Book review – The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas (1844)
“Hatred is blind; rage carries you away; and he who pours out vengeance runs the risk of tasting a bitter draught.”
The Count of Monte Cristo is a 1250 page adventure novel by French author Alexandre Dumas (working with a collaborator), originally serialised in a French Journal between 1844 to 1846. I read the Penguin Classics edition with the Robin Buss translation.
There is a limit to how many books you can read in a lifetime, so why not read the best or the most fun first? This one is a thumping good read and the ultimate revenge story. It is a tale that can satisfy the fantasies of anyone that has ever dreamed of winning the lottery. It is also the story of an individual victorious in the face of gross injustice, an evergreen theme.
In my own library I might catalogue this story under ‘Revenge fiction’, but I could equally place it under any of these:
- Children’s novels (in an abridged version).
- Adventure stories (Best Action-Adventure Novels Voted no.9, Good Reads).
- Britain’s favourite novels (The Big Read Voted no.20, BBC, 2003)
- Romance fiction (Top Romance Novels of All Time Voted no.43, Good Reads).
- Crime fiction (1000 novels everyone must read, crime section, Guardian newspaper, 2009).
- Longest novels in literature (10 longest Penguin Classics/Modern Classics Article).
- Prison escape literature (Top 10 escapes in literature No. 1, Guardian newspaper, 2016).
- Historical fiction (anything set in a period prior to when published).
- Literary classics (100 greatest novels of all time No.14, Guardian newspaper, 2003).
- Most popular novels of all time (hugely read, but no reliable sales information).
Massive spoiler alert – almost everything is revealed here!
You are 19 years old, handsome, clever and about to marry the girl of your dreams. Your boss has made you captain of your own sailing ship. Then, on your wedding day, your world comes crashing down. You are accused of a political crime you know nothing about. There are no charges, no trial and you do not receive a formal sentence. And yet you spend the next fourteen years in solitary confinement in the dungeon of a notorious island prison. All that’s kept you going is the brief friendship and mentorship of a fellow prisoner (a cleric scholar) in the cell next door. And desire for revenge against those that tore up your life and threw you in that stinking place.
“It’s necessary to have wished for death in order to know how good it is to live.”
In an act of desperation you manage a daring escape. Within weeks you possess a treasure that has few equals on this earth. You are now 33 years old. Alas, your father has died of starvation. Your childhood sweetheart has married your arch-rival and they have a son. All the plotters who put you in your dungeon now ride high in French society. And yet you are gloriously rich. What will you do next? Have your R E V E N G E, of course. No ordinary revenge will do. It has to be exquisitely engineered and served as cold as the grave.
“You do not know that every day of those fourteen years I renewed the vow of vengeance which I had made the first day ..”
It is an extraordinary and rapid change, the Lord has smiled upon you, is it because you are an emissary of God? What comes next is high adventure and delicious melodrama with lashings of 1840s lifestyle porn. There are posh houses with fabulous decors. Dinners and balls. Fashion and opera. Hashish and a female serial poisoner.
“Oh, yes,” returned Monte Cristo; “I make no secret of it. It is a mixture of excellent opium, which I fetched myself from Canton in order to have it pure, and the best hashish which grows in the East—that is, between the Tigris and the Euphrates. These two ingredients are mixed in equal proportions, and formed into pills.”
Bandits and smugglers. Gun battles and duels. Affairs and romance. Two cases of infanticide and three suicides. Honour and skulduggery. Fraud and live burial. Political intrigue and corruption. Drug-induced sexual fantasies and displays of classical learning. Lost ships and lesbian escapes. Jail breaks and the risen dead. Stock market manipulations and bank collapses. Mysterious talk of vampires, ghosts and bodies in the garden. Whatever it is that you’re hoping for in a romping good read, it’s probably in here.
A LONG DRAWN OUT CONTROLLED EXPLOSION
This novel is the nineteenth century equivalent of Game of Thrones (TV series), but with more focus and a better ending. The writer of the novels that Game of Thrones is based on, George R. R. Martin, has said that he is often criticised for gratuitous material, especially “unnecessary sex, violence, feasting and heraldry” [Interview, YT].
