by Alexandre Dumas
928 pages, Everyman
Review by Pat Black
Revenge! We’ve grown so accustomed to the idea of it being a destructive pursuit that we forget how cathartic... how good... it can feel to take it. Alexandre Dumas’ classic The Count of Monte Cristo takes a close look at the yin and yang of vengeance. It is the best tale of getting one’s own back, and one of the best of all novels.
Set during 1815-1838 in France and elsewhere, it follows the unfortunate story of Edmond Dantes, and the avenging angel he becomes after a confederacy of evil bastards takes a horrendous liberty with him.
When the story opens, Dantes has returned from sea where he has cleft a bright passage for himself. This intelligent, able boy just out of his teens is about to be made captain of a merchant ship, and his betrothed, the beautiful Catalan girl Mercedes, awaits him at port in Marseille. He’s maybe a bit too clean-cut for some, bordering on naive, but you can’t help liking Dantes. He is the classic young Dumas hero in the mould of the Musketeers’ D’Artagnan - honest, loyal and brave. You’d be delighted if he was your son and honoured to call him your friend. But his destiny lies along a darker path than Dumas’ traditional swashbuckling heroes.
Naturally enough, someone so bright is bound to pick up a few enemies, and they make great capital from Edmond’s fidelity. After landing on the island of Elba and speaking to the exiled Bonaparte, he agrees to take a letter to an unknown man in Paris. The ship’s purser, Danglars - a craven man who desires command of the vessel and spits tacks over Edmond’s success - discovers this mission and forms a plot against his would-be captain.
Danglars is joined in this scheme by Fernand de Morcef, a young man no less jealous of Edmond owing to his unrequited love for Mercedes, his cousin. Even though you sense that Edmond is aware at a subconscious level that he has a rival, he has the good grace and impeccable manners to invite him along to the wedding. Fernand has no such scruples, and throws his lot in with the unspeakable Danglars to remove his rival.
A third member of this conspiracy has less of an active role; Caderousse the tailor counts himself as a friend of Dantes and his father, and although he has no axe to grind his silence helps consign Dantes to his miserable fate.
An anonymous note from Danglars apprises the authorities of the politically-ruinous mission from the prisoner of Elba, and implicates Dantes at the heart of a plot to restore Bonaparte to power in France. On the eve of Dantes’ wedding day, his three enemies’ dark designs pay off; he is arrested before the feast is completed.
The final piece of villainy falls into place when the poor lad is questioned by a magistrate, Villefort. The affair revealed in the anonymous letter threatens to implicate the magistrate’s father, Noirtier - a noted bonapartist, and the intended recipient of the damning communique. This development could curtail Villefort’s meteoric career given the current political climate; taking care of the problem, he not only sentences Dantes to life imprisonment without trial, but also destroys the contents of the letter which would exonerate the young man.
Stupefied, Dantes goes from preparing to begin married life as a man of good prospects to being locked up in the Chateau d’If, still none the wiser as to how this disaster befell him. After his father dies alone, in poverty and disgrace, Dantes goes from despair to madness as time passes, and might bring an end to himself without the intervention of the Abbe Faria, a priest locked up in the cell below.
Imprisoned for a similar political trifle, the good minister takes Dantes under his wing and not only provides him with an education, but successfully deduces the origins of the plot against him. After some time, Dantes’ new chum takes ill and succumbs to what seems to be a stroke, but not before revealing to Dantes the location of a fabulous fortune stored on a remote island known as Monte Cristo. The abbe’s death provides Dantes – who has been imprisoned 14 years – with his means of escape; swapping himself for the abbe’s corpse in a body bag, he is thrown from the castle into the sea, and swims to freedom.
From here we might have gone on to follow Dantes as he took up arms against his foes, seeking revenge in the form of duels and going on to reclaim his woman and his honour. But this is a different kind of story to Dumas’ sword-swishing tales of glory.
The book takes a decidedly odd turn as a young traveller from France chances upon the island and its inhabitant, who introduces himself only as Sinbad the Sailor. This is one of many aliases the former Dantes adopts as he draws his plans for revenge with the help of his massive fortune, a hoard of gold, jewels and riches like something out of the 1,001 nights. Indeed this story is referenced several times, most notably in a weird chapter in which Sinbad the Sailor shows himself to be mad keen on the old hashish. It’s a wonder the man can bite his finger at the end of one binge, never mind drawing all sorts of plots and plans to get back at his tormentors.
Sinbad – who soon styles himself as the Count of Monte Cristo, after the island where his fortune was made – causes a sensation in Paris and inveigles his way into the lives of his tormentors. Like a great deal of amoral tw*ts in this life, they’ve done disgustingly well for themselves. Danglars is now a Baron, having used his guile and connections to work his way up from owning the ship meant for Dantes; he is now a banker and an accountant, with a great fortune and a reputation to match.
Meanwhile, Dantes’ love rival Fernand has also won acclaim, riches and a peerage owing to his military exploits; worse still, he has won Mercedes’ hand in marriage and the couple have gone on to have a son. Villefort, his father’s past successfully buried, has fulfilled his earlier promise by rising to the very highest office within the judiciary of Paris. Only the hapless tailor Caderousse has taken on the mantle of villainy hinted at in the beginning, having embarked on a career in petty crime.
Monte Cristo’s immense wealth opens every door possible for him. If there’s one message this story nails down again and again it is that money means power, and often at the expense of justice. The count is pretty much a law unto himself, an early 19th century Bruce Wayne – and like Batman, he even travels around in disguise in order to right some wrongs. He takes on several personas in his plot, at one point being the Abbe Busoni, at others Lord Peter Wilmore the Englishman. A testament to Dumas’ skills as a dramatist, this stagey deception helps him discover every detail of his enemies’ movements and business affairs – and every dirty secret. For they have plenty of those.
Monte Cristo’s real intent is concealed through good deeds; he rescues sons of his enemies from the clutches of bandits, and saves wives and daughters from bolting horses. Through these acts he becomes a part of their inner circle, his true identity unknown – except to Mercedes, who guesses who this man of mystery really is. Her fidelity to honour apparently prevents her from revealing this to her husband or son. This is one of many parts of the book where you’ve really got to just go with the narrative rather than thinking about it too hard.
Curiously, the conspirators’ initial crime against Edmond Dantes becomes almost irrelevant, owing to their subsequent activities. Bastard children, domestic murders, military cowardice and petty larceny all come tumbling out of the wash, and it is through these sins that the conspirators are finally damned, not their betrayal of Dantes. The greedy, perfidious Baron Danglars is manipulated after being dazzled by Monte Cristo’s cash; Fernand de Morcef’s less than glorious military exploits are exposed; family catastrophe and a secret long thought buried conspire to bring Villefort to his knees.
The dualist nature of taking revenge is fully, exhaustively explored. At times Monte Cristo appears saintly, such as in the guise of the Abbe Busoni; at others, diabolic. One breathless society dame fanning herself at the opera over the count’s appearance likens him to Byron. She even speculates – and this is several decades before Bram Stoker created another famous literary count – whether Monte Cristo might have something of the vampire in him. He neither eats nor drinks at the houses of his enemies, and he is rarely seen out of doors in daylight hours. His gloomy, bearded aspect certainly has a little of the devil in it.
But where he seeks to punish his tormentors – most of whom have forgotten all about the poor boy Monte Cristo once was – he has good intentions at heart when it comes to those who are kind, or blameless. He saves the family of Morrel, the owner of the ship once promised to him who sought to find out what had become of Dantes. He also hopes to save the soul of Caderousse, realising he had a bit part in the plot. The former tailor of Marseille is provided with several means of escaping his low circumstances and finding redemption... but these self-same tokens are also the seeds of Caderousse’s destruction, should he misuse them.
As we re-enter the count’s mind, we discover that he may have lost a little of it along the way. He has delusions that he is carrying out god’s divine will. But like that other angel of death, James Bond, Monte Cristo discovers that in taking revenge we may often have to dig more than one grave. In the course of his counter-plot, the count causes a lot of collateral damage. Three families are completely destroyed, and fortunes are laid waste. More troubling still is his carefree banishment of friends and allies – not to mention poor Mercedes – as he ensures his peculiar brand of justice is carried out.
The true genius of Monte Cristo lies in his method. Although duels are threatened as the count’s pieces fall into place, he never crosses swords with his foes. Just his true name is enough to drive some of his tormentors mad, as sure and as deadly a blow as any sword thrust or pistol shot. Indeed, the main weapons he uses against his enemies are their own dark histories, or their greed; Monte Cristo is simply giving them a helping hand towards destruction.
Aside from the bitter truth of the immunity money and prestige can buy you, there is a more pleasing lesson from the count’s story – particularly for the more vindictive reader; viz, the sins of truly awful people will find them out. You might have to swallow some bitter pills in the course of watching cranks, traitors, buffoons and evil gits make their way in life, Dumas muses. But they’ll get theirs eventually. All the righteous can do, if they’ve ever been wronged, is to wait and hope that they will gain succour, and that a higher power will account for the wicked.
This is very different to the way our hero goes about his business. Whether an agent of the lord or not, the Count of Monte Cristo is all about settling accounts, and there’s a sour satisfaction to be taken in his enemies’ disgrace.
Is anyone right to take revenge? In the end, as far as the count’s concerned, it’s all moot. They had it coming, and that is all.