The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas (with Auguste Maquet)
a review by Rich Horton
Alexandre Dumas was born in Picardy in 1802. His father was born in Haiti, the illegitimate son of a Marquis and an enslaved woman. His mother was an innkeeper's daughter. Dumas was his grandmother's family name, adopted by Alexandre's father after a break with his noble father. Alexandre's father was a successful general under Napoleon, but died of cancer in 1806. Dumas's family connections got him a decent position with Louis-Philippe, future King of France. Dumas soon began writing articles and then plays, and after a couple of successes became a full-time writer, and turned to novels. His most significant works appeared in quick succession between 1844 and 1847: The Three Musketeers and its sequels; The Corsican Brothers, and The Count of Monte Cristo. Dumas died in 1870. His son, also named Alexandre, also illegitimate (the elder Dumas had multiple marriages and many affairs) became a successful writer as well, by far best remembered for La Dame Aux Camellias, the source material for Verdi's La Traviata, one of the greatest operas of all time. The father is often styled Alexandre Dumas père, the son Dumas fils.
I have above given co-credit to August Maquet. Dumas, incredibly prolific, ran a sort of fiction factory, employing other writers to plot his books and to research them. It does appear that Dumas, in most of the books, did the bulk of the page by page writing. But Maquet, his most common assistant, eventually sued him for credit, and while Maquet did not get credit, he did get a considerable financial settlement. In the case of The Count of Monte Cristo, Robin Buss suggests that it was Maquet who insisted on adding the early chapters in which Edmond Dantès is framed and thrown in jail.
So, what to say about the story itself? Any kind of detailed plot summary seems silly -- to say too much might give away some of the pleasure, and would take a while -- it's a long book. And most everyone knows the basics. I'll quickly summarize them anyway. The novel tells of Edmond Dantès, a young sailor just returned from a voyage on which his Captain died, leaving him in charge. He is chosen by his employer to take the permanent position of Captain -- and thus he can marry his beloved, the Catalan girl Mercédès. But the jealousy of another Catalan, Fernand, who loves Mercédès, plus that of Danglars, supercargo on his ship, who dislikes Edmond, leads to them accusing him of Bonapartist sympathies. (This part is set in 1815, just as Bonaparte is leaving Elba for his last "100 days".) Villefort, the prosecutor in charge of the resulting case, realizes that Dantès is innocent but has him imprisoned in the Chateau D'If anyway, as it will benefit his political advancement and also because his own father is a Bonapartist.
Dantès remains in jail for 14 years, and befriends another prisoner, the mad monk Faria, who, over many years, gives him a remarkable education, and also reveals the location of a fantastic treasure, on the island of Monte Cristo. Dantès finally escapes (in a wonderful sequence), and manages to locate the treasure ... and, nine years later, he emerges, first in Rome, then in Paris, as the Count of Monte Cristo. In the mean time, he has learned, his enemies have reached high positions (partly through additional corrupt actions): Villefort is the Crown Prosecutor, Fernand has become the Comte de Morcerf, and Danglars is now a Baron. The Count makes a sensation, partly because of his money, partly his mystery. But his goal is revenge on those who betrayed him -- and all three of the main villains begin to see their luck strangely turn ...
Well, that's rather skeletal, and it misses a lot. But that's OK! The fun is in the discovering. I will mention as many other key characters as I can: Maximilien Morrel, son of M. Morrel who owned the ship Edmond worked on; Albert de Morcerf, son of Fernand; Franz d'Epinay, a close friend of Albert's; Haydée, a beautiful young Greek-Albanian woman, the companion or slave of the Count of Monte Cristo (Haydée's back story (which is loosely historically based) is central to the book, but I'll leave it for the reader to learn); Valentine de Villefort, the daughter of M. de Villefort by his first wife; Mme. de Villefort, Villefort's sinister second wife; Eugénie Danglars, the daughter of one of Dantès' betrayers, and a rather sympathetically portrayed Lesbian (some people nowadays suggest she is a trans man) who is unwillingly supposed to marry Albert; Caderousse, a baker and neighbor of Edmond's father, who by inaction abets Fernand and Danglars' plot against Edmond, and whose greed sends him on the path to ruin; Luigi Vampa, a Roman bandit; Mme. Danglars, a beauty who married Danglars for his money, and who has carried on serial affairs, including one with M. de Villefort which leads in the end to tragedy; Bertuccio, the Count's faithful Corsican servant, who coincidentally is entangled with the lives of Villefort and Danglars and thus the Count himself (though, as becomes clear, almost every seeming coincidence in the novel is the result of the Count's knowledge and planning); Benedetto, an habitual criminal who the Count hires to portray an Italian nobleman as part of his plans of revenge; and Noirtier, M. de Villefort's father, who ends his life horrifyingly paralyzed, with only his granddaughter Valentine to care for him.
This list of characters, most of whose stories are significantly and entertainingly elaborated, is one reason the novel is so long -- and also never boring. And there are many more minor characters -- the newspaperman Beauchamp, Caderousse's sickly and shrewish wife La Carconte, Major Cavalcanti, Maximilien Morrel's sister Julie and her husband Emmanuel, the Count's mute Nubian servant Ali, to say nothing of such pivotal but secretive people as the English Lord Willmore and the Italian cleric Abbé Busoni; and even such minor characters as the telegraph operator who appears only in the chapter with the delightful title "How to Rescue a Gardener from the Dormice who are Eating his Peaches".
The novel is well-written if not beautifully so (as always, I should caution that I am basing such an evaluation on the translation(s) I read and heard.) Dumas was a very witty writer. The characters are nicely limned, if (as Buss argues, and I agree) it is somewhat difficult to square the early depictions of Fernand and Danglars with their later incarnations as the Comte de Morcerf and the Baron Danglars. It is clearly a work of popular fiction in that the plot is far from realistic -- that said, the depictions of 1830s Paris and Rome seem pretty solid (and Dumas sprinkles in mentions of things like a couple of his favorite inns and hotels.) And for all the unrealism of the plot, and the near magical nature of the Count's powers and his fortune, the central themes: corruption, vengeance, and the ultimate dangers of living for vengeance (especially with regards to collateral damage) -- all leading to a paean to forgiveness -- are quite powerful.
The bottom line is simple: this novel has been extremely popular since it first appeared in 1844. And it wholly deserves this -- it is glorious, sometimes delirious, fun. It is first of all entertainment, but entertainment with some depth behind it. It is a very long novel -- roughly half a million words -- but always interesting, never a slog. And you know what -- a long TV adaptation -- in a dozen or twenty hour long episodes, say -- could be really wonderful.