I take this to mean Martin adds material that takes up space, but does not further the plot. His view is “Advancing the plot is not what it’s all about, it’s about immersing [the reader] in the world.” Yet The Count of Monte Cristo is an example of how it is possible to both further the plot and immerse the reader in another world. Despite the huge cast of characters, twists and sub-plots, all the elements come together in the end. Have faith, dear reader. None of the plot is a red herring. All the reader needs to do is — ‘wait and hope’. (or just ‘wait’)*. And this despite the fact that Dumas was paid by the line and the story serialised over many months. It could have so easily been a woolly mess, instead of the long drawn out controlled explosion that it is.
SLAVES AND SLAVERY
I have never read a major nineteenth century novel that covers slaves and slavery as freely as The Count of Monte Cristo. For some readers this will be uncomfortable. In the novel there are two characters that were slaves and are “bought out” by the Count, and thereby gain their freedom.
“Everyone who surrounds me is free to quit me, and when they leave me will no longer have any need of me or anyone else; it is for that reason, perhaps, that they do not quit me.”
They both live in the Count’s house on the Champs-Elysees. The first is the staunchly loyal servant, Ali, who is mute so cannot speak for himself. Though capable, he is close to being a stock character and has a largely passive role. And the second is Haydée, a ‘Greek’ girl (actually she is Albanian). She also has a mostly passive role. It’s probably fair to say that she is adoring of the Count throughout. She has an interesting back story and tremendous character potential if only Dumas had invested more in this aspect of his story. The end of the novel seems rushed. We had travelled 1250 pages with Dumas, we could have managed another 50 to develop the relationship between the Count and Haydee. It is true there had been some heart breaking interactions between them. But Dumas did not spend enough time on their romantic relationship for their heading off together by sail boat to seem more than an afterthought. Ultimately it is only the love of Haydée that will save the Count.
THE COST OF REVENGE AND LESSONS LEARNED
Edmond Dantes begins the story as a naive young sailor with a simple education. He endures great hardship and injustice, before transforming himself and reappearing in the guise of the Count of Monte Cristo. As the Count he is on a mission of vengeance and has frightening superpowers to help him. He begins the novel as Bruce Banner and transforms himself into The Incredible Hulk.
“My kingdom is bounded only by the world, for I am not an Italian, or a Frenchman, or a Hindu, or an American, or a Spaniard—I am a cosmopolite. No country can say it saw my birth. God alone knows what country will see me die. I adopt all customs, speak all languages .. not one of the scruples that arrest the powerful, or the obstacles which paralyse the weak, paralyses or arrests me.”
As it happens the creator of The Hulk, Stan Lee, has said he was inspired in his creation by Frankenstein (1818) and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) [BOOK REVIEW]. As with the Hulk, the Count of Monte Cristo is extremely destructive in his rage. A burning desire for revenge gives Dantes the strength to endure captivity, the will to escape, and a life purpose once he is free. But it kills the young Dantes in the process.
“How did I escape? With difficulty. How did I plan this moment? With pleasure.”
Lost innocence cannot be reclaimed. And our habits become part of us, good or ill. Over the course of the novel the Count has a victory of sorts, but it has cost him everything worth living for. He has a late realisation that his revenge has wreaked devastation on many people, some of them innocent. A new beginning is possible for the Count, but only by leaving vengeance to God, and risking the vulnerability of love.
“God has sustained me in my struggle with my enemies, and has given me this reward; he will not let me end my triumph in suffering; I wished to punish myself, but he has pardoned me. Love me then, Haydée! .. one word from you has enlightened me more than twenty years of slow experience; I have but you in the world, Haydée; through you I again take hold on life ..”
THE WRITING STYLE
The Dumas style of writing uses four colours: black and white, red (blood) and purple (prose). It’s direct, visual and easy to understand. The story is told using a rollicking devil-may-care approach that invites you to read holding your breath or smiling, rather than in admiration of the nuance and precision in the language.
According to the Italian writer and professor Umberto Eco, in an intriguing introduction to the Everyman edition of The Count of Monte Cristo (repeated in this article in The Paris Review):
‘The Count of Monte Cristo is of course one of the most gripping novels ever written, and on the other hand one of the most badly written of all time and of all literatures.’
Eco says that he was commissioned to translate an edition of the novel, but abandoned the task after 100 pages despite his admiration for the book and the author:
The book is full of holes .. Shameless in repeating the same adjective from one line to the next .. it is mechanical and clumsy in its portrayal of feelings: the characters either quiver, or turn pale, or they wipe away large drops of sweat that run down their brow .. they rise convulsively from a chair and fall back into it, while the author always takes care, obsessively, to repeat that the chair onto which they collapsed again was the same one on which they were sitting a second before.
