The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas père. Translated and with an introduction by Robin Buss. Highly recommended.
As translator Robin Buss points out in his introduction, many of those who haven’t read The Count of Monte Cristo assume it is a children’s adventure story, complete with daring prison escape culminating in a simple tale of revenge. There is very little for children in this very adult tale, however. Instead, the rich plot combines intrigue, betrayal, theft, drugs, adultery, presumed infanticide, torture, suicide, poisoning, murder, lesbianism, and unconventional revenge.
Although the plot is roughly linear beginning with Edmond Dantès’ return to Marseille, prenuptial celebration, and false imprisonment and ending with his somewhat qualified triumphant departure from Marseille and France, Dumas uses the technique of interspersing lengthy anecdotes throughout. The story of Cardinal Spada’s treasure, the origins of the Roman bandit Luigi Vampa (the least germane to the novel), Bertuccio’s tale of his vendetta, and the account of the betrayal and death of Ali Pasha are few of the more significant stories-within-the-novel. While Dumas devotes an entire chapter to bandit Luigi Vampa’s background, he cleverly makes only a few references to what will remain the plot’s chief mystery — how the youthful, intelligent, and naive sailor Edmond Dantès transforms himself into the worldly, jaded, mysterious Renaissance man and Eastern philosopher, the count of Monte Cristo, presumably sustained by his own advice of “wait” and “hope.”
This novel is not a simple tale of simple revenge. The count does not kill his enemies; he brilliantly uses their vices and weaknesses against them. Caderousse’s basic greed is turned against him, while Danglars loses the only thing that has any meaning for him. Fernand is deprived of the one thing that he had that he had never earned — his honour. In the process, he loses the source of his initial transgression, making his fate that much more poignant. The plot against Villefort is so complicated that even Monte Cristo loses control of it, resulting in doubt foreign to his nature and remorse that he will not outlive.
This long but generally fast-paced tale is set primarily in Marseille, Rome, and Paris. It begins with Dantès’ arrival in Marseille aboard the commercial vessel Pharaon and ends with his departure from Marseille aboard his private yacht, accompanied by the young, beautiful Greek princess Haydée. What gives The Count of Monte Cristo its life, however, are the times in which it is set — the Revolution, the Napoleonic era, the First and Second Restoration, and the Revolution of 1830. Life-and-death politics motivates many of the characters and keeps the plot moving. Dumas also uses real people in minor roles, such as Countess G — (Byron’s mistress) and the Roman hotelier Signor Pastrini, which adds to the novel’s sense of historical veracity.
The most troubling aspect of The Count of Monte Cristo is Edmond Dantès himself. His claim to represent a higher justice seems to justify actions and inactions that are as morally reprehensible as those that sent him to prison, for example, his account of how he acquired Ali and his loyalty. Had he not discovered young Morrel’s love for Valentine Villefort, she too might have become an innocent victim. As it is, there are at least two other innocents who die, although one clearly would not have been an innocent for long based on his behaviour in the novel. One wonders if Dantès’ two father figures, his own flower-loving father and fellow prisoner Abbé Faria, would have approved of the count.
The translation appears to be good, with a few slips into contemporary English idioms that sound out of place. In his introduction, Buss states that the later Danglars and Fernand have become unrecognizable and that Fernand in particular has been transformed “from the brave and honest Spaniard with a sharp sense of honour . . . to the Parisian aristocrat whose life seems to have been dedicated to a series of betrayals.” There is never anything honest or honourable about Fernand; his very betrayal of Edmond is merely the first we know of in his lifelong pattern.
What seems extreme and somewhat unrealistic about Fernand is his transformation from an uneducated Catalan fisherman into a “Parisian aristocrat,” hobnobbing with statesmen, the wealthy, and the noteworthy of society. This, however, is the result of the milieu that the novel inhabits. During these post-Revolution, post-Napoleonic years, Fernand could rise socially through his military and political accomplishments just as Danglars does through his financial acumen. Danglars is careful to note that the difference between them is that Fernand insists upon his title, while Danglars is openly indifferent to and dismissive of his; his viewpoint is the more aristocratic.
Countess G — is quick to point out that there is no old family name of Monte Cristo and that the count, like many other contemporaries, has purchased his title. It serves mainly to obscure his identity, nationality, and background and to add to the aura of mystery his persona and Eastern knowledge create. What is most telling is that his entrée into Parisian society is based primarily on his great wealth, not his name. Dumas reinforces this point with Andrea Cavalcanti, another mystery man of unknown name and reputed fortune.
I have read The Man in the Iron Mask and The Three Musketeers series, both of which surprised me with their dark aspects (the character and fate of Lady de Winter, for example) and which little resembled the adventure stories distilled from them for children and for film. When I overheard a college student who was reading The Count of Monte Cristo on the bus tell a friend that she couldn’t put it down, I was inspired to read it. I couldn’t put it down, either, with its nearly seamless plot, dark protagonist, human villains, turbulent historical setting, and larger-than-life sense of mystery. At 1,078 pages, it’s imposing, but don’t cheat yourself by settling for an abridged version. You’ll want to pick up every nuance.
12 September 2004
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf