Youth and Betrayal The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
It is Dumas’ masterpiece, imparting a wealth of historical knowledge, evoking strong emotions and shocking contemporary sensibilities; all the while thrilling the reader with a first rate adventure story. I recently read House of the Seven Gables by Dumas’ contemporary, Nathaniel Hawthorne, who as a writer is a frontier bumpkin compared to the worldly and witty Dumas.
I have heard the arguments, most notably by those who read the book in their youth, that Dante’s sudden betrayal and long suffering in prison drove him to such excesses of vengeance and violence. We the readers must then forgive the Count when he repents and atones for his sins. Dumas' intent regarding this matter is not perfectly clear- his main character is both the hero and the villain of the story. The author appears to redeem Monte Cristo in the end giving us a happy ending, but I am not convinced.
First, Edmond Dantes was not completely innocent of the crime of which he was accused. He gave succor and aid to the usurper- ignorant as he was. Dumas paints a grim picture of imprisonment in a 19th century dungeon, but his descriptions are not unpleasant enough in my view. For Instance Edmond and the Abbe remain very strong and energetic, not doubt due to the popular Nietzsche philosophy of the day- that what does not kill you makes you stronger. Edmond is strong enough to free himself from a body bag thrown into the ocean with a cannon ball as a sinker and swims several miles to escape, no worse for wear after 14 years in a dark dank cell with highly questionable nutrition and healthcare. The Abbe at one point regrets revealing the location of his treasure when Edmond reveals the bad intensions for which he will use it.
His Accusers, Danglers, Fernand, and Villefort act out of greed, envy, ambition, and Caderousse out of fear. They do not have Edmond killed –they have him imprisoned. Their wrongful deeds are those of passion, spontaneous compared to the slow pre-meditated plotting of Monte Cristo, intent on avenging himself not only on the accusers but their offspring- a vendetta. The ideal of honor of the day demands that the Count approach each accuser, challenge him to duel and dispatch him. Instead the Count stalks them like a serial killer or religious zealot.
He educates Madam Villefort in the art of poison under the pretext that in small doses a poison is a medicine, knowing full well what she will do with it. After three fatal and two failed poisonings she is accused by her husband and then fatally poisons two more- herself and her young son. The only member of the family who is spared poisoning is Monsieur Villefort himself, the one who actually wronged the Count. Villefort is, however, driven to complete madness by the ill fortune that has befallen his house.
The Count rescues Mademoiselle Valentine Villefort from poisoning only after learning that she is the lover of his dear friend Maximillian. He then puts her into a death-like coma and later exhumes her from the grave. A sucidal Maximillianis is mislead by the Count to believe Valentine dead until the lovers are finally reunited on the Isle of Monte Cristo. Apparently there are no ill side effects to being in a long drug induced coma and buried alive? Here is your Napoleonic era pseudoscience at work.
Fernand, who marries Edmond’s fiancé, Mercedes, is so disgraced by the Count that the rival commits suicide. Monte Cristo provokes their son, his young "friend", Albert, to challenge him to a duel. The Count brags insufferably about how it will not be a duel but an execution- the Count having the idle wealth to practice incessantly with the finest pistols that money can buy and fence with the finest sword masters of France (Scaramouch?)
Mercedes pleads for her son’s life after revealing she recognized her former lover Edmond Dantes all along. After much pitiful whining about how much he has suffered, the Count reluctantly relents. Mercedes easily debunks his extreme but weak arguments until the Count throws up his arms saying (to paraphrase), “Fine! He will be spared but you, madam, sentence me to death!”. He leaves her indignant that she so readily agrees to sacrifice him for her son.
Mercedes says (to paraphrase), “I have grown old with sorrow and regret and have lost my beauty” -she is about 39 years old at this point. Is this not this when the Hero should say, “Oh Mercedes, you are beautiful still”. I get the feeling that with one word of encouragement, although she should know better, Mercedes would run into his arms saying, “Love me once again Edmond!” Alas, the Count is now a wealthy man of the world. He has a hot 20 year old Greek Princess, Haydee, although he says he loves her like a “daughter” ( which is quite creepy). Poor old Mercedes is apparently is no match for that.
The Count regrets his vengeful ways after being an accomplice to or personally responsible for, as I counted, at least seven deaths. He lets Baron Danglar off the hook after having him imprisoned in a dungeon for a fortnight or two, saying that he will forgive Danglar, because he, the Count, too needs forgiveness. This is apparently the moment that we the readers are to forgive the Count of Monte Cristo. He forgives the ringleader of the conspirators who betrayed him, but the Count never does forgive Mercedes. In fact near the end of the book he says she was driven to "prostitution"- he thinks her a whore.
The Count’s most inexcusable sin is that of excessive pride; his conviction that he is God’s Instrument – indeed Providence itself. His religious ramblings are reminiscent of Jim Jones or Nero. Even at the end when Monte Cristo sees the error of his ways- it is still God’s will that he was wicked so that he now can be redeemed. The Count relates near the end of the book that he has saved Valentine and Maximillian from death, thus he has atoned for two of the deaths for which is responsible. SORRY! NO CREDIT GIVEN! You were the reason they almost died in the first place! I wondered what would happen should Villefort suddenly snap out of his madness, which may not be such a permanent state as the Count would have us believe, and use his remaining power as Magistrate to hunt down the Count and arrest him - and this time send him to the scaffolds as the law demands of an accomplice to murder, not to mention escaping from his previous imprisonment. Now that would be Providence!