Even with a modern translation it is hard not to recognise some of that. But open up a translation from the 1800s and see what you find, bingo! It’s as Eco describes. And it is in the Victorian era that the novel built it’s reputation.
“But what are you about there? You were writing.”
“Your fingers are stained with ink.”
“Ah, true, I was writing. I do sometimes, soldier though I am.”
Monte Cristo advanced into the room; Maximilian was obliged to let him pass, but he followed him.
“You were writing?” said Monte Cristo with a searching look.
“I have already had the honour of telling you I was” said Morrel.
Eco suggests that without radically altering the novel he could have removed 25% of the text, yet he decided to abandon the task because he felt that readers accepted and loved the eccentricities and weaknesses in the writing, it was part of what made it iconic and helped build the mythology that surrounds it. To appreciate Eco’s point, imagine re-editing and reducing by one quarter various iconic films so they have a more efficient, condensed style: Pulp Fiction, The Wicker Man, Casablanca, 2001, Dr. Strangelove, or any Monty Python film. Unwise.
Eco also felt that dragging the novel’s prose out heightened the delight and agony. A pleasure [or pain] anticipated is a pleasure [or pain] doubled.
‘Dumas’s novel is a machine that prolongs the agony, where what counts is not the quality of the death throes but their duration.’
IF ONLY THERE HAD BEEN A SEQUEL
If only Dumas had written a sequel to The Count of Monte Cristo. Many of the characters are dead, in prison or the madhouse, but the most interesting ones are still alive. And now they must be more angry or feisty than ever. I’m not convinced Baron Danglars is finished (“The rumours of my financial embarrassment were much exaggerated, it was merely a temporary setback, these things occur in public life.”). And Gérard de Villefort’s discombobulated wits might recover given his predilection for self-justification, and when he remembers he still has a son left alive, his devious illegitimate offspring Benedetto. In a sequel the father and son would make a devilish combination and be compulsive reading. Perhaps the “dark forces” in the first novel would combine in the second and seek revenge on the Count, a man whose true identity they now know. Sadly we can only dream, the author himself never wrote a sequel (although there are seven written by other people).
… et voilà le fin de l’histoire!
* “All human wisdom is contained in these two words – Wait and Hope”, The Count of Monte Cristo.
WHO WROTE THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO?
In the first line of my book review, I say that the book was written by Alexandre Dumas (working with a collaborator), and I’m happy with that. But I would like to elaborate, read on if you’re interested – if not scroll down to a selection of quotes and illustrations from the novel.
1. Based on a true story
2. Dumas and his collaborator
1. BASED ON A TRUE STORY
The Count of Monte Cristo is based on the true-life story of Francois Picaud. Alexandre Dumas found the story in a collection of criminal cases recorded by Jacques Peuchet, a former police archivist. [‘Historical memories from the archives of the Paris police‘, 1838.]
Robin Buss’s introduction to the Penguin edition of the novel provides a good outline of that case:
Picaud .. was imprisoned in 1807, having been denounced by a group of friends as an English spy, shortly after he had become engaged to a young woman called Marguerite. The denunciation was inspired by a café owner, Mathieu Loupian, who was jealous of Picaud’s relationship with Marguerite. Picaud was eventually .. shut up in the castle of Fenestrelle, where he acted as servant to a rich Italian cleric. When the man died, abandoned by his family, he left his money to Picaud, whom he had come to treat as a son, also informing him of the whereabouts of a hidden treasure. With the fall of Napoleon in 1814, Picaud, now called Joseph Lucher, was released; in the following year, after collecting the hidden treasure, he returned to Paris.
Here he discovered that Marguerite had married Loupian. Disguising himself, and offering a valuable diamond to Allut, the one man in the group who had been unwilling to collaborate in the denunciation, he learned the identity of his enemies. He then set about eliminating them, stabbing the first with a dagger on which were printed the words: ‘Number One’, and burning down Loupian’s café. He managed to find employment in Loupian’s house, disguised as a servant called Prosper. However, while this was going on, Allut had fallen out with the merchant to whom he had resold the diamond, had murdered him and had been imprisoned. On coming out of jail, he started to blackmail Picaud. Picaud poisoned another of the conspirators, lured Loupian’s son into crime and his daughter into prostitution, then finally stabbed Loupian himself. But he quarrelled with Allut over the blackmail payments and Allut killed him, confessing the whole story on his deathbed in 1828.
