Could it really be any other way? Dumas tackles a lot of weighty material, and he recognizes it as such. Many of the Count's machinations – forcing Albert and Franz to watch the execution, buying the "dapple-grays," bringing Bertuccio back to the scene of his crime, manipulating the telegraph – are darkly humorous or just plain clever; but, because we know that each event is part of a complex and solemn plan, we have to take things seriously.
It's got tons of treasure, a secret island hideout, secret identities, duels, gory executions, bandits and smugglers galore, all topped with a healthy serving of revenge. If that's not adventure, we don't know what is. All of this happens during a particularly tumultuous time in French history – the whole thing wouldn't have happened without Napoleon's attempt to regain power – so all the "historical" trappings should be acknowledged. Also, all the Count's swashbuckling raises some very serious questions of morality, forcing us to think about big things like Fate, Free Will, and Justice. Even sweet, explosive Hollywood Action with a capital A has its consequences.
The Count of Monte Cristo, despite all of its unbelievable (unbelievable in the best possible way, the "oh man, no way did he just do that" way) action and adventure, draws heavily on fact – at least as far as the setting and details go. All the stuff about Napoleon – which you can read more about in the "Why Should I Care?" section – the descriptions of Marseille, the Roman carnival, Parisian society, and the like are true to life; Dumas takes special pleasure in mentioning real opera singers, and his characters can be seen reading real newspapers throughout the book. His geographical descriptions are equally faithful, and you can, if you so choose, trace the itineraries of his various trips through the Mediterranean.
It should come as no surprise, then, that there really is an island of Montecristo located a short distance south of Elba. Dumas's description of the place isn't exact – at one point there was a monastery there, and it may or may not be inhabited by a bunch of wild goats – but it's there, nonetheless, in all its insignificant glory. The name Monte Cristo literally means Mountain of Christ, and, as you might expect, there's a reason Dumas chose a place with such a loaded name instead of, say, the nearby isle of Pianosa; resurrection, redemption, and salvation are a big part of the book, and the "Christ" reference recalls all of these themes.
But we're going to look beyond that for now (you can read more about it in the "Symbols and Imagery" section) because, well, the book is called The COUNT of Monte Cristo and in Dumas's fictional world, there's a lot of meaning invested in such a title. Back in the early nineteenth century just about any old rich dude (nabob, meaning "a man of great or conspicuous wealth" is a good word for those types) could get himself a title. Monte Cristo tells Albert de Morcerf that he's "an accidental count, fabricated by Tuscany with the help of a commandership of Saint Stephen: I should never have passed myself off as a great nobleman were it not that I was repeatedly told this was absolutely necessary for anyone who travels a lot" (41.15). Dumas wants us to know how easy it is to transform oneself in society's eyes. The early nineteenth century was an incredibly tumultuous time for the French and, as we see with Fernand/Morcerf and Danglars, fortunes were made quickly and lost even quicker; names could be bought, could be changed and assumed, and title could no longer be trusted to really signify nobility. The "Count" in the book's name, aside from sounding really cool, is ultimately a nod to that strange and volatile class system that emerged in the years after Napoleon's defeat.
If you've read the "What's Up With the Title?" section, you already know that there's some serious Christian symbolism going on in The Count of Monte Cristo. (If you haven't read that section, now might be the time.) Nowhere is that more apparent than at the book's end. For one thing, the Count literally brings someone back from the dead – at least as far as Maximilian is concerned. Also, as you might recall – especially if you've just found out what's up with the title – you know that this happens at a place called Mount Christ. Oh, and the guy who did the resurrecting has taken on the name of the place that's named after Jesus.
So, we've got this sort of literal resurrection thing, and a direct reference to Jesus Christ. "But is Valentine really the only person/thing that's being resurrected?", you ask. No way, we answer. The ending is about a broader kind of redemption and rebirth. Remember, the Count has just had a crisis of conscience (he's like, "oh man, was all that revenge stuff worth it?"). He's made some amends, but he has something special cooked up for Maximilian, a kind of positive lesson, a lesson which he puts neatly into a couple of sentences:
As for you, Morrel, this is the whole secret of my behaviour towards you: there is neither happiness nor misfortune in this world, there is merely the comparison between one state and another, nothing more. Only someone who has suffered the deepest misfortune is capable of experiencing the heights of felicity. Maximilian, you must needs have wished to die, to know how good it is to live. (117.149)
This is the ultimate lesson taken away from Monte Cristo's years of pain and suffering. It basically boils down to "No pain, no gain" or, to be needlessly wordy, "No suffering, no cherishment of life." And who should know better than the Count? It must be said, too, that it's a deeply Christian sentiment. In the Good Book, Jesus must suffer in order to redeem mankind, which is to say, only by his suffering can they come to enjoy the afterlife. If all this weren't enough, well, it helps to look at MC's parting words to Maximilian and Valentine. "So, do live and be happy, children dear to my heart," he tells them, "and never forget that, until the day when God deigns to unveil the future to mankind, all human wisdom is contained in these two words: 'wait' and 'hope'!" (117.150). He's telling them to wait patiently until Judgment Day. Monte Cristo himself already had his own sort of miniature version of it, but, as we know, it didn't go quite right. Now, just before he sails off into the sunset, he tells them to wait for the real deal.
