When I joined the Classics Club in 2012 and put together the list of books I wanted to read, I decided that, whichever order I read the others in, I would save my re-read of The Count of Monte Cristo until last. It’s one of my favourite books (I had already read it twice) and I thought it would be something to look forward to, even if some of the other classics on my list turned out to be disappointing.
Picking it up to start reading for the third time, I did have a few doubts – there’s always a chance that a book you once loved might have lost its magic – but of course I needn’t have worried. The opening line (“On the 24th of February 1815, the lookout at Notre-Dame de la Garde signalled the arrival of the three-master Pharaon, coming from Smyrna, Trieste and Naples”) is hardly the most scintillating or memorable in literature but reading it, knowing what is to come, gives me the same feeling as when I re-read the first line of other favourite books, such as Rebecca (“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”), Jane Eyre (“There was no possibility of taking a walk that day”) or Watership Down (“The primroses were over”).
Anyway, back to The Count of Monte Cristo! Our hero, or anti-hero (he can be considered to be both), is Edmond Dantès, a young sailor who, at the beginning of the novel, feels that he is the luckiest man in the world. Not only is his marriage to the beautiful Mercédès approaching, but following the death of his captain, he is also about to be given a ship to command. Things couldn’t be better…until the day of his wedding, when he is arrested on suspicion of conspiring against the king with the exiled Napoleon Bonaparte. Of course, Edmond has done nothing of the sort – it is all part of a plot by his jealous shipmate, Danglars, and his rival for Mercédès’ love, Fernand Mondego.
A third man, Villefort, has reasons of his own for wanting Dantès imprisoned and safely out of the way, so with these three enemies ranged against him, Edmond is thrown into a dungeon in the Château d’If where he remains for the next fourteen years. Although he does eventually find a way to escape, his life has been ruined: all of his hopes and dreams have been destroyed, Mercédès is lost to him and he can never get back the years of his youth that have been stolen from him. Vowing to punish his enemies for what they have done, Edmond transforms himself into the Count of Monte Cristo and launches an intricate and carefully planned system of revenge.
The events I have described above take up only a relatively small section of the novel; most of the book is devoted to following the Count as he sets his plans into action. It takes a long time before he begins to see results, but if there is one thing he has learned in prison it is how to be patient – and so he is prepared to spend years devising the perfect methods of revenge. This means the reader is faced with a series of seemingly unrelated subplots and a huge cast of characters; it can be quite overwhelming on a first read, but when you’re reading for the second or third time you can appreciate how things that appear to be irrelevant actually have great significance. This time round, without the same urgency to turn the pages to ‘see what happens next’, I was able to read at a slower pace and enjoy some of the episodes I had previously seen as unnecessarily long digressions, such as Franz and Albert’s adventures in Rome, La Carconte and the diamond ring, and the story of the bandit Luigi Vampa.
Does the Count achieve his aims – and is he happy with the final outcome? I’m not going to tell you (and if you haven’t read the book I’m sure you don’t want me to) but I will say that he does have some doubts along the way, particularly when he discovers that innocent people he never intended to hurt have also become caught up in his web of revenge. “What a fool I was,” said he, “not to tear my heart out on the day I resolved to avenge myself”. I always find it sad to see how he has changed as a result of his imprisonment – when we first meet him again after his escape from the Château d’If, the lively, optimistic young man has disappeared, to be replaced by someone much more cynical and bitter – but towards the end of the book there are signs that the old Edmond is still there, beneath the surface. Most people think of this as a revenge novel, which it certainly is, but we should remember that the Count also takes care to help and reward the friends who stayed loyal to him throughout everything.
Although The Count of Monte Cristo was published around the same time as Dumas’ d’Artagnan series, I think this is a much more mature novel, dealing with serious issues and raising some thought-provoking questions. There are moments of reflection and philosophy like this:
“The friends that we have lost do not repose in the bosom of the earth, but are buried deep in our hearts, and it has been thus ordained that we may always be accompanied by them.”
“It is the way of weakened minds to see everything through a black cloud. The soul forms its own horizons; your soul is darkened, and consequently the sky of the future appears stormy and unpromising.”
“Joy to hearts which have suffered long is like the dew on the ground after a long drought; both the heart and the ground absorb that beneficent moisture falling on them, and nothing is outwardly apparent.”
The novel takes the reader through a range of emotions, from anger to pity to frustration to sadness (some of Edmond’s scenes with a certain other character always bring tears to my eyes, thinking of everything he has lost and can never regain). As always with Dumas, though, you can expect an exciting and entertaining read, so there are also murders, poisonings, court cases and duels, thefts, anonymous letters, illegitimate children and searches for buried treasure. Not everything that happens feels entirely realistic and you do need to suspend disbelief now and then, but I don’t mind that when a book is so enjoyable to read.
I haven’t said very much about the other characters in the book (and apart from Edmond Dantès himself, whom I have always found fascinating and complex), I have to admit that most of them don’t have a lot of depth. There are two, however, that I do particularly love. The first is the Abbé Faria, a fellow prisoner of Edmond’s in the Château d’If, an extraordinary man who acts as inspiration, adviser and teacher to Edmond and without whom he would have lost the will to live. The other is Monsieur Noirtier, an elderly man who has been left unable to walk and talk, but who devises an unusual form of communication and forms a special bond with his granddaughter, Valentine.
There is so much more I would like to say about this wonderful book, but I would have to give spoiler warnings, and I think this post is long enough now anyway! I will leave you to read The Count of Monte Cristo for yourself, if you haven’t already. I know the length of the book can seem off-putting, but I wouldn’t recommend reading an abridged edition as the story is so complex I think you would be missing out on a lot.