This is close to the plot of the famous novel with all it’s twists and turns, but it’s not a magical formula. It needs much adaptation and creative fire to make anything of it, let alone create a 176 year old classic. Interesting real life stories are out there waiting for budding writers to adopt them. All they need to do is pick one and develop it into a blockbuster yarn. Easier said than done, of course.
2. USING A COLLABORATOR:
In 1845 a critical pamphlet was published: ‘Alexandre Dumas and Co, novel factory’. The thrust of the accusation, apparently, was that Dumas was so productive it must be more than just him doing the writing. And indeed he is one of the most prolific writers of all time. Over his career, Dumas was responsible for about 650 books. [Source: Guardian, see below]
“[Examining] the Calmann-Lévy edition of his [Dumas’s] complete works. These run to some 37 million words, or an average of 16,000 words written weekly over four decades and 15 titles a year. Among them are novels both long and short which contain, it has been estimated, four thousand main characters, nine thousand secondary roles, and 25,000 walk-on parts.” [source: Guardian newspaper].
Dumas supposedly said: “I want to end my literary work of five hundred volumes with a cookery book”. Well, he exceeded his desired 500. The cookbook appeared as Le Grand Dictionaire de Cuisine (1,150 pages).
How did he do it? Undoubtedly because of vast energy, much talent and a “write as I speak” writing method – but also by collaborating with others. Dumas never hid that he had a system of collaboration. If this shocks you, it shouldn’t. Most of us like to think that our favourite books are the work of a lone genius. The genius writes the manuscript in private, before taking it fully formed to the publisher for printing and releasing to the world. But it rarely happens like that today, and there is no reason to believe it was any more common in the past. Commercial publishing can be a vulgar trade. The same can be said of show business, the movie world and the music industry. It’s just that books are usually released with just one name on the front (the author).
Reading often feels like an intimate experience. You and the author alone together in conjugal bliss. Who wants to believe that there are several others in the bed? Most of the others will not be well known or distinguished. Editors and sub-editors. Proofers and professional readers. Researchers and translators. Old Uncle Tom Cobbleigh and all. Working with a collaborator or ghost writer is a step beyond this, however, and should be acknowledged.
Arguably the best of Dumas’s writing was when he worked with one partner in particular, Auguste Macquet. Macquet trained as a historian, was a professor at the age of 18, switched to writing, and became close with various literary figures of the day. We don’t know exactly what support he provided, but it may have been historical research and then the breaking down of that research into chapter and plot outlines. He may also have included some character summaries. Once again, I am indebted to Robin Buss’s introduction to the Penguin edition of the novel for informing us that it was Macquet that suggested The Count of Monte Cristo include Dante’s arrest and imprisonment, rather than beginning the story in Rome (after the escape and the securing of the treasure).
Dumas and Maquet worked on 18 novels and many plays together, including The Count of Monte Cristo and the d’Artagnan Romances. The latter writer took the former to court three times.
Then in 1858, the pair fell out over money, which the debt-ridden Dumas owed his ghost writer. Maquet took him to court three times, asking not just for money but recognition. Article, Telegraph newspaper .
In one court case a judge awarded Maquet proceeds on their joint efforts, but refused to allow joint accreditation on the books because “Dumas without Maquet would have been Dumas: what would Maquet have been without Dumas?”. My hunch is that this was a good decision. The Count of Monte Cristo’s page turning qualities come from it’s daredevil charm, unstoppable energy and joy of life. These are qualities that appear to have been part of Dumas’s own character, rather than Maquet’s. But I wasn’t there, so what do I know?
If you enjoy the work of Alexandre Dumas, be happy that he worked with a number of collaborators and was able to be so prolific. If you haven’t read him yet, he influenced many other writers, so you have probably enjoyed him vicariously.
SELECTED QUOTES (not used elsewhere):
- ‘There is neither happiness nor misery in the world; there is only the comparison of one state with another, nothing more. He who has felt the deepest grief is best able to experience supreme happiness.’
- “All human wisdom is contained in these two words – Wait and Hope”
- “The difference between treason and patriotism is only a matter of dates.”
- “…The friends we have lost do not repose under the ground…they are buried deep in our hearts. It has been thus ordained that they may always accompany us…”
- “I have always had more dread of a pen, a bottle of ink, and a sheet of paper than of a sword or pistol.”
