Reviews of The Count of Monte Cristo (1844) and related work

The Count of Monte Cristo (1844Text)

Alexandre Dumas (writer), Auguste Maquet (writer).

Read in 2022.

Over a period of 23 years, a humble and innocent man is betrayed, exploited, imprisoned, educated, freed and avenged.

The premier fantasy of social status and personally punitive justice. Appropriately, money plays a central role in that fantasy, because money is the most portable form of status. For the first thirteen chapters, the protagonist Edmond Dantès and the antagonists are all fairly respectable but ordinary people. None of them are wealthy. In the fast-forward sequence that takes up the remainder of volume I, Dantès and the three main villains—Danglars, Morcerf and Villefort—all become wealthy and enter the upper class. The fourth and last of the original villains, the relatively passive Caderousse, remains poor until Dantès deliberately tests his character, simply by giving him a valuable gem.

The protagonist’s personal title, “Count” of Monte Cristo, is bought. Playing another role, the man who bears that title says that a similar one may be bought “anywhere”. By extension, the ruling class is suspect. They are, as one character says of a charlatan pretending to be a prince in chapter 109, a “nobility of the rope”; an unsettled remnant after the French Revolution. This makes for a glamorous yet effective proto-noir setting where money is a constant subject of conversation. Money is the means of the banker Danglars’ destruction, and the reason for Morcerf to sell Haydée, which becomes part of Morcerf’s destruction, and the reason for Madame de Villefort’s murders, which is the main blow in Villefort’s destruction. Even Villefort’s own scheme to marry off Valentine to d’Épinay may be motivated by money, though that is not confirmed. The character traits, family connections and personal loyalties of the nouveau riche, including the bravery of Morcerf and the coldness of Villefort, are appropriately secondary to money.

Maquet and Dumas offer a vivid cross-section of Mediterranean life in the time between the exile of Napoleon and the initial expansion of the railway across Europe, in which fast-moving money continued to displace heredity. There are numerous allusions to cultural touchstones of the time like E.T.A. Hoffmann, John Polidori, Giacomo Meyerbeer and Giuditta Pasta. More unusually, cannabis edibles make an appearance, there’s a lesbian pairing, there’s the amazing Abbé Faria whose skill as a detective resembles that of Dupin in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841), and there’s the even more amazing Noirtier, who rises from a marginal role in the betrayal of Dantès, at which point he’s a Girondin badass, via “the rupture of a blood-vessel on the lobe of the brain”, to what is surely the first major heroic role of an almost complete paralytic in literary history. The novel is long but the writers go the distance in their range and creativity, without losing focus on the main plot.

The most central dramatic motif resembles the myth of Jacob in Genesis (ca. 500–400 BCE), the man who is sold into slavery by his brothers and then pretends to be a god—with the help of a god—to torment those brothers. The way that Dantès takes on different roles in his “edifice” is even more narcissistic than the conceit of his finding a lost treasure. In fact, I detect a turn for the worse in the quality of the novel when, at the end of chapter 24, Dantès finds that treasure and begins to use it to build his edifice. Up to that point, Maquet and Dumas are obliged to provide credible details because, unlike hundreds of their imitators, they had to invent the sequence of events for the first time, and sell it to the growing crowds reading each new chapter aloud. With money, Dantès skips right past the sort of problems that challenged him and made the narrative credible. Therefore, the authors introduce sprawling subplots, love stories and unlikely connections between the minor characters, but they do keep the main plot running smoothly, apologizing for the occasional flashback that introduces new information.

In chapter 67, Villefort first begins to suspect the Count of Monte Cristo and has him investigated. However, despite interrogating two alter egos on the same day in chapter 69, Villefort and his investigators discover nothing that Dantès does not want them to know. Like the biblical Jacob, Dantès seem to have the protection of Yahweh, and he sometimes imagines he is doing the god’s work. The “Monte Cristo” of the title is a small island, but the name of it corresponds symbolically to Calvary, the “mountain” where the mythological Christ was temporarily killed. Therefore, Dantès is Christ-like, except that he gets things done. Near the end, he says to a suicidal young man:

Every career is open to you. Overturn the world, change its character, yield to mad ideas, be even criminal—but live.

With these words at the close of the dramatic narrative, Dantès opens up the scope to the epic and revolutionary, which is excluded in more opaque novels about money, such as Emma (1815). Dantès’s own actions were taken against the lower-class criminal Caderousse and individual upper-class representatives of corrupt finance, the military, and the legal system, but he ultimately rejects the petty and divine role of Jacob. It is with the understanding that he was not truly doing Yahweh’s work that Dantès encourages a deeper, social change, overturning the world. In Paris, his alter ego the Count is known for many things—including his money of course—but most especially for the quality of his staff of servants. That makes sense, because Dantès does start the story as a captain’s mate, and is a leader:

He had by degrees assumed such authority over his companions that he was almost like a commander on board; and as his orders were always clear, distinct, and easy of execution, his comrades obeyed him with celerity and pleasure.

I like this detail; it balances the character between the two extremes of a man of the people—opposing a corrupt ruling class on the epic plane—and a man of destiny, opposing evil individuals on the dramatic plane.

The novel has obvious heroes and villains, but unlike Genesis, it also has sincere and meaningful nuances, including that awareness of social change beyond punitive justice. Benedetto, the son of a villain, seems to be a villain by birth. Ironically, he does relatively well in jail, while Dantès and his friend, Faria, suffered greatly at the Château d’If. This irony should apparently not be taken as a general condemnation of prisons, because Dantès does briefly imprison Danglars in the second-to-last chapter. Benedetto’s half-sister Valentine—a daughter of the same villainous father—is wholly good, while Eugénie is rather grey, etc. It is less fortunate from a moral perspective that Dantès does sail off into the sunrise with Haydée, an implausible combination of Oriental, Christian, daughter, lover, and slave, capping off this classic power trip. Such false notes notwithstanding, The Count of Monte Cristo is fine adventure fiction from a time when inventive popular entertainment was getting complex enough to be entertaining and socially relevant, but the world was still simple enough for the whole to age with dignity.

References here: “The Lord of Château Noir” (1894), The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905), Cabiria (1914), Batman (1940), The Stars My Destination (1956), “The Darkness and the Light” (1997), Catfish (2010).

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