around, I had quite a different reaction to the book as a whole. Apart from some of the issues you brought up in your Sunday Salon post of its being too long (with which I agreed, and I’d read it twice before!) I just didn’t enjoy spending so much time with revenge.

Teresa: There is a lot to like about this book. The first 500 pages or so are absolutely riveting. Like you, I loved the prison section. And I enjoyed seeing Dantès, as the Count, pull the wool over his enemies’ eyes. It was sort of like watching the set-up section of a good heist movie. You don’t exactly approve of the crime, but it’s too clever not to admire. And I suspected that this book, like a lot of revenge stories, would not necessarily end up endorsing revenge. (I kept thinking of Sweeney Todd, in which the audience is taken through the gutter and almost forced to celebrate monstrous vengeful acts, only to share in Sweeney’s culpability at the end.)

The trouble I found here is that by the time the wheels were fully in motion, I’d stopped caring much about the crimes of Dantes’s enemies. Those crimes were too far in the past for me to be convinced that they still deserved the level of vengeance the Count was preparing to inflict. Plus, the Count’s plots would end up involving so many other innocent people. I could live with that twisted morality for a while, but not for as long as this novel requires.

Jenny: I love your comparison to Sweeney Todd! But for some reason, this time through I had to grit my teeth. Dantès made so many excuses for his own terrible behavior (often far worse, if more dashing, than putting a friend in prison), even revisiting his own cell to remind him of his purpose and reassure himself that his “cause” was just. That would be a pretty revolting definition of justice! And then the notion that this teaches us something about forgiveness… I’m not so sure. If you only “forgive” your enemies after your revenge is substantially complete, what does that forgiveness mean? I kept thinking you were going to enjoy the darkness of this novel more than I was enjoying it, though.

Teresa: As you know, I love a dark story, but I didn’t feel like this novel acknowledged its own darkness. To go back to Sweeney (which is one of my all-time favorite musicals), the darkness in that tale is unavoidable. It’s bloody, cannibalistic. Yes, it’s presented gleefully, and you may even cheer for Sweeney at times, but you can’t ever quite escape the knowledge that what Sweeney is doing is revenge run amock. But Count of Monte Cristo felt more confused to me. Dantès is dashing and clever, and every now and then generous. But only rarely does the storytelling itself seem to acknowledge that the Count himself is corrupt. I wonder whether, because he wrote it over a long span of time, Dumas couldn’t make up his mind. There are a few moments, such as before the duel with Albert, where you really see the problems of Dantès’s quest, but these are just moments. There aren’t enough of them to make the moral bankruptcy of revenge into a theme.

Jenny: No, there aren’t. And while I don’t insist that the good end happily and the bad unhappily, I would have liked to see some of that awareness you’re talking about. I did notice that all of Dantès’s allies are foreigners — no Frenchmen. I wondered if this was a subtle statement on alienation.

A while back, I read Alfred Bester’s science fiction classic, The Stars My Destination, which is partly a retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo. It begins with that same explosive sense of revenge, the same time in prison and the same education. But over the course of time, as the main character begins to work out his plans of revenge, his education tells on him: he becomes first a thinking, and then a moral creature. I’ve also read another, much closer retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo: Stephen Fry’s novel The Stars’ Tennis Balls (titled Revenge in the American edition.) Fry’s modern version is very close to the original, to the point that the characters’ names are anagrams of or puns on the original characters’ names. But there is a much stronger sense that revenge takes a deep, painful toll on the perpetrator — turns him, in fact, into a monster unfit for society.

Teresa: Those sound like great books! This kind of story can be done well, and Dumas does offer a lot that I liked, but an awareness of the darkness of the tale would make it more satisfying, and perhaps more worth its length.

I’m curious as to what you thought of the supporting characters. One of the things that I think made the book drag for me was that the supporting characters weren’t interesting enough. For much of the book, they were little more than pawns in Dantès’s game. His enemies weren’t overtly wicked enough, the good characters were too saintly, and the others were barely characters at all. Eventually that did start to change. Valentine’s relationship with her grandfather was lovely, Albert showed great potential to be a vehicle for the count’s repentance, and Eugenie was daring in her own way. In the end, I liked reading about these characters, but I wish I could have gotten to know them sooner.

Jenny: I do think that the underdeveloped wickedness of Dantès’s enemies contributed to my feeling that his revenge was unjustified. I did like the way he gave Caderousse several chances before ruining him. I read somewhere online that in the “original” story from which Dumas borrowed his plot, Caderousse kills Dantès. That would certainly have put a different twist on the ending than it actually got. I would have liked to see more, not just from the supporting characters in general, but from the women in particular. I would really have liked to see things more from Mercedes’s perspective, for instance. Wouldn’t she have been horrified, not by her husband’s crimes, but by the change in Dantès? In the end, I thought the book was impoverished by the lack of some of these things, which it certainly had room to include.

