Title: The Count of Monte Cristo (1844)
Author: Alexandre Dumas
Translator: Robin Buss
Publisher/Edition: Penguin Clothbound Classics
Read: 3rd July – 18th August 2018
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
“A beautiful new clothbound edition of Alexandre Dumas’ classic novel of wrongful imprisonment, adventure and revenge. Thrown in prison for a crime he has not committed, Edmond Dantes is confined to the grim fortress of the Château d’If. There he learns of a great hoard of treasure hidden on the Isle of Monte Cristo and becomes determined not only to escape but to unearth the treasure and use it to plot the destruction of the three men responsible for his incarceration. A huge popular success when it was first serialized in the 1840s, Dumas was inspired by a real-life case of wrongful imprisonment when writing his epic tale of suffering and retribution.”
(Synopsis from the publisher)
The first thing I can think of when trying to summon up all my many thoughts about a book of some 1276 pages is that The Count of Monte Cristo sure is a ride. Much like the journey that Dumas’ protagonist, Edmond Dantes, goes on over the course of his life, the book itself has its ups and its downs. It’s unsurprising (and perhaps inevitable) that, in a nearly 1300 page book, there are moments which weren’t really my kind of thing, or that I found overly long and descriptive, but what I will say is that every single occurrence in this book felt necessary, even if I wished it wasn’t. In particular, I would refer you to the Roman Bandits chapter which ran to some 30 pages in my edition and seemed like a completely incongruous digression until some 900 pages later when you finally received the pay-off of learning just why the entire boring section was actually quite relevant. I’m also not entirely sure that the entire hash subplot where a character got off his tits and hallucinating fucking a statue was at all necessary, apart from because Dumas enjoyed a bit of hash himself and fancied including it in his book. But I am, getting ahead of myself.
“It’s necessary to have wished for death in order to know how good it is to live.”
The Count of Monte Cristo feels like such a difficult book to review properly because it has so many different phases. As I alluded to earlier, it follows the life of Edmond Dantes, a man who, over the course of his life, goes through many transformations into various personas. His life spans various changes on the macrocosmic level as well as the microcosmic – France goes through various changes in government and Dantes’ social standing and politics is necessarily affected by these, and, like all French novels of the period, Napoleon is probably lurking around the narrative somewhere. Dantes’ personal circumstances are deeply entrenched in the politics of the day and it is because of the wrongful accusation of Bonapartism hatched by jealous rivals that he is sent to rot in prison without proper trial. For all its connection to the politics of France during the 1810s to 1840s, and to highfalutin themes of hope, mercy, vengeance, forgiveness etc. etc., the novel is deeply entrenched in the personal – the story is centred around relatable family dynamics, that of father and son, mother and daughter, or of lover and lover, or friend and foe. The motivations of all of the characters are, above all, human so therefore even though it’s set against a highly turbulent and dramatic backdrop, the arcs of Dantes’ story are very human.
“The difference between treason and patriotism is only a matter of dates.”
When it came to the characters, I am still to this day not sure what I think of the titular Count of Monte Cristo. I enjoyed seeing Dantes’ maturation into his various guises and each of his personas is almost performed, so I enjoyed reading about him from a more theoretical/critical angle in terms of performativity theory. But as a hero? He’s deeply flawed, and I’m still not quite sure if some of his more questionable means can be justified because of the ultimate end of this overarching redemption arc. As you’d expect from such a long novel, The Count of Monte Cristo provides its readers with a wealth of characters to choose from to adore and abhor alike. My very favourite characters were often the most despicable, because it is so entertaining to read about them being absolute dicks and then to (eventually) receive their comeuppance – there’s a strange sort of delight and satisfaction in that. Special shout-out goes to Caderousse and Danglars, the drunken bitchy gossips that they are and to Noirtier aka Papa Villefort who makes a fashionable early appearance in the novel and then ditches in the fashion of ‘see ya later, sucker’ only to become pretty damn crucial to the second generation’s narrative.
“Moral wounds have this peculiarity – they may be hidden, but they never close; always painful, always ready to bleed when touched, they remain fresh and open in the heart.”
What I found most pleasantly surprising about The Count of Monte Cristo was that, as well as its many actually quite dark and morbid moments, it had a very particular sense of humour that I found myself enjoying once I’d got into the swing of the story. This was undoubtedly helped along by the excellent translation of Robin Buss which proved to be accessible to a modern reader without losing anything of the authenticity of the story itself. Edmond, when he’s playing the Count, is very theatrical and, of course, the dramatic irony enjoyed by the reader means that we know fine well who the man behind the metaphorical mask “really” is, whilst those he interacts with as this persona don’t have a clue. It makes for plenty of gasp-worthy moments as well as cringing because you can practically see a character he’s interacting with damn themselves and add their name onto Dantes’ list of from whom to seek revenge. Likewise, because of this, you have no choice but to be positioned on Dantes’ side, watching along as all his machinations come to light in a tale of what promises to be revenge and retribution. Is Dantes’ final revenge actually worth sticking around for over years of his life – and possibly yours, depending how long it takes you to get through the book? Mileage may vary.
“Life is a storm, my young friend. You will bask in the sunlight one moment, be shattered on the rocks the next. What makes you a man is what you do when that storm comes.”
In conclusion, it’s always difficult to rate and review particularly classics of this length. I can’t deny that had I read this as initially published, as a serialised story, I would have been hooked and eager to receive the next instalment, post-haste. As an overall novel though, it has its slower moments, and a good editor would probably chop almost half of the narrative. Every single thing that happens is relevant and necessary to the overall arc – and that, in itself, proves Alexandre Dumas’ mastery of plotting out this story of adventure and revenge alike – but it just takes an awful long time to get to that overall revenge. If Dumas’ intention was to sometimes make you feel along with Dantes just how long it seemed to take to finally get to see the fruits of his long labour, then he sure as hell succeeded.
“All human wisdom is contained in these two words – Wait and Hope.”