The Count of Monte-Cristo is the best-known novel of Alexandre Dumas, père, after The Three Musketeers (1844). Improbable as it seems, the novel might be based on a true story that occurred some thirty years before the writing of the book, a story concerning a man named François Picaud who had been betrayed by friends and falsely imprisoned. He had inherited a large fortune from a fellow prisoner and, upon his release, successfully sought revenge against those who had denounced him.
Besides appealing to Dumas’s instincts as a writer, the story also resonates with the author for other reasons: Dumas harbored many grievances against society in general and against individual enemies in particular. His father had been persecuted and he himself had been harassed by creditors and slandered. It is not unreasonable to believe that Dumas captured his own feelings of vengeance in this novel.
The twin themes of justice and revenge at the heart of The Count of Monte-Cristo will always be understandable: Revenge as a driving force has figured prominently throughout literature, from the Bible to the works of such writers as William Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, and Mickey Spillane. Dumas took the idea of revenge even further: The sins of the fathers are visited upon their children, so the downfall of Edmond’s enemies is emphatic. Likewise, the idea of obtaining a vast fortune that makes anything possible is the stuff daydreams are made of. The resourcefulness and implacability of an Edmond Dantès, shaped by circumstances beyond his control into someone simultaneously capable of great charm and terrible cruelty, makes him a worthy protagonist; it is likely such scenes as that in which Edmond escapes from the forbidding Chateau d’If by sewing himself into a burial sack to be cast into the sea will long linger in the memory.
However, despite such inherent strengths, The Count of Monte-Cristo demands much from modern readers. Like most of Dumas’s major novels—and like the works of other popular nineteenth century writers, such as Charles Dickens—the part-adventure, part-melodrama novel was first serialized in a daily newspaper. The author kept his public in a constant state of suspense by detailing romantic love affairs, intrigues involving impersonation, dastardly murders and betrayals, suggestion of perversions, and multiple other complications and subplots that increased tension and delayed denouement as long as possible. This methodology served two purposes. First, it kept the income flowing for the writer, who shamelessly padded his prose with asides and other details to flesh out the story installments (117 in all) to necessary length; second, it provided inexpensive and regular entertainment for a relatively captive readership.
Contemporary readers, more familiar with the blunter, faster-paced literary efforts of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, may find The Count of Monte-Cristo slow reading. Because of nineteenth century conventions of writing, the prose of the novel is formal and convoluted, full of allusions, dense with layered meanings, and peppered with expressions and words now obsolete or obscure. Speeches in the mouths of characters will sound stilted to the ears of those attuned to modern colloquialisms, who live in a world where such strong concepts as justice and honor have been diluted since the time The Count of Monte-Cristo was written.
Another barrier to full enjoyment of the novel is the milieu in which the story is set. Students of history, aware of the conflicts between French royalty and Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte (often referred to in the book as “the usurper”) that provide both backdrop and impetus to the story, will have greater appreciation of events as they unfold. Similarly, in the present world climate—more egalitarian in theory if not in fact—understanding the relationships and hierarchy and class distinctions of Parisian upper-class society (crowded with counts and barons and marquises both of the old aristocracy and newly created nobility) may cause readers some difficulties.
Though Edmond is a fully rounded, complex, and memorable character, most of the others who appear in The Count of Monte-Cristo are one-dimensional and more stereotypes than portraits of actual individuals; women uniformly swoon and weep, while men perspire freely and flush or blanch, unable to hide their emotions. Dumas, of impoverished aristocratic heritage though capable of describing the luxurious appointments and clothing of the wealthy, had a greater facility and more sympathy in depicting members of the lower classes.
The primary antagonists, against whom Edmond seeks revenge, represent facets of humanity’s baser instincts. Fernand, who through subterfuge gains Edmond’s intended love, symbolizes lust—for flesh, for power, for wealth—and suffers death, the ultimate price, as a result of his fatal flaw. Danglars, the eventual banker, stands for jealousy and avarice and is accordingly ruined financially, an outcome that will hurt him most. Villefort, the rational prosecutor who has subverted the law for his own ends, is a metaphor for blind ambition; in condemning his own murderous wife to death (she poisons herself and her young son), he condemns himself to madness, the loss of his rationality, as the result of a series of increasingly profound misfortunes that befalls him. Even Mercédès, whom Edmond once loved, as the faithless woman (by the hero’s estimation), must be brought down. Though Edmond still has feelings for his former betrothed, and twice spares her son, she is made to give up everything she had gained by her desertion of Edmond and is returned to her common existence in the place where the story began, Marseilles.
While not as relevant now as when it was written, The Count of Monte-Cristo still has the capacity to thrill not only as a colorful, dramatic adventure story and a historical period piece, but also as a parable of the devastating effects of revenge, both on the victim and the perpetrator. The consequences of Edmond’s careful, subtle plans, enacted over a decade, are more far-reaching than even he can imagine, and in destroying his tormentors there is considerable collateral damage: Innocents and guilty alike must perish when ends justify the means. Edmond himself is greatly changed in the process of wreaking his vengeance. The unsophisticated young man he was at the beginning of the story has by the end been forever transformed by suffering into a learned, well-traveled cosmopolite, capable of convincingly playing any role to carry out his main task as an exterminating angel so consumed with his diabolical goals that he cannot relax and enjoy the fortune that has fallen into his lap. Though by the conclusion of the story Edmond is an empty shell distrustful of his own emotions, the reader is left with a ray of hope that Haidée’s love can change him into the kinder, gentler person he once was.
These qualities—an exciting adventure, supported by a strong sense of morality and bolstered by the “what-if” possibilities of unlimited wealth; and a story set in a visually historical period and place and told from the perspective of a sympathetic hero fighting truly despicable villains—have kept The Count of Monte-Cristo (a work long in the public domain) a filmmaker’s favorite. The best-known film version was released in 1934.