That said, they hope, and we hope, that Monte Cristo will be back too, and long before Judgment Day. After all, everybody loves a good sequel.
Strap on your traveling shoes, because the Count's going to take you all over the world. First thing's first; let's set the historical scene for you.
Separating the historical and political scene from The Count of Monte Cristo is like trying to separate salt from the ocean. In order to really understand what The Count's all about, we need to take a look at what was going on in France at the time. We know that Edmond Dantès's story spans from around the 1815 until around 1838. We know from Danglars's report at the very beginning of the novel that Edmond has stopped at the island of Elba to retrieve a letter on his way back to Marseilles which is addressed to Noirtier. Guess who was exiled to the island of Elba? Right! Napoleon Bonaparte.
Napoleon was a powerful soldier who ruled as Emperor of France in the early 1800s. He was born in 1769 on the island of Corsica, off the coast of Italy. It was part of the French empire at the time, but had only recently been bought by France from Italy. As a young man, Napoleon showed signs of being a great soldier. He eventually climbed his way up the army ladder, until he was leading troops and strategizing battle plans. Napoleon lived during the French Revolution (1789-1799) and saw his country in great turmoil and upheaval. During this time, he became a French superstar for his ability to protect France and to win battles. The French people totally dug him, particularly because he believed in equality and the individual rights of his people – something the past kings had not really believed in.
Following the French Revolution, Napoleon was elected First Consul of France. He did all kinds of great things to improve his country – he built sewers and roads, created a centralized bank (Banque de France), made education more available to everyone, and developed a tax code. In 1804, he crowned himself Emperor of France. The French citizens loved him, but there were many members of the French nobility with ties to the former kings of France who hated Napoleon's guts and who wanted him out. Many of these royalists plotted to kill Napoleon in various ways, to reestablish the monarchy. Napoleon, however, was always one step ahead of his enemies.
During his reign, Napoleon waged war on pretty much every country in Europe. These wars are known as the Napoleonic Wars and were Napoleon's attempt to gain more control and more power. He did things to weaken other countries; for example he stopped both France and Portugal from trading with England in order to weaken England's economy. That it did, and then he temporarily took control of England. When France's relationship to Russia became strained around 1812, Napoleon invaded the country. But the Russians had clever strategies of their own – they kept retreating farther and father into Russia, burning towns and cities along the way so that Napoleon's troops would have nothing to eat. Eventually, Napoleon's army grew very weak, and he had to retreat back to France. During a Russian winter. With no food. He lost nearly 400,000 men during that invasion of Russia. With a weakened army, other European powers believed they had a chance to get rid of Napoleon once and for all, which they did. In April of 1814, Napoleon was officially exiled to the island of Elba off the coast of Italy
But that didn't stop him! In February of 1815, he escaped Elba and fled to France. He returned to Paris and ruled the French for one hundred days (a period in history known at the "Hundred Days"). He was still very popular among the French. But, drat and thunderation, Napoleon's smallish army was defeated again by European powers, and Napoleon was exiled to the island of Saint Helena, far, far away in the Atlantic Ocean.
The Count of Monte Cristo begins right before Napoleon's first exile to Elba, and throughout the novel, we hear about Napoleon's armies, his escape to Paris, and about the royalist parties. Villefort, for example, is a royalist, but his father (Noirtier) fights for Napoleon. The country is in political turmoil, and corruption is everywhere (recall how Edmonds ends up in jail in the first place). Following Napoleon's second downfall, France was ruled by a series of monarchs. The novel ends around the time when Louis-Philippe I ascends the throne and when things are starting to calm down in France.
Alexandre Dumas would want you to know this history and to have it in your mind as you read The Count of Monte Cristo. Several characters are fueled by greed or by a desire to rise politically: Mme. Danglars and Lucien Debray play the French stock market with top secret information Debray learns from his government job. Monsieur Villefort destroys a letter from Napoleon addressed to his father, Noirtier, and has the messenger (Edmond) thrown in prison for life. The Count seems to be pleasantly and surprisingly separated from all of this political hubbub. He exists in a world of his own.