Teresa: It’s kind of stunning to say that a book of 1,300 pages needed more, but it did. It needed more character development and less plot. There was plot enough for several books, and many of the side narratives were enjoyable. But there were so many things that I hungered for and barely got. There was a lot to love. I was really enjoying it for the first 500 pages or so, and there were several chapters late in the book that I enjoyed (such as when Mercedes finally speaks up), but it just couldn’t hold my interest consistently enough. Rebecca mentioned in a comment on my earlier Sunday Salon post that she read an abridged version in high school that was essentially the first 500 pages, plus the ending. I think I could get behind that book. Perhaps the story of the Villefort family could be pulled out as a nice little gothic novella as well. But most of the rest could go, as far as I’m concerned.

Jenny: To be honest, I think it’s almost as instructive to dislike a book like this as it is to like it. I kept wondering: is it me? Am I being too judgmental, too sentimental? Am I looking for a balanced view of justice that simply doesn’t exist for Dantès, an Enlightenment reasoned view that the Romantics didn’t want to subscribe to? But in the end, I can say that I like Dumas’s style (and have loved some of his other books — The Three Musketeers and Queen Margot are both well worth reading), and I like his atmosphere, but this is not, or is no longer, the Dumas for me.

____________________________________________________________________________________

This review is part of the Classics Circuit, which is featuring Alexandre Dumas through May 16 as part of the Paris in Springtime theme. Following Dumas will be the Golden Age of Detection tour.

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28 Responses to The Count of Monte Cristo

  1. Nicole says:

    I loved The Count of Monte Cristo as a child, but had no idea it was so long. Mine was several hundred pages, but now I think I must have read an abridges edition. More character development necessary in 1300 hundred page seems astounding. Hopefully Dumas was able to work on that. Thanks for the great discussion.

    • Jenny says:

      Nicole, Dumas is never really heavy on character development. You read him for his rollicking plots or you don’t read him. The problem with this one, to me, was that the plot didn’t seem quite satisfactory, either — and so the lack of character development became problematic.

  2. Maxine says:

    Dumas wrote more for entertainment and a quick buck, I think. Quantity over quality. This was originally published as a serial in a newspaper, which could easily account for the strong plot over character development- he had to keep people coming back to find out what happened next.
    The fact that Dantes didn’t forgive anyone until his revenge was almost complete also bothered me. I’ve been thinking about that a lot, and since learning a little more about Dumas I think I can see why. Dumas lived (or tried to live) like his dashing adventurous characters. I don’t think he had very high moral standards and it shows. The author always seeps through into his writing, and if he is weak morally, so the story will be too.
    Anyway, I really like the format of this review. It was great to read and very thought provoking! And someone should re-write this from Mercedes’ perspective. I’d love to read that!

    • Jenny says:

      It’s an interesting theory that if the author is weak morally, the story will be too, but I’m not sure I buy it. I can think of literally dozens of examples where that doesn’t follow either one way or the other. However, I like your idea about rewriting it from Mercedes’s perspective. As far as I know, that hasn’t been done! Go to it!

  3. Emily says:

    I’ve never read either Dumas, but all these Classics Circuit posts are making me think I might end up agreeing with Dorothy Parker:

    Although I work, and seldom cease,
    At Dumas pere and Dumas fils,
    Alas, I cannot make me care
    For Dumas fils and Dumas pere.

    Sounds like a rollicking story, but 1300 pages is a pretty big commitment for the level of payoff you’re describing! Really enjoyed your review, though. :-)

    • Jenny says:

      Emily, I adore Dorothy Parker but have never read that particular gem. You (or she) made me laugh out loud. Thanks for that.

  4. Kevin Neilson says:

    Thank you for this enjoyable post. Best, Kevin

  5. Jenny says:

    When I was small, my mother talked up The Count of Monte Cristo like crazy, and I waited and waited until I was old enough to read it, and I LOVED it. But these days I find myself preferring The Three Musketeers (which Past Jenny didn’t care about at all), which still has some problems, but at least I can get behind the protagonists.

    • Jenny says:

      I agree that our tastes change as we get older, sometimes a lot. Occasionally I worry that a book I loved as a child won’t hold up when I re-read it as an adult (though they usually do.) I like The Three Musketeers better as an adult, too. Have you read Queen Margot? Bloody but fun.

  6. Jeanne says:

    I still think that Dumas and Hugo (Victor) are best read before the age of 15.

    • Jenny says:

      Hugo? Really? Dumas I can agree with, but I think Victor Hugo has a lot to say to grown-ups.

      • Rebecca Reid says:

        I liked Les Miserable, which I read about the same time as The Count (age 23 or so) and I’d have to agree with Jenny — far more for adults in that than The Count. Lots of beautiful languagne in there too, that I though Dumas was missing.

