I recently “read” The Count of Monte Cristo (1844) by Alexandre Dumas by listening to it on CD. It is number 65 on the BBC book list and some 117 chapters, so I knew the only way I would have time to get through it would be through listening to it on my long drives to school. The best thing about listening to it was that I learned how to pronounce all of the names in the novel.
Clearly, the protagonist Edmond Dantès is a Christ or hero figure. I wrote in detail about the hero cycle in my Harry Potter post, but to review, a hero faces great danger (usually as a child), has a mentor, descends to the underworld to complete his journey, comes back (or is resurrected), and usually saves his people, among other things. Dantès fits this well.
He faces great danger at age 19, on a ship in the ocean, and then comes home to the danger of reputation. He plans to marry Mercédès, but before he can, he is plotted against and sent to prison, the famously hard-to-escape-from Château d’If. There he loses hopes and wants to die, but he meets a mentor, an old man, the Abbé Faria, in another cell. They create a tunnel and begin visiting each other. The old “mad priest” teaches Dantès all he knows, encourages him, helps him to figure out the treachery of his friends that led to his imprisonment, and gives him a treasure map. He even helps him to escape, by dying. Dantès hides in the dead man’s shroud and is tossed into the ocean, very much alive. Faria is Dantès mentor. His time in the prison is his trip to the underworld.
He escapes, finds the treasure, and then returns to his friends in disguise, as the Count of Monte Cristo. He also appears as Sinbad the Sailor and the Abbé Busoni. He does not reveal himself as Edmond but instead plays an elaborate game of cat and mouse by living among the people who forsook him and uncovering their secrets. He is there to get revenge.
And that’s where the comparison of Dantès to a Christ figure bothered me. Dantès was a kind, good, innocent man, one who was trusted by his father, employer, and fiancée. He was noble and good and true. Then he emerged from prison and took his sweet time exacting revenge on everybody, including Mercédès, who ended up marrying his rival, Fernand, one of the men who sent him to prison. He comes out hard and mean and scheming and conniving. I had a hard time believing that Dantès was still righteous and god-fearing and that his actions were Christ-like.
In the end, he does offer forgiveness to the men involved in his demise, after torturing them physically or emotionally and ruining them financially. He exacts revenge, even to the point of being willing to kill Mercédès son, but in the end he is softened by her pleas. Ultimately, her son proves to be good and kind, sparing the Count of Monte Cristo’s life.
The end also leaves Mercédès alone and destitute, while Dante’s goes off and marries Haydée, a slave he purchased and then freed and restored to her rightful position as a princess. She is much younger than he, but that is how he gets his recompense for the years lost, I guess.
The last line of the novel says “wait and hope,” meaning that sometimes it is all we can do in life. That’s true, and Dantès embodies this while in jail, but afterwards he becomes “righteously” angry. He is also good at waiting to exact revenge, but I don’t see much hope in him.
Overall, it was a slow and dense book, and maybe a little boring in parts. I can see that it was a product of its time, however, so I can’t fault it for some of the wordiness and over explanation. There is some great commentary on the rich and their faults. Danglars, while being extorted by the Count for his last five million, is truly despicable. He is held without food and then told he can buy the food for exorbitant amounts or just give up his money and be free. He would rather be in prison than give up his money, although it has been his at the expense of a hospital. He’s truly greedy, and he reminded me of a documentary I watched called Park Avenue, about the extremely wealthy in the United States and their unwillingness to give up tax loopholes that favor them. It also explored the extreme influence the rich have on the government. The documentary obviously leaned left, but it raised many important issues and I enjoyed it. In addition, it was nice to have my husband, a CPA, watch it with me to explain some of the tax law and why things are the way they are, but I finished it with a bad taste in my mouth for the wealthiest in our country and for the privileged 400 people who control most of the money. Danglars reminded me of the attitude of many of these billionaires, for he could not let go of his money. Without it, he felt he was nothing. It became his identity.
Similarly, the Count is rich beyond measure and uses it to punish the wealthy for their personal mistakes and trespasses against him. I instead wished he would have come back and revealed himself, righted some of the wrongs of the past, and then gone away and lived happily for the rest of his life, instead of having to make everyone suffer in humiliation. The book really is an examination in how to overcome the wrongs somebody has done you, and how to act when you’ve got the upper hand.
Should you exact revenge or forgive? What would you do?