Marseilles is the French seaside town where we begin our tale. It is Edmond Dantès hometown and the home of his dad and his love, Mercédès. It is also the hometown of Fernand Mondego, the Morrel family, and the Villeforts. Today, Marseilles is one of the largest cities in France. Back in the early 1800s, it was an incredibly powerful military base and port for France. Trade flourished here in the early 1800s (the south of France is very close to other booming countries on the Mediterranean Sea), and it was home to lots of merchants and businesses (like Monsieur Morrel's). Imagine great, hulking ships coming and going, sailors everywhere, and goods being loaded and unloaded everyday.
Edmond Dantès spends fourteen years in prison at the Chateau d'If. Chateau d'If is a famous prison on an island in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. Because it is completely surrounded by water, prisoners have a really hard time escaping from it. The prison is damp and cold, but prisoners with a bit of wealth and title to their name (like the Abbé Faria) can request certain things to make their stay more pleasant. This is probably why the Abbé Faria has so many cool trinkets and tools in his cell. At the Chateau d'If, Edmond almost loses his mind after being placed in solitary confinement. He almost loses the will to live until he meets the Abbé Faria. The Abbé grows to consider Edmond to be his son, and he eventually gives Edmond directions to a treasure buried on the island of Monte Cristo. Though the Abbé dies before being able to take advantage of the escape route he and Edmond cooked up, the bonds the two men form in this isolated prison will shape Edmond for the rest of his days, literally and emotionally. You can still visit the chateau today.
The island of Monte Cristo holds Abbé Faria's buried treasure and becomes home to the Count of Monte Cristo. The island is made-up, but a tiny island called Montecristo does exist between Corsica and Italy. It is on this island that Edmond becomes the Count and builds his mini castle beneath the rocks and in the caves of the island. When Albert de Morcerf stumbles across this paradise, he finds lavish rooms decorated in the most luxurious riches one could imagine. The Count furnishes his home with the treasures he picks up on his travels around the world. While on the island, Albert is given lots of hallucinogenic drugs, causing him (and us) to wonder how much of what he saw and experienced was real and how much was part of a hallucination. The island becomes an almost supernaturally powerful place where Edmond transforms himself into the Count. Think about the island's very name: "monte cristo." It means "Christ's mountain" or "the mountain of Christ." What similarities or differences might the Count have to a Christ-like figure?
After a nice visit to the island of Monte Cristo, we follow the count to Rome where he hangs out for a while, staying at a fancy hotel, taking beautiful women to the opera, cavorting with bandits, and chilling with Albert and Franz. We then find him in Paris where he has come to stay for a while. Paris is the metropolitan center of France at the time, and it is where the Villefort, the Morcerf, and the Danglars families all have settled. In Paris, these families have found a way to live expensively and luxuriously. France's economy is gradually picking up. Gradually, and with Albert's help, the Count finds his way into each of the families, becoming a most welcome guest. The Count gets his own apartment in Paris and buys a summerhouse just outside of Paris, near Versailles. The summerhouse once was the site of Villefort and Madame Danglars's affair and is where they attempted to smother their newborn baby and bury him in the garden. The house, beautiful though it may be, is haunted by the past. Interestingly, the Count's only real home seems to be his mini palace on the island of Monte Cristo. Every other apartment or home he buys is as a result of his plot for revenge.
There are a few things to consider here. The Count of Monte Cristo is, first and foremost, a rip-rollicking adventure story, filled with action and intrigue. In short, it's meant to entertain you, to keep you on the edge of your seat until the very end. Thing is (this brings us to the second point) it takes a long, long time to get there. The Count of Monte Cristo is a big book, and it requires more than a bit of discipline and patience to finish. Last, but certainly not least, it's important not to overlook the many allusions to history and literature that Dumas has packed in (you can see the list over in the "Shout-Out" section). It may be a fun read, but that fun is rooted in history and literature, and it'd be wrong to overlook that.
Dumas doesn't mess around; like the Count himself, he's not one to mince words. There's simply too much story to tell, too much to waste on flowery language. Dumas was getting paid by the line, so there are some dialogue-heavy stretches (nothing fills a page like dialogue), but for the most part he'd rather flesh out the story, filling us in on Haydée's background or the downfall of Caderousse, than write flowery speeches.
As you've probably noticed, The Count is a strictly hands-off kind of guy. He never kills anyone, never stabs, shoots, or strangles any of his enemies – even though you can tell he really, really wants to sometimes. The one person he comes closest to killing actively is, actually, himself, back when he was a lowly prisoner named Edmond Dantès.
That said, he's perfectly willing to look death right in the eye, to watch heads get chopped off, to let people – and there's really no way to put this delicately – blow their brains out. This raises a big question: Why doesn't he kill his enemies himself?
