The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

After finishing The Man in the Iron Mask (the final section of The Vicomte de Bragelonne: Ten Years Later) I took a break from Alexandre Dumas for 40 days. I totally thought it was going to be longer, but I burned through my backlog of podcasts and needed something to listen to at work. I already had The Count of Monte Cristo on my MP3 player, so it was my default choice. Within a few chapters, I was hooked.

Edmond Dantès cast into the sea with a cannon ball tied to his feet


Description

The Count of Monte Cristo is another long swashbuckling adventure story by Alexandre Dumas. In some ways, it has a similar feel to The Three Musketeers, but it’s set much later, with a backdrop of 1815–1839—within the author’s own lifetime. This book is weird and awesome and complicated and I don’t think I can do much better than Wikipedia’s description:

“The story takes place in France, Italy, and islands in the Mediterranean during the historical events of 1815–1839: the era of the Bourbon Restoration through the reign of Louis-Philippe of France. It begins just before the Hundred Days period (when Napoleon returned to power after his exile). The historical setting is a fundamental element of the book, an adventure story primarily concerned with themes of hope, justice, vengeance, mercy, and forgiveness. It centres on a man who is wrongfully imprisoned, escapes from jail, acquires a fortune, and sets about exacting revenge on those responsible for his imprisonment. His plans have devastating consequences for both the innocent and the guilty.”

The Count of Monte Cristo was first published in 18 (shortish) volumes from 1844-5.
Like a lot of Dumas’s works, it was co-written/outlined with Auguste Maquet.

I listened to this Librivox recording. David Clark’s narration was great.

Edmond Dantès in prison

Things I Liked

Jumping into this book, I knew it was a “revenge story” but I was expecting more blood, guts, and gore. I expected a tortured protagonist who hunts down all of his enemies and kills them (more like the historical figure Edmond’s character is loosely based off). What Dumas wrote, however, was so much more awesome!

Edmond Dantès is pretty likable from beginning to end, even when he’s orchestrating the downfall of his enemies. Most of the time he’s even able to maintain the moral high ground, and their deaths or financial ruin are in some measure their own fault or the fault of someone else entirely. The most questionable revenge-plot things Edmond does are omitting to tell people about sinister things he knows others are going to do. Sometimes he says horrible things in his alternate personas (of which he has several) and at least some of the time he’s lying, so it’s hard to tell how much of what he says about himself is true. There’s also a clear character arc that shows Edmond’s transformation toward the end, which I loved, but I can’t talk about that much without major spoilers.

I loved the ending. Even though some innocent people die, I would argue that this is one of the happiest, most satisfying Dumas endings I’ve ever read. I also appreciate that the hero isn’t totally unaffected by the havoc he brings to the world.

The Three Musketeers has a bit of “talking head syndrome” but The Count of Monte Cristo has more vivid setting details to ground the story. By the end of the novel, Dumas was just about writing contemporary fiction; he had firsthand knowledge of some of the French places in the time period described and this shows in the superior setting details.

Compared with the d’Artagnan romances, there’s also less melodrama, or at least a different kind. There’s more intrigue plotting (like Aramis in The Man in the Iron Mask) and less of a focus on impulsive young people and their mushy-gushy love plots (like Louise de la Valliere). There are romantic subplots in this book, but they’re minor and scattered over several characters.

And the characters are great too. The women are all individuals with their own goals, dreams, and desires; they’re all different. In typical Dumas fashion, every character comes onto the scene with an agenda. He gives enough of their background to show the characters’ great motivations for doing horrible things to each other. Tons of mini-plots come together to form the macro-plot, which gives the book an epic scope, especially for a “revenge story.”

The duel in the snow

Weaknesses

On a narrative level, one potential weakness is the scope of the plot. After Edmond gets out of prison and starts exacting his revenge, a ton of characters are pulled into the story. At first, I wasn’t sure how they all wove together because a lot of them get more backstory than would be necessary if the story focused more closely on Edmond. There are also several occasions where he appears in disguise. That wasn’t too difficult to figure out but did contribute to the confusion. All of the loose ends with various friends’ and enemies’ children, etc. tie together, but it takes a while to see it all play out, and there are a lot of names and relationships to remember. This is the bulk of the book, so if you don’t enjoy this sort of sprawling plot that funnels down to weave together at the end, this book might not be for you.

This is quite a long book. The recording I listened to was over 54 hours, which is enough to make me reluctant to pick up a physical copy. I just don’t think I’d ever sit down to read it. I definitely recommend it in audio over print for that reason.

Sensitivity Warnings

Slavery
Some characters become galley-slaves after committing crimes. Others come into the story as purchased slaves of the main character. Yes, the main character. I have complicated feelings about this situation, particularly concerning the mute black man named Ali. This is an interesting decision plot-wise because slavery wasn’t even legal in France at the time. Dumas knew this and still found ways to justify it (plot-wise) in the story. I think Dumas intended it to add to the Count’s exotic persona, but even within the story, it’s not clear how much of what he says about this is true and how much is Edmond acting/lying to keep up the role.

The N-Word
One of the Italian bandit gang who captures another character uses the N-word in a bad simile (at least in the translation I listened to).  In context, this didn’t bother me much because these characters aren’t necessarily meant to be likable. I haven’t read enough of Dumas’s work to comment on his perception of race in general, but while doing a bit of research for this review, I discovered that he actually had some African ancestry.

Anti-Semitism
Another serious problem is Dumas’s stereotypes of Jews as dishonest or stingy merchants. This is pretty typical for him; I think I’ve seen it in just about every Dumas book I’ve read.

Suicide
This book gives a mixed representation of suicide. Some characters glorify it as an honorable way out of their situation (which actually made sense in that historical context), and others turn to it in despair.


Bottom line

If you like swashbuckling adventure stories, vigilante justice, intrigue, buried treasure, and anti-heroes, The Count of Monte Cristo is a must-read. Of the Alexandre Dumas books I’ve read so far, it is my favorite. I give this reading experience six out of seven twisty mustaches.


I have no immediate plans to read another Alexandre Dumas book because I don’t know what to read next. Have you read any Alexandre Dumas books? Which ones do you recommend?
Leave a comment below or my hairless ghost lemur will haunt your dreams.

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas | Lydia Sanders #TwistyMustacheReviews

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