Friday Reviews: The Count of Monte Cristo By Alexander Dumas

Alexander Dumas

This is the classic revenge novel. Edmond Dantes has it all. At 19, he is about to marry his sweetheart, a beautiful Catalan named Mercedes, and he has just been named captain of his ship by the owner, Monsieur Morrell. However, a man named Danglars wants his job, and another named Fernan wants his woman. So on the day of his betrothal, they frame him for treason. Unfortunately, the sympathetic prosecutor discovers that freeing Dantes would expose him as the son of a notorious Bonapartist. So under the bus Edmond goes.

In prison, Edmond meets an old priest who expects to die in the dungeon and urges his young charge to escape to the remote island of Monte Cristo. After fourteen years of imprisonment, Edmond does just that and discovers the hidden fortune of a Roman family wiped out by the Borgias.

Fast forward another decade. Monsieur Morrell is on the verge of bankruptcy when a mysterious Englishman appears and literally saves the company from doom, walking in on Morrell as he is about to commit suicide. He promises to locate Morrell’s last ship, which has gone missing, and to extend credit on behalf of an Italian firm. On the appointed date, Morrell goes from the brink of ruin to a rich man once more.

This is the first appearance of the Count, even though he has not used his title yet.

Years later, the Count of Monte Cristo appears in Paris and insinuates himself into the lives of Danglars, Fernan (now the Count of Mocerf), and Villiers. They are all wealthy and politically powerful. Yet Monte Cristo has vast wealth and a long memory. He has watched and planned for years. With a few words here and there, the former Edmond Dantes charms his way into Parisian society and sets in motion a chain of murder, exposed secrets, and financial ruin. One by one, the Count’s machinations destroy each of his enemies, as well as avenging a friend wronged by one of his enemies later.

This story is a classic for both its revenge theme and its political intrigue. Edmond is imprisoned during Napoleon’s brief return to power, then forgotten. But his enemies, he discovers as he plots his revenge, need no frontal assault to be destroyed. Their success by less-than-noble means makes them vulnerable. The Count doesn’t attack them directly. He manipulates the families and turns them on their enemies. As for allies, he enlists many among his enemies, even prosecutor Villier’s paralyzed and mute father.

Like Mary Shelly, Dumas’s prose is not as heavy and dense as that of Dickens and Melville. Part of this might have been the translation I read, but the same can be said of Jules Verne’s work.  It is a bit episodic, but then Dumas wrote this as a serial, making the large cast of characters a challenge to keep straight. Obviously, Dumas realized this as he put a cast of characters at the beginning of the novel.

Still, it holds up well, and its fingerprints are all over later novels, most notably, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.