Over the course of the novel we see death come in a variety of costumes: apoplexy, poison, pistol, sword – and, in perhaps the single most memorable instance – a big club and a large knife. That last one sounds pretty crude and pretty cruel, yeah? Well, it is; but it's also highly ritualized and regulated. It's called la mazzolata. Derived from the Italian mazza – mace – what it comes down to is being beaten to death with a big club. And then some. Here's the scene as related by Dumas (warning: this is seriously gross):
Meanwhile, the executioner had taken up his position on one side and raised the mace. Then, on a sign, the two assistants stepped aside. The prisoner wanted to get to his feet but, before he had time to do so, the club struck him on the left temple. There was a dull, muffled sound, the victim fell like a stricken bull, face downwards, then on the rebound turned over on his back. At this the executioner dropped his mace, pulled the knife out of his belt, cut open his throat with a single stroke and, immediately stepping on his belly, began as it were to knead the body with his feet. At each stamping of the foot, a jet of blood spurted from the condemned man's neck. (35.136)
Hard to read and, one supposes, much harder to watch. Albert and Franz certainly can't handle it. But the Count can. He watches, seemingly unaffected. But that makes sense: he's seen a lot of things in his day, and he's worked hard to make himself impervious to, well, emotion. That said, what are we supposed to make of the crowd? The Count himself tells Albert and Franz "there is no more interesting spectacle in life than the spectacle of death," and yet that can't really account for the "laughter, booing, and joyful cries" which come from the waiting crowd (35.103-104). Interest, after all, is different from joy, and even after the execution is over the mood is, by and large, joyful. And seeing that joy, we can't help but feel horrible.
But wait! Here's where Dumas has us. Over the course of the book, he reminds us over and over again how interesting death really is, and how interested people are to see it. So, yes, Dumas shows us the brutal spectacle of la mazzolata, and stages the key meeting between Luigi Vampa and the Count in the Colosseum, a place where thousands of ancient Romans watched thousands more die in countless, brutal ways. He also gives us prime examples of a different kinds of deadly spectacles: the duel and the "assizes." That first one is pretty self-explanatory: sure, dueling has a lot of rules, but it's still a spectacle, and no matter how much you dress death up, it's still death. In the second case, the deadly aspect isn't as quickly apparent. But think of it this way: why do people come to see Andrea "Benedetto" Cavalcanti get his day in court? Because they want to see the look on his face when he's condemned to death. It's as simple as that. And as for us, the readers? Well, we're waiting the whole time to see the Count of Monte Cristo get his revenge, and we wouldn't hold it against him if things got a little bloody, now would we?
Now, before we really dig into this symbol, check out these two passages:
In addition to that, escorted by only these men, he [Franz d'Epinay] was about to land on an island which certainly had a very religious name, but which appeared to offer Franz no greater hospitality than Calvary did to Christ, in view of the smugglers and the bandits. (31.100)
A little corvette was bobbing in a fairly large cove; it had a narrow hull and tall mast with a flag flying from the lateen yard and bearing Monte Cristo's coat of arms: a mountain on a field of azure with a cross gules at the chief, which could have been an allusion to his name (evoking Calvary, which Our Saviour's passion has made a mountain more precious than gold, and the infamous cross which his divine blood made holy) as much as to any personal memory of suffering in the mysterious night of the man's past. (85.124)
Here, Dumas is making a less than subtle analogy between the island of Monte Cristo and Calvary, the hill on which Jesus was crucified. Franz d'Epinay immediately makes the association between Monte Cristo – "Mountain of Christ" – and the place of Christ's execution. Dumas is a little more coy about his comparisons when he describes the Count's coat of arms, "a mountain with a field of azure with a cross gules" at the chief. In this context, "gules" simply means red; the Count's flag has what looks like a mountain with a red cross on top, against a blue background. Dumas goes on to tell us that this "could be" an allusion to the Count's name, a name which "could be," we can infer, an allusion to Calvary and the cross of Christ; or, that it could be some reference to his own personal suffering.
Of course, Dumas wants us to know that it is all those things: Monte Cristo's name – taken from the name of the island – and coat of arms recalls the suffering of Christ on the cross; Edmond Dantès's personal suffering reminds us of the same, and his rebirth as the Count reminds of Christ's resurrection. He, like Jesus, emerges from a cave – although in Edmond's case the cave contains a big chest of gold and jewels.
Now, if Dumas hasn't gotten through to you at this point, he really hammers things home in the last line of the last chapter of the book. "Who knows if we shall ever see them again," says Morrel, tears in his eyes. "My dearest," Valentine responds, "has the count not just told us that all human wisdom was contained these two words—'wait' and 'hope?'" (117.159). Dumas lets us know