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.