Monday, April 29, 2013

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

When it comes to giant French novels, a distinction should be drawn between those immense enough to crush you into paste if they fell on you out of a tree, and those big enough merely to seriously injure you. Clocking in at just under 900 pages in my Wordsworth Classics edition, Alexandre Dumas’s classic revenge thriller The Count of Monte Cristo is a good 200 pages shorter than our Penguin Les Miserables. While both books share a fascination with romanticism and revolution in 1800s Paris, and while I read both of them during my mid teens, there was one important difference between the books which recently prompted me to re-read the Count but outsource Les Mis to a friend. This important difference is simply the fact that, while Hugo takes you on scenic tours of Paris nunneries and underground sewers to distract from the fact that his plot could have been dealt with in half the time, Dumas flings you into a driving, multi-strand plot that never derails or slows down. I remember staying up very late to finish it the first time I read it, and found it just as briskly enjoyable this time round.

The plot is very simple. At nineteen, the likeable and good-natured Marseilles sailor Edmond Dantes is about to marry his fiancée Mercedes and become captain of the ship Pharaon. Then his enemies—Danglars, a shipmate who covets the captaincy, Fernand, a fisherman who covets the fiancée, and Caderousse, a tailor, their weak and avaricious crony—denounce him to the local prosecutor, M de Villefort, as a Bonapartist. The real Bonapartist is M Nortier, the prosecutor’s revolutionary father; so to save his reputation and career, M de Villefort has Edmond buried in the deepest dungeon of the Chateau D’If.

In the Chateau D’If, Dantes meets and becomes the student of the learned Abbe Faria, whose tales of a fabulous treasure buried on the desolate island of Monte Cristo convince everyone that he must be mad. Fourteen years later, Dantes escapes to find that his aged father starved to death and his fiancée married Fernand in his absence. Meanwhile Villefort, Danglars, and Fernand have shot to fame, power, and fortune. Dantes lays his plans meticulously: then, at last, armed with boundless wealth, devoted servants, and the knowledge of his enemies’ darkest secrets, the Count of Monte Cristo comes to Paris to wreak vengeance.

(Cue the ominous opera music, but don’t pay any attention to it, because none of the characters do.)

The Count of Monte Cristo is rather irresistible. There’s a legend that it was blackballed by the Vatican on its first publication (although the now-abolished Index of Forbidden Books apparently banned all Dumas books except the Count). Still, it’s quite obvious how the book got its reputation. Various characters dabble in suicide, infanticide, adultery, and (coyly-hinted, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it) lesbianism. Characters take hash-hish. Characters have highly improper dreams on hash-hish. And then there’s the Count himself, who makes revenge look so much fun and comes close to being deified by the supporting cast. Needless to say, I don’t recommend this novel to the undiscerning--or at all without serious reservations.

On the other hand, there is the outrageous fun of the novel. Movie adaptations have normally transformed the book into a swashbuckler (you can imagine producers’ sanity snapping under the strain of trying to imagine a book by the author of The Three Musketeers not including a swordfight) but the novel is in fact a psychological thriller, as the Count effortlessly manipulates the stock market, the newspapers, the marriage prospects of his enemies’ offspring, and the one woman in Paris most likely to become a serial killer. There are Italian banditti. There are runaway horses. There are vendettas. There are sensational backstories. There are sundered lovers. There is a paralysed old man, incapable even of speech, who successfully saves his granddaughter first from an unwanted marriage and then from an attempted poisoning. There is a lot of opera.

It’s not hard to see why The Count of Monte Cristo is sometimes called the greatest revenge story ever written. It’s a classic plot, well-told. It also adds a few very interesting moral and philosophical twists to the old “You killed my father, prepare to die” routine, which may explain how it stayed off the Index of Forbidden Books.

To begin with, it’s obvious that Dumas’s worldview is the standard Rousseauian 18th-century humanist-romantic variety also espoused by Dickens: human nature is basically good, but corrupted by artificial social bonds. But Dumas does something rather unusual with this basic premise.

First, he carries it a logical step further and suggests that if humanity is basically good, then the original sin of humanity is “man’s inhumanity to man” for if humans are basically good, then the worst of all oppression is the oppression of innocent people. Dantes deserves his revenge because his enemies have committed the unforgiveable sin: they have been cruel and treacherous to him without cause. In one speech, he describes how even animals are capable of altruism; but humans will betray and kill each other simply so that they are not alone in their misery. And he refers to man, “upon whom God has laid his first, his sole commandment, to love his neighbor.” Well, naturally, loving your neighbour is neither the sole nor the first commandment. Possibly Dumas’s “God” is something different to the one we know.

Second, Dumas divides humanity into essentially two categories: oppressors and the oppressed. The villains work villainy, and the innocent suffer the consequences (and many on both sides have their own revenge plots, from Benedetto to Haidee). Edmond Dantes was one of the oppressed; but when we meet him again years later he has become something else entirely. By the superiority of his mind, by the benevolence of his intentions, and above all by the unimaginable power given by his wealth, Edmond Dantes becomes something more than a man.

