Byron, Shakespeare and Divine Justice
The Count of Monte Cristo vicariously satisfies the fantasies of everyone who has ever dreamed of winning the lottery or who has idly plotted revenge against their enemies, knowing full well they will never act on their darkest desires. Monte Cristo is like a nineteenth century Superman. His miraculous, Houdini-like escape from prison, when he manages to escape drowning even though a cannon ball is tied to his feet, sets the tone for what follows. Everything goes right for the formidable Count, who seems like a lord in charge of his own destiny and that of others. Coincidences happen at the most opportune time for him; he seems to have eliminated from life the element of unpredictability and chance. He never makes a mistake, he seems to know everything, he is always in full possession of himself, and he has an air of invincibility about him. Given his single-minded dedication to his mission, his extraordinary force of personality and his prodigious wealth, it is not surprising that others regard him with a kind of awe. Beauchamp, for example, when he witnesses Monte Cristo’s utter certainty of victory in the duel with Albert, is not sure whether he is dealing with a mere braggart or a supernatural being. And Villefort, when he first meets Monte Cristo in Paris, has a similar thought, not knowing whether the man who thinks he is an agent of Providence is a mystic or a madman.
During the part of the novel that is set in Rome, to give his character some extra heft, Dumas hints that Monte Cristo is to be regarded as something of a Byronic hero. The English Romantic poet Lord Byron, a favorite of Dumas’s youth, was revered throughout Europe as the incarnation of the rebellious Romantic spirit. He died a heroic death in 1824, fighting for the cause of Greek independence. During his lifetime, Byron’s magnetic personality, his cultivation of the persona of an outsider, and the whiff of scandal that always seemed to surround him, made him one of the most talked about men of the age, the precursor of the modern celebrity. Women were drawn to him, and chaperones were anxious to steer their young charges away from him. When Byron visited Rome, one aristocratic English lady warned her daughter, when Byron was in the vicinity, “Don’t look at him, he is dangerous to look at” (quoted in Phyliss Grosskurth’s Byron: The Flawed Angel). Byron seemed to embody the same spirit that he breathed into his restless, tormented heroes. Like Edmond Dantès heroes, the heroes of Byron’s dramatic poems have suffered great wrongs that set them apart from the rest of society, but they remain indomitable. This is the background against which Franz d’Epinay’s observation of Monte Cristo can be understood:
Franz could not . . . even think of [Monte Cristo] without representing his stern head on the shoulders of Manfred or beneath the casque of Lara. His forehead was marked by the line that indicates the constant presence of a bitter thought. He had those fiery eyes that seem to penetrate to the heart, and the haughty and disdainful upper lip that gives to the words it utters a peculiar character that impresses them on the minds of those to whom they are addressed.
Manfred and Lara are both heroes in Byron’s dramatic poems of those titles. These works are mentioned again by Albert de Morcerf, when he tries to explain to his mother who Monte Cristo is. Like his friend Franz, Albert regards Monte Cristo as a Byronic hero,
whom Misery has marked with a fatal brand . . . one of those wrecks, as it were, of some ancient family, who, disinherited of their patrimony, have achieved one by the force of their adventurous genius, which has placed them above the laws of society.
In spite of the direct references to Byron, however, the resemblances between Monte Cristo and the Byronic hero are largely superficial. The Byronic hero is a much more complex figure than Monte Cristo. He is usually guilty of some sin or transgression against society’s laws, and searches for meaning in a universe that refuses to yield one. This is not Monte Cristo at all; Monte Cristo is confident of the moral order of the world and his role in upholding it. The truth is that Dumas tossed in the Byronic allusions simply because he wanted a few more ingredients to stir into his literary pot. They are Romantic seasonings to give the stew a popular flavor.
The same applies to the opinion of the Venetian lady, Countess G—, also in the Rome episodes, that Monte Cristo is a vampire. She is convinced of...
(The entire section is 1877 words.)