The Count of Monte Cristo
by Alexandre Dumas
Edmond Dantès, the Count of Monte Cristo
Edmond Dantès is a man of many faces and many disguises. He gives Halloween a run for its money. And, yet, who is this guy really? Somewhere along the way, we almost forget who the Count really is – so completely has he transformed into a new person and a new identity (make that several new identities). How does he keep track of all of the many roles he plays? And what does it say about him that he is able to change personas so easily?
On the day of his betrothal, Edmond tells Caderousse,
"I cannot think that man is meant to find happiness so happily! Happiness is like one of those palaces on an enchanted island, its gates guarded by dragons. One must fight to gain it; and, in truth, I do not know what I have done to deserve the good fortune of becoming Mercédès' husband." (5.23)
Young Edmond doesn't usually have insights like these. He's innocent, naïve, and forgiving, maybe not quite so naïve as his father, but close. Every time he tells someone – whether Villefort or Faria – that he can't think why someone would want to hurt him, the more obvious his innocence, his ignorance of human nature, becomes. This exchange between Faria and Edmond is a good example:
Hence the maxim: if you wish to find the guilty party, first discover whose interests the crime serves! Whose interests might be served by your disappearance?
No one's for heaven's sake! I was so insignificant. (17.57-58)
Faria goes on to make the point that, in the scheme of things, no one is insignificant, and before you can say "revenge" Edmond has finally realized how he ended up in prison.
That realization marks the beginning of Edmond's transformation into the Count, for even before he has the title, the treasure, and the tools, he has the thirst for revenge; and that thirst for revenge is awakened by the recognition of his enemies. As Abbé Faria says – in case you haven't noticed, the abbé is usually right about most things – "I have insinuated a feeling into your heart that was not previously there: the desire for revenge" (17.95). It's that desire that gives him the resolve to escape prison and find the treasure. It's what you might call the moment of the Count of Monte Cristo's conception.
The Count of Monte Cristo
Where to begin, where to begin? How about with a list of aliases? Edmond is the Count of Monte Cristo, Sinbad the Sailor, the Chief Clerk of Thomson and French, Abbé Busoni, Lord Wilmore, and M. Zaccone. Sometimes he assumes a different role within a matter of minutes. These names may bear testament to Edmond's imagination and resourcefulness. All these names are masks, though, mirages meant to distract others – and us – from the human being within. There are so many facets to Edmond's personality, and so many parts to his plan that it's all too easy to get overwhelmed in the particulars. Oh man, you say, you remember the telegraph ploy? How about that dinner party where he brought the exotic fish out in the tanks of water? These anecdotes are entertaining and, frankly, amazing, but they're distracting too.
We have to try and look at the big picture – we say try, because the picture is massive. The plan itself – separate from the planner – is like the world's largest, longest Rube Goldberg machine, an amazing contraption filled with bizarre twists and turns, strange levers, bells and whistles, maybe an explosion or two, a few kidnappings, an assassination attempt, executions…oh, sorry, we're losing track of our metaphors now.
This may be a little counterintuitive, but we might be able to get some insight by looking at some small bits of texts, by looking for the ways in which Edmond is defined by others and by himself. First, a little analysis from the surprisingly sharp Albert de Morcerf:
"Oh, father," said Albert, smiling, "you clearly do not know the Count of Monte Cristo. He finds satisfaction elsewhere than in the things of this world and does not aspire to any honours, taking only those that can fit on his passport."
"That is the most accurate description of myself that I have ever heard," the stranger said. (41.34-35)
Now, we have it from the Count himself that this is a good description, but we're left to puzzle out why. It is true that Monte Cristo doesn't use his unlimited resources in the way many people – Danglars and Fernand for instance – would use theirs. He doesn't buy himself a government position or a title. He calls himself the Count of Monte Cristo, sure, but he's just as interested in securing other people, like Benedetto, titles. He turns business as usual on its side. He has everything that a person could ever want, but he doesn't use it for the "things of this world." His is a more intangible, almost ethereal goal, something priceless and unquantifiable and fleeting. He's constantly on the move – hence the passport remark – because he's always moving forward, trying to put everything in the correct position.
Now, to move on from Albert's remarks to the Edmond's own reflections, we're going to follow that whole ethereal thread. Remember how we told you the picture was massive? Well, it's as big as the universe as far as Edmond is concerned. He tells Mercédès:
"Suppose that the Lord God, after creating the world, after fertilizing the void, had stopped one-third of the way through His creation to spare an angel the tears that our crimes would one day bring to His immortal eyes. Suppose that, having prepared everything, kneaded everything, seeded everything, at the moment when He was about to admire his work, God had extinguished the sun and with His foot dashed the world into eternal night, then you will have some idea…Or, rather, no…No, even then you cannot have any idea of what I am losing by losing my life at this moment." (89.71)
By the end of his hardships, Edmond has grown a serious God complex. He's built himself up so high that he can't help but picture himself in the most grandiose terms. Throughout the book, he talks of himself as being God's messenger, but here, finally, he acts as though he is a god, and his plan for revenge is his own personal Creation. In this case, he's actually given a reprieve – he doesn't have to destroy his work. But it's the moment he realizes that he's more of a destroyer than a creator or life-giver, when he kills the innocent Edward, that his world comes crumbling down.
Now that we've been through all this, we can actually make one final stop at those aliases. If you know the Book of Genesis, then you've probably heard that in the Judeo-Christian tradition, God created Man in His own image. If you think about it, Edmond's whole plan is a concerted effort to conceal that image, and his mission ends once he's finally given up on trying to hide behind masks. It's a hard concept to get your head around, and frankly our heads hurt a little thinking about it, but when you get around to it, Edmond is finally reborn only after he gets back to his beginning.