Second review, addendum: September 5, 2017
It has, coincidentally, been exactly 3 years since I first read The Count of Monte Cristo. I bought a house this summer; I have my very own deck now. I decided that on my week off I wanted to sit outside and work my way through this classic behemoth during what might be our last nice days before the autumn chill kicks in. I was, for the most part, successful in this goal. Reading this book was every bit as pleasurable, diverting, and moving as it was the first time; everything reaffirms my original sentiments regarding this book’s place in history and Dumas’ talents as a storyteller, if not perhaps as a writer.
I don’t have anything substantive to add to my first review, below. If I were to attempt a new review, I’d basically recapitulate what I said already: this is the real deal, one of those timeless stories. What makes The Count of Monte Cristo so amazing is the sheer breadth of human experience that Dumas includes in his story, even as he focuses with laser sharpness on the effects of obsession with revenge on Edmond Dantès. If you can get past the sheer weight of words and the cumbersome phrasing in the writing style, this is a magnificent emotional experience with all the highs and lows of great art. This is an opera in literary form.
I hesitate to name Desert Island Books, because I love so many books. Why choose?? Seriously, though, The Count of Monte Cristo wouldn’t just be on the list; it would be my top pick for such a book. There is so much variety in here, so many different stories, that I could read it in bits and pieces, even out of order, and remain inspired and entertained for a long time.
First review: September 17, 2014
I didn’t plan on reading The Count of Monte Cristo so soon after The Three Musketeers. But on my first visit to the Thunder Bay library after my return from the UK, I saw this lovely edition with an introduction by Umberto Eco, one of my favourite authors. The introduction isn’t much to talk about—it’s short, which is actually a point in its favour; and it’s informative but not quite insightful. I gave The Three Musketeers five stars and a glowing review.
The Three Musketeers has nothing on The Count of Monte Cristo. This is indubitably superior to the former work in all respects. It is an amazing tour de force of a text that was well worth the 10 days it took me to read it. Whereas T3M has achieved immortality as a dashing adventure romance, TCMC is the revenge plot done up in the finest of clothing and served with the most sumptuous of (cold) repasts. Alexandre Dumas delivers one of the most detailled and compelling stories I have ever experienced.
Sure, the novel starts slowly, introducing the young Edmond Dantes, so buoyant with hope. He’s about to become captain of a trading vessel and marry a pretty Catalan girl who is madly in love with him. He’ll be able to provide for his old, infirm father. Life is good. Slowly, Dumas arrays the forces of jealousy and envy against him, in the form of the villains Danglars and Fernand. I can easily forgive a reader who finds the first few chapters of TCMC stultifying in their boredom; the plot doesn’t really begin to thicken until Edmond is imprisoned, and the pace doesn’t take off until he escapes and reinvents himself as Monte Cristo.
The beginning is slow, but it provides essential contrast to Edmond’s later conduct as the Count. Young Edmond is almost stupidly naive. Despite some careful warnings from Caderousse and others, he ignores the ill will emanating from Danglars and Fernand. He is cavalier about a trip to Elba during a time when even the whiff of Bonapartism was a good way to get thrown in jail. Dumas goes out of his way to make Edmond as innocent as possible. And just when it seems like Fernand’s scheme will fall through, Edmond falls victim, through no fault of his own, to the intrigue of Villefort. Edmond is an innocent, a good man. He doesn’t deserve what happens to him—unlike the three against whom he exacts his revenge.
But the Count of Monte Cristo? Ah, the Count is not a good man. But he is a great one. The Count of Monte Cristo is basically the Most Interesting Man in the World:
The Count of Monte Cristo has been everywhere, done everything, seen it all. He is absurdly, fabulously rich—and, more interestingly, very good at spending his riches. He plays Xanatos Speed Chess blindfolded (TVTropes). His servants and entourage are devoted to him. Everyone in Parisian society becomes infatuated with him. The Count of Monte Cristo isn’t badass; he is the badassest.
When he descends upon Paris, two decades have elapsed since the betrayal that led to his imprisonment. No one recognizes him. Danglars, Villefort, and Fernand have risen to important titles in Parisian society. But the Count doesn’t take revenge quickly. Oh no. He totally buys the whole “best served cold” part of the adage. Months pass as the Count integrates himself into Parisian high society, attending operas and throwing lavish dinner parties and generally charming the pants off everyone. He enacts a series of increasingly fiendish and increasingly complex plots to place his enemies in financial or social difficulty. Even when unforeseen circumstances arise to throw off his otherwise intricate planning, the Count rises to the occasion and improvises with aplomb. He seems, in short, unstoppable.
It’s awesome, watching it all unfold. No CGI explosions. No explicit sex scenes. Just one amazing character on a mission of revenge.
I read the unabridged version, because I like to suffer when I read classic literature. I hear there are abridged versions out there (did I mention this book is in the public domain?). I assume they cut out the hundreds of pages of digressions and backstories of secondary characters. In the introduction to this edition, Eco discusses the paradox of Dumas’ terrible writing yet enduring brilliance: TCMC is simultaneously a poorly-written book yet an incredible feat of storytelling. Its wordiness makes Dickens look concise. It took me ten days to read when the similarly-thick The Wise Man’s Fear took less than half that. I enjoyed it all the same … but I’m willing to admit that there are some things that could have been cut. Maybe. So I won’t blame you if you read the abridged version. You really should read this, somehow.
TCMC’s length reminds me of another epic classic, War and Peace. The similarity doesn’t end there, however. Much like Tolstoy’s epic, TCM has oodles and oodles of characters. Wikipedia has chart of the various relationships in the novel. Keep in mind that Dumas serialized this thing, and it really does read like a weird, nineteenth-century French soap opera. There’s something very fulfilling about coming across a character first mentioned hundreds of pages ago and realizing their new importance to the plot. And as with Tolstoy’s story, there is so much more happening here than Edmond’s revenge. Every one of the secondary characters has their own intricate history (which Dumas never fails to recount) accompanied by a complex set of motivations and goals that impact the Count’s plans. Truly, egregious purple prose aside, TCMC is one of the most masterful examples of plotting in literature.
The Count of Monte Cristo is like War and Peace but with a more uplifting ending. The ending is rather inevitable, and it’s where the earlier depiction of early Edmond becomes so important. Having succeeded in getting his revenge, the Count sails off into the sunset in search of further adventure. There’s no other way to end it. He was a character devoted entirely to one goal: once he achieved it, what was he supposed to do? Then again, he is more than a man. He’s a myth, a self-made myth in the style of Jay Gatsby, whose very existence is sustained by the stories and rumours that swirl around him. Edmond’s enemies managed to transform him into something he could never have become on his own—but his quest for revenge is not one that leaves him unscathed. And it’s an open question whether Edmond has managed to break the cycle of revenge or merely extend it for another generation.
This is a novel that doesn’t pull punches. Dumas ruthlessly explores the extent to which obsession and desire can chart the course of someone’s life and alter the lives of all those around him. Yet he manages to do so with wit and persuasive charm. It is no wonder that like T3M, The Count of Monte Cristo has inspired so many adaptations and looser works based on its themes … but there is no substitute for the original.