Monte Cristo is a Byronic hero—one almost gets the feeling that Dumas sat down with the Handbook to Archetypal Characters entry on the Byronic Hero and made a checklist. Haughty distaste for society, check. Sophistication oozing out of every pore, check. Connoisseur of hallucinogenic drugs, check. Dark and troubled past, check. Ensuing self-pity, check. And to go along with this cocktail of self-satisfaction, the uncanny charisma to persuade everyone else in the world that he’s all that and more. In Albert Morcerf’s words, 
“I really do look upon him as one of Byron's heroes, whom misery has marked with a fatal brand; some Manfred, some Lara, some Werner, 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.”
As his vengeance unfolds, though, Monte Cristo reaches further towards the stars. When he arrives in Paris he is the Byronic hero, turning heads everywhere, scattering fabulous wealth around him, and followed in slack-jawed admiration by young men who recognise his horses as the most expensive in Paris. He doesn’t stick there, though—his revenge plot almost transfers him into the ubermensch class: above human justice, above human concepts of good and evil, Monte Cristo is his own law—or he behaves like it. Certainly he seems able to predestine his own life and the lives of others with uncanny skill and nigh invincibility. And then Dumas gives us our third surprise.

He more or less guarantees this by referring to Providence at all. If Providence does exist, then to attempt to take Providence’s job is doomed from the start. The very success of an ubermensch depends on the fact that there is no God and thus no absolute moral definitions. To make a new morality, or to escape beyond morality, one must first deal with the existing morality and its Maker. As the story wears on, the references to Providence become more plentiful. Monte Cristo considers himself the agent of a vengeful Providence upon his oppressors. His victims, unable at first to see his hand behind the disasters that inexplicably befall them, credit Providence with their downfall. In one passage, after one character pleads with him to forego his revenge, Monte Cristo compares himself to God:
[W]hat would you say if you knew the extent of the sacrifice I make to you? Suppose that the Supreme Being, after having created the world and fertilized chaos, had paused in the work to spare an angel the tears that might one day flow for mortal sins from her immortal eyes; suppose that when everything was in readiness and the moment had come for God to look upon his work and see that it was good -- suppose he had snuffed out the sun and tossed the world back into eternal night -- then -- even then, [...] you could not imagine what I lose in sacrificing my life at this moment.
But not all Monte Cristo’s machinations strike with surgical precision at evil characters. The poisoner he equips murders three innocent people and attacks two more, without him batting an eyelid. He's even willing to let the book's ingenuous romantic heroine die; only the very last victim finally shocks him out of his vengeful complaisance, with the realisation that he has become a hubristic monster. Or is he?

I haven’t anywhere near the amount of space and time necessary to tease out all the aspects of this question, but I remember well my previous opinion of the book, which was that if Monte Cristo did repent of his hubristic attempts to play God, it was too little, too late, after readers had sated themselves for almost 900 pages on the fun of a hero who, at least for a time, seems to get away with doing what they’ve often wished they could do themselves.

If Dumas is not a thorough-going nihilist by any means, preferring to recognise an absolute standard of good and evil, he is not exactly a Christian, either--never has revenge looked so cool. But there’s one more surprising thing that Dumas does with his revenge plot; something I had forgotten after reading it last time. Monte Cristo’s revenge does not involve killing anyone—personally. And unlike most fictional revengers, he insists that his victims repent rather than die. Some of them do, coming to a revelation of the justice and existence of God, and are pardoned; others are driven to madness or suicide. Whether this is a sop flung to morality, preventing the fun of the revenge plot from becoming too much fun, or a real redeeming feature of the book, I leave readers to decide for themselves.

One last thing before I close. A minor theme running through the book was one which I thought very interesting, even as I disagreed with it (as any GK Chesterton fan must). A supporting character meets the Count of Monte Cristo in his sumptuous island cavern and is treated to a fabulous meal. Afterwards, the Count offers him hash-hish, urging: “When you return to this mundane sphere from your visionary world, you would seem to leave a Neapolitan spring for a Lapland winter — to quit paradise for earth — heaven for hell!” Later on, we’re treated to a description of the art in Albert Morcerf’s bachelor pad:
“The salon was filled with the works of modern artists; […] there were paintings by Diaz, who makes his flowers more beautiful than flowers, his suns more brilliant than the sun; designs by Decamp, as vividly colored as those of Salvator Rosa, but more poetic; pastels by Giraud and Muller, representing children like angels and women with the features of a virgin;…”
The appeal of these artists, like that of the hash-hish, is in giving the experience something far more vivid and pleasant than reality. But this view of art suggests a low view of reality and the physical world, as something to be escaped rather than improved; as something with little inherent beauty and poetry of its own. The purpose of art is, at least partly, to make the underlying beauty of creation more obvious, not less.

And that is The Count of Monte Cristo: a rag-bag of good and bad, but compulsively readable and raising some fun philosophical questions.



Joseph Jalsevac said...

Excellent analysis. I really appreciate that you make a distinction between the final suggested moral lesson of a story versus the story's actual effect on the reader. Too many people are willing to excuse the damaging influence of a piece of art on the grounds that the conclusion of the plot, or some particular line, teach a good moral lesson. I know a brilliant theologian-priest who will very intelligently analyze a movie, perhaps dwelling on the Christ-like qualities of the hero, while completely failing to take into account the gratuitous sexuality, violence, and glorification of evil that fills the rest of the movie. If we were emotionless reason-machines, perhaps this wouldn't be a problem.

Probably the most common manifestation of this failure to distinguish between a story's stated moral and its actual effect on the audience is in the creation of highly attractive and fascinating villains. The story may have a clear hero and villain, representatives of good and evil, but why do people come away remembering and admiring the villain more than the hero? It is failure to express the truth of the banality of evil and the glory of goodness.

The Count of Monte Cristo is an example of the other common mistake in this line. The hero has a serious flaw, as acknowledged by the author, but this flaw comes across as admirable or attractive to the reader. This is common with revenge tales, which often fail to acknowledge that revenge is evil at all (I'm looking at you, Zorro, Princess Bride).

Suzannah said...

I absolutely agree. Medium can never be divorced from message.


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