Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Count of Monte Cristo

By Alexandre Dumas

There is something deliciously satisfying about a revenge story, which is why we still talk about TV series such as Dallas and Dynasty with their twisted characters who made life miserable for everyone around them, especially those who tried to play along.  We watched week after week being teased along by the possibility of the evil ones getting theirs in the end, but JR and Alexis always managed to stay one step ahead of their avengers.  Revenge stories are as ancient as human society, as if we are as troubled by this need for blood as we are fascinated by it.  When someone does us a great wrong, we often desire revenge with a hunger bordering on obsession.  

Before the rule of law, revenge was handled by the injured parties through duels, which were considered honorable, or by some other means requiring a visit to the confession booth for absolution.  Today, our system of laws and justice takes on the role that eye-for-an-eye vigilantism did in times past.  While this enables us to live in peace, for the most part, there is something a little bit too sanitary for some of us about delegating the function of revenge to a government body.  For these folks, even the death penalty is too humane. 

Revenge is a theme for many of literature’s great and enduring classics.  Ahab seeks to avenge the loss of his leg by killing Moby Dick.  Medea defeats her faithless husband by murdering their sons.   Don Giovanni is undone by his own unwillingness to repent for the harm he has caused countless women.   In The Count of Monte Cristo, like most of these other stories, revenge comes at a high cost and we have to ask was it worth it? 

Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870) was a prolific writer of historical fiction in a highly romantic style.  The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo were wildly successful and remain in print a century and a half later.  Both tales involve protagonists seeking revenge for injustices, but The Three Musketeers is more light hearted fun.  The Count of Monte Cristo, on the other hand, is about revenge taken to its ultimate conclusion.  In this book, the main character – a good natured and genuinely honest merchant sailor named Edmond Dantés – falls prey to the ambitions of people he had trusted as friends.  A self-serving politician, whose father’s loyalty to Napoleon could doom his own future, sentences the innocent Dantés to prison for treason in order to prevent his father’s identity from becoming known.  Dantés’ strength of character saves him during his fourteen years in prison because he befriends an ailing priest who imparts a lifetime of education and culture upon this loyal and generous young man.  Dantés’ reward for putting the wellbeing of the priest ahead of his own escape is to learn of a treasure hidden by the priest on a tiny island called Monte Cristo, not far from Elba where the deposed Napolean was sent to exile.

Time, imprisonment, and new-found riches so transform Edmond Dantés that no one recognizes him when he returns to seek revenge against those who had wronged him.  It is only after his escape from prison that he discovers the treachery of people he had trusted and the faithlessness of the woman he still loved.   The once guileless and innocent Dantés is reborn as the Count of Monte Cristo, a compelling and opaque figure with so much money that no one questions who he really is.  The Count studies his enemies to learn their weaknesses in order to ruin them without their knowledge and in the most painful way possible. 

The historical backdrop for The Count of Monte Cristo is the period after Napoleon’s exile, in accordance with the 1814 Treaty of Fountainebleau, leading up to his final defeat at Waterloo.  Napoleon had come to power by exploiting the instability created by the French Revolution.  As emperor, he became an aggressive conqueror and at the height of his power ruled over most of Europe and nearly brought down Russia.  His defeat at Leipzig, in October of 1813, allowed a coalition of nations to install a government in France headed by the long deposed French King.  With the Revolution still fresh in the national memory, many French citizens considered Louis XVIII to be illegitimate.  Napoleon loyalists met in secret to find a way to bring him back from exile and succeeded – for one hundred days until he was overwhelmed at the Battle of Waterloo and banished to the island of Saint Helena off the coast of Africa where he eventually died of cancer.

The betrayal of Edmond Dantés was the result of a conspiracy on the part of two of his friends and the paranoia of a government official whose father had killed a Royalist in a duel.  Dantés could have born all of that had his fiancée, Valentine, remained faithful.  Instead, she married one of the conspirators believing her beloved to be dead and with him had a son whom she loved dearly.  When Dantés, in the person of the Count of Monte Cristo, exacts his revenge there is no way for the story to have a happy ending for the protagonist.  That is the most important lesson from the book.  Revenge may be sweet but it leaves a bitter aftertaste and in the end fails to satisfy.

Copyright 2012 Teresa Friedlander all rights reserved

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