The Count of Monte Cristo
Turn off the TV. Forget going to the movies. Facebook can't compete here. The Count of Monte Cristo is the gift that keeps on giving – there are surprises on every page. The Count comes with secret islands, dashing adventure-seekers, fistfuls of poison, serious disguises, Italian bandits, intricate prison escape strategies, Romeo-and-Juliet-like love scenes, and more. This novel is about a sailor named Edmond Dantès (think the Dread Pirate Roberts from The Princess Bride) who is betrayed by three men, two of whom are jealous of his fiancée and of his success. Dantès spends fourteen years in Chateau d'If (a hardcore prison) for a crime he has not committed, and then he spends many years after that seeking revenge on these three dudes.
Written around 1844, The Count of Monte Cristo is one of Alexandre Dumas's most famous and beloved novels and was a huge bestseller back in its day. The Count was originally serialized (like many of Charles Dickens's stories), and that's why there are so many plot twists and turns, so many cliffhangers. He had to write chapters every week that the newspapers would publish. In order to hold his readers' interest, he had to make sure his chapters were juicy and full of action. So if The Count starts to feel like a soap opera as you are reading it, you know why. Alexandre Dumas really had a gift for churning out these riveting segments every week – not all writers can produce such meaty material so quickly. As a result, he made lots of moolah. Which he spent as fast as he could on a luxurious lifestyle that would make even the Count of Monte Cristo blush.
It is said that the idea for The Count of Monte Cristo came from a story Dumas had heard about a man named Pierre Picaud. Pierre Picaud was a French shoemaker from Nimes. Just like Edmond Dantès, Pierre Picaud was sent to prison based on false accusations. Three of Pierre's jealous acquaintances told authorities that Pierre was an English spy, and Pierre was thrown in jail. The two acquaintances were jealous of the fact that Pierre had recently become engaged to a fine looking local lady. When he got out of jail, Pierre did everything he could to seek revenge on the jealous men. He even found a treasure in Milan to help fuel his efforts.
As for our author, Dumas's dad was a soldier in Napoleon's army, but he fell out of favor there when new racist laws were established barring men of color from serving, and the family became very poor. Dumas's paternal grandparents were a French nobleman/soldier who was stationed in Haiti and a former slave. Dumas's dad died when he was three, and his mother struggled to make ends meet as a single mom. She didn't have enough money to give Dumas a really good education, but Dumas learned to read and then read as much as he possibly could. He loved books (he practically ate them). Despite being poorer than church-mice, Dumas's family still had connections to French nobility, and so, when Dumas was twenty years old, he moved to the big city (Paris) and started working for the Duc d'Orleans (kind of like a French prince) at the Palais Royal. The Duc d'Orleans was a big darn deal and, in 1830, he took the throne, becoming King Louis-Philippe I.
Dumas was very involved in the French politics of the time and took part in the revolution of 1830 which helped to put his old boss Louis-Philippe on the throne. Interestingly, though, Dumas was totally fascinated by Napoleon Bonaparte, and you'll notice lots of references to the former emperor throughout The Count. As a result, Dumas's novels chronicle big moments in French history and politics. Check out the "Setting" section for more information on the times.
And don't be daunted by the 117 chapters packed into this meaty novel. Each chapter is as rich with excitement and action as a warm chocolate molten lava cake. Pour yourself a glass of milk and dig in.
Why Should I Care?
We all love a good dose of justice, and sometimes we have to take matters into our own hands in order to ensure that justice prevails. Just look at the lengths to which the Count of Monte Cristo goes to seek his revenge for having been unjustly thrown in jail. He makes an art out of giving people their just desserts (and we don't mean the delicious kind). Revenge becomes a creative project for the Count, and he is constantly laying intricate plans to ruin his enemies' lives. We readers might enjoy his creativity and ingenuity, because we all know exactly what injustice feels like.
It feels good to know that those who thought they could get away with doing something mean or selfish cannot. Like when that kid in English class told your teacher that you had copied his test, when really it was the other way around. Or like when your boss publicly yelled at you for doing something that she actually told you to do in the first place. Or like when your mom married your uncle who is actually the man who murdered your father (oops…we're dipping into Shakespeare's Hamlet there). Justice and revenge are everywhere, from Shakespeare to HBO's The Wire. There are millions of instances and examples of injustice in our lives, and many of these injustices may never be put right. So what do we do with that understanding?
Well, the Count of Monte Cristo would tell you to find a buried treasure and then use your wealth make those who have offended you suffer. But is the Count really satisfied by the destruction he sets in motion? Do you feel as though his revenge has healed his wounds?
So, you tell us. What can the Count teach us today? What does revenge mean today, and is it satisfying to take it?