        Thanks for this review Jenny and Teresa. I’m amazed, Jenny, that you’ve now read it three times!

    • trapunto says:

      Yes, that fits with my experience. I haven’t felt the need to go back. I’m still astonished that I managed to wade through a couple of the other Musketeers books.

      Monte Cristo is a different beast. I don’t want to go back because I don’t want to have it spoiled. Though, even as a teenager I felt the lack of character development, and discomfort with the relentlessness of Dantes’ revenge. At the time I even managed to extract a moral (probably projected) from it: revenge is sad. Also, I just assumed Dantes was selectively insane, because that was what best explained his behavior. PTSD? Borderline?

      This was a great review, Jenny and Theresa. You said everything beautifully. Thank you! It was like a little trip back to the summer I was fourteen, under the grape arbor, reading this book.

      • Jenny says:

        I love the explanation that Dantes has PTSD. That explains a LOT.

        I am so glad we brought you back to the grape arbor. What a satisfying comment!

  7. Kathleen says:

    I read this about 10 years ago and really enjoyed it. I think it is time for a reread. I’m interested to see if I will find the same moral ambiguity in Dantes’ actions that you did. I think (if I remember correctly) that I felt that everything he did was straightforward with some shades of gray. I definitely want to reread this one now and see what I missed the first time since I clearly missed a lot!

    • Jenny says:

      Kathleen, I think Dantes clearly feels that his cause is just (with a few agonzed moments of doubt), but I just couldn’t get behind it. If you get around to rereading it, let me know what you think.

  8. J.G. says:

    What I want to know is, when does he eat the sandwich? (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

    I have this on my TBR but am not so keen on the length aspect . . . Someday I’ll get to it.

    • Jenny says:

      Ha! The famous sandwich. Yes, the length can be daunting. I do my Really Long Classics reading in the summer for that reason…

  9. S. Krishna says:

    This was such an interesting review/discussion! I’ve been wanting to read this forever. I may have to move it up on the list, especially since I’m now curious if I’ll feel like the book needs more character development!

  10. softdrink says:

    I’ve never read it, but I do have it sitting on the shelf. I confess, the length is making me a bit reluctant to dive in.

    • Jenny says:

      I don’t really blame you. 1300 pages is very long. But if the plot sounds appealing, it’s a reasonably fast read, for some of the reasons we mention above.

  11. Kerry says:

    I was never in much danger of picking up this novel, but, Jenny and Teresa, your brilliant and absolutely entertaining dialogue has eliminated what little there was. The wide-ranging discussion was not only fun, it provided some thoughts for other books to check out that, perhaps, are actually improvements on this particular classic.

    I do not always check back with your blog regularly enough, but I love the way you handle the classics circuit and will definitely be returning more consistently. Thank you for a great discussion!

  12. Amy says:

    Jenny, Thanks for the splendid review!
    I’m a high school senior, and Monte Cristo has been a favorite of mine for years, purely because I’m a sucker for a grand swashbuckling adventure!
    However, I too thought character was sacrificed for plot in this case. There were too many flat characters. Also, I’d loved to have seen the psychological evolution from naive sailor to powerful, inhuman avenger. And it was admittedly difficult to find admirable qualities in the Count, expecially as he views himself enacting God’s justice on His behalf.
    The moral takeaway for me was definately karma: ‘What goes around comes around.’ Perhaps we can learn more from the victims of the Count’s wrath than from Dantes himself?

  13. Susan says:

    Thanks for the amazing review. However, I felt a little different about the Count’s true moral character. It seemed like he was justified in his revenge, and while I read the book I felt like the rock-hard revenge-seeking character was just a facade. He succumbs to Mercedes because he still loves her though he acts like he does not. He’s saved lives and rewarded his benefactors. I felt like he was justified in his actions.

  14. Little Joe says:

    I was born in 1964. I loved The Count of Monte Cristo as a late teen and early twenties year old and remember how my famous illutrator friend used to make fun of me when I used to talk to girls about the book. Now almost 48 year old I have hear the TCOMC in my car with rides of 8 hours of travel and love the book still! The times seem to fly by…Alexander Dumas was a brilliant black man (remember to be kind to manking and do not dishonor his race). Image how long it took him to write the novel…must of been years! God bless him…I want to share this with my children and hope they remember me by means of the count! We are all but a wisper in the light of day.

  15. Anonymous says:

    I read the abridged version some 10 yrs back..and now I’m loving reading the whole… as far as dantes’ revenge is concerned ,I don’t think he was wrong on his part…the one who has undergone the ordeal can only understand the pain… yeah, how he transformed from the naive to the one who manipulated things according to his wish, that is something I wished to read… but nonetheless the count of monte cristo is my favorite :-)

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