Monday, September 10, 2012

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

The perfect escapist novel
The Count of Monte Cristo is one of the greatest novels ever written. In terms of pure entertainment value, it can’t be beat. Though nowadays Alexandre Dumas may be more renowned as the creator of The Three Musketeers, this book is undoubtedly his greatest work.

Originally published in 1844, this epic tale of adventure takes place from 1815 to 1838 in France, Italy, Greece, and numerous islands in the Mediterranean. Edmond Dantès, a young sailor from Marseille, has been doubly blessed. Not only is he about to wed the beautiful love of his life, his employer has also just promoted him to the rank of ship’s captain. Such good fortune inspires envy, and a few of his malcontented acquaintances conspire to rob from him all that he holds dear. At this time Louis XVIII ruled France, and Napoleon was exiled to the island of Elba. The conspirators denounce Dantès as a Bonapartist spy, and he is locked up in a dungeon within the prison of Château d'lf. Through a series of extraordinary events best not spoiled, Dantès eventually gets out of prison, assumes the identity of the Count of Monte Cristo, and devotes his life to wreaking vengeance upon the men responsible for his imprisonment. Contrary to many of the movie versions of the book, his revenge does not take the form of a simple sword fight. Instead, Dantès devises wickedly elaborate schemes to punish his adversaries by destroying their reputations, ruining them financially, and crushing them emotionally. In the guise of the Count of Monte Cristo, Dantès essentially becomes a superhero. He possesses unlimited wealth, unlimited knowledge, an unlimited talent for any pursuit that interests him, and seemingly unlimited luck. Without a doubt, the book defies believability, but so what? Despite the far-fetched nature of the protagonist’s almost supernatural abilities, it is an absolute joy to watch his plans come to fruition.

All this unfolds over the course of 117 chapters with never a dull moment. The book features an ensemble cast of dozens of memorable characters, all of whom are somehow linked to one another in mysterious ways. Over the course of the book, as secret pasts are uncovered, an ingenious, byzantine web of interconnectivity is revealed—this character is the illegitimate son of that one, one character is the former lover of another, this character murdered the other one’s father, etc. One can only imagine the labyrinthine collage of index cards Dumas and his writing partner August Maquet might have utilized to construct this intricate masterpiece.

To fully appreciate this book, some knowledge of European history is required. Napoleon’s Hundred Days or the assassination of the Pasha of Yanina may have been fresh in the minds of Dumas’s audience, but today’s reader might require a few quick trips to Wikipedia to fully understand the story’s historical context. This fascinating tale is well worth the extra effort.

This review primarily focuses on the novel’s entertainment value, but it does have higher literary merit as well. It delves deeply into serious themes of vengeance, justice, and forgiveness. Dantès represents the living embodiment of God’s retribution—not necessarily the Christian God, but a more stoic conception of God as universal providence. As the Count of Monte Cristo, he is the conduit through which karma is served. The guilty are punished, and the good are rewarded. Dumas serves up provocative food for thought, delivered in an immensely delightful package. If you have not read this book, do so now.

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