- “Those born to wealth, and who have the means of gratifying every wish, know not what is the real happiness of life, just as those who have been tossed on the stormy waters of the ocean on a few frail planks can alone realise the blessings of fair weather.”
- “I don’t think man was meant to attain happiness so easily. Happiness is like those palaces in fairy tales whose gates are guarded by dragons: we must fight in order to conquer it.”
- “…remember that what has once been done may be done again.”
- “And now…farewell to kindness, humanity and gratitude. I have substituted myself for Providence in rewarding the good; may the God of vengeance now yield me His place to punish the wicked.”
- “Yet man will never be perfect until he learns to create and destroy; he does know how to destroy, and that is half the battle.”
- “He who has felt the deepest grief is best able to experience supreme happiness.”
- “Your life story is a novel; and people, though they love novels wound between two yellow paper covers, are oddly suspicious of those which come to them in living vellum.”
- “We frequently pass so near to happiness without seeing, without regarding it, or if we do see and regard it, yet without recognising it.”
- “Ah,” said the jailer, “do not always brood over what is impossible, or you will be mad in a fortnight.”
- “God is always the last resource. Unfortunates, who ought to begin with God, do not have any hope in him till they have exhausted all other means of deliverance.”
- “I have no fear of ghosts, and I have never heard it said that so much harm had been done by the dead during 6,000 years as it brought by the living in a single day.”
- “My son, philosophy as I understand it, is reducible to no rules by which it can be learned; it is the amalgamation of all the sciences, the golden cloud which bears the soul to heaven.”
- “Yes; I am a supercargo; pen, ink, and paper are my tools, and without my tools I am fit for nothing.”
- “Great is the truth, fire can not burn, nor water can drown it!”
- “A man is always in a hurry to be happy.”
- “God may seem sometimes to forget for a while, whilst his justice reposes, but there always comes a moment when he remembers.”
- “Danglars [the banker] was one of those men born with a pen behind the ear, and an inkstand in place of a heart. Everything with him was multiplication or subtraction.”
- “What is life? Is it not a hall in Death’s anteroom?”
- “Say no more, I entreat you. I do what I please, M. Beauchamp, and it is always well done.” “Sir,” replied the young man, “honest men are not to be paid with such coin.”
ILLUSTRATIONS FROM THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO:
The black and white illustrations here are by G. Staal (1817-1882), J.A. Beauce (1818-1875) and ‘Other eminent French artists’.
(1) The young Edmund Dantès and Mercedes.
(2) The notorious Château d’If island prison.
(3) Edmund Dantès in his dungeon, enduring fourteen years in solitary confinement. Illustration from the premiere of a theatre production (1848).
(4) An unexpected guest for Edmond Dantes.
(5) Abbé Faria, cleric scholar and mentor of Edmund Dantès.
(6) (i) The death of Abbé Faria in the dungeons. (ii) Prisoner number 34, pretends to be number 27 and escapes.
(7) ‘Alone with these countless, these unheard of fabulous treasures.’
Three compartments divided the coffer. In the first, blazed piles of golden coin; in the second, were ranged bars of unpolished gold, which possessed nothing attractive save their value [a thousand ingots of gold, each weighing from two to three pounds] in the third, Edmond grasped handfuls of diamonds, pearls, and rubies, which, as they fell on one another, sounded like hail against glass.
(8) Three major characters from the novel: (i) Gérard de Villefort: Chief deputy prosecutor, (ii) Baron Danglars: Dantès’ junior officer and later a wealthy banker, and (iii) Gaspard Caderousse, originally a tailor and later the owner of an inn. He fails to protect Dantès and then turns to crime.
(9) Much digging in the Auteuil garden – but for what?
(10) How a Gardener [or Telegrapher] May Get Rid of the Dormice that Eat His Peaches
(11) Edmond Dantes and Haydee. Illustration by James E. McConnell.
(12) Illustration of Fernand Mondego and Edmund Dantès – from chapter XCII “Le suicide”.
(13) The real Chateau d’If. A fortress (and later a prison) located on the island of If in the Mediterranean Sea, about 1.5 kilometres (7⁄8 mile) offshore of Marseille, France.
(14) The real island of Monte Cristo (‘Montecristo’). Located in the Tyrrhenian Sea and administered by Italy. The island is 10.39 km2 or 4.01 miles2.
CREATED TO PROMOTE THE BOOK REVIEW: