This is a book I’ve always wanted to read, and happily it met and exceeded all expectations. I expected swashbuckling adventure but the book turned out to be much more psychological than that. This is one of those books that has been retold and copied so many times you wonder if the original will feel “tired” – but it doesn’t.
Monte Cristo tells the story of Edmond Dantes – he’s young and handsome, about to marry the girl he loves, and has just been made captain of his own ship.
Unfortunately for Dantes, on his last voyage he was asked to make a stop at the island of Elba to receive and deliver a letter. This is 1815 and France is still torn between the Bonapartists and the royalists, and Napoleon himself is just sitting on an island scheming to retake France. So, playing on France’s instability, Dantes is framed for treason by jealous “friends” (one wants his job and the other wants his woman). He’s thrown into a dungeon and forgotten by the rest of the world.
Here’s what you probably know already (but stop reading if you don’t):
Dantes manages to escape from prison years later, smarter and tougher and determined to take revenge against his betrayers. The surprise in this book is how complicated and subtle his schemes are. He spends years setting up his plots, integrates himself into the lives of his enemies, and even befriends their children. We know from the start that revenge can be bad business – it takes over your life and leaves you with nothing else. (I kept thinking of Inigo Montoya in the Princess Bride as I read this book.) So one question you have as a reader is whether Dantes at some point will realize that it’s better to enjoy his life than punish those around him. The other question is at what point Dantes will realize that he can’t punish the wicked without punishing the innocent people around them.
First, some background on the book, because Napoleon-era France is pretty damn interesting.
Monte Cristo is considered an “adventure novel”. It was published in 1844 in serial form and was extremely popular at the time of publication. It’s also considered a “historical” novel although it seems strange to me that a novel written in 1844 about 1815-1835 would be considered historical. Still, Dumas is writing about some of the most pivotal points in French history.
The novel is also part of the Romantic Period, which ran in Europe from about 1800 to 1840. I could attempt to explain the Romantic period but there’s no need – romance and emotion are the defining features of this book. Dantes loves Mercedes for life, even though he feels horribly betrayed by her. He’s ruled by emotion but at the same time he’s almost completely mastered his emotions so he can deceive everyone around him. Not too healthy. There’s a possibility for love in Dantes’ life but he’s so caught up in revenge he doesn’t see it.
Alexandre Dumas was born in France in 1802. His father was a general in Napoleon’s army but was impoverished by the time of Dumas’ birth. Dumas is the grandson of a French nobleman and a Haitian slave, which has led some to speculate that the imprisonment in the book relates to the captivity of slaves. Dumas lived through the historical events described in Monte Cristo, so he knows what he’s writing about. He even, apparently, knows the Napoleon family.
From Wikipedia we get this cool description of the origin of this story:
It appears that Dumas had close contacts with members of the Bonaparte family while living in Florence in 1841. In a small boat he sailed around the island of Monte-Cristo accompanied by a young prince, a cousin to Louis Bonaparte, who was to become emperor of France ten years later. During this trip he promised the prince that he would write a novel with the island’s name in the title. At that time the future emperor was imprisoned at the citadel of Ham – a name that is mentioned in the novel. Dumas did visit him there, although he does not mention it in “Etat civil”. In 1840 Louis Napoleon was sentenced to life in prison, but escaped in disguise in 1846, while Dumas’s novel was a great success. Just in the manner of Dantès, Louis Napoleon reappeared in Paris as a powerful and enigmatic man of the world. In 1848, however, Dumas did not vote for Louis Napoleon. The novel may have contributed, against the will of the writer, to the victory of the future Napoleon III.
What I enjoyed most was the complexity of Dantes’ schemes, and the way Dumas takes his slow time in unfolding them. Of course as a serial writer, he had an interest in drawing things out and making them suspenseful, which he does. But if you want a novel to really sink yourself into, this is a great one. You know exactly where it’s going, but you still can’t pull away.
The real stars of this book are the children of the three “enemies”. While the parents may be rotten (mostly), the children are innocent (mostly). Dumas really brings each of them to life and the way they intersect in each other’s lives makes the book an entertaining read.
Even though he’s a super-genius and has piles of money, Dantes learns he can’t control lives as much as he thinks he can. He finds himself almost a father figure to these young people that he’s trying to destroy, and ultimately they actually teach him something. Watching these relationships gradually turn into friendships is one of the most intriguing things about the book. I found myself just waiting to see at what point Dantes would realize how much his schemes were going to hurt his new friends.
And then the question becomes, is he a monster or a man? Dumas portrays Dantes as an “avenging angel”, punishing evil through the hand of God. But taking actions that result in people being destroyed, even if they deserve it, is that really the work of God? I’ll admit I wasn’t clear about Dumas’ intent here. Dantes is portrayed as god-like, yet I mostly felt kind of sorry for him. He can be cold and merciless and you just want him to enjoy his life rather than taking people apart. But the important thing is that he does good when good is called for, even when it goes against his plans for revenge.
I also liked that the book made you think about whether evil is absolute or whether the villains have redeeming characteristics. They aren’t all painted with the same brush; but you don’t exactly feel sorry for what they get, either. Villefort, the King’s attorney, is probably the most interesting because he takes great pride in his work yet he violates that commitment by throwing Dantes in prison. Dantes knows that the greatest hit on Villefort will be destroying his professional reputation (which he does, brutally). Mercedes was also interesting, because Dantes is genuinely torn between resenting her for giving up on him so quickly, but also knows she was manipulated into marriage with his betrayer. And after all, she couldn’t have waited forever.
There’s a lot more I could say about this book. It’s a long read and slow in parts, and I think I might not have read the best translation because there were sentences that just didn’t make sense. But honestly, this is the rare classic that’s hard to put down. If it’s on your “someday” list, I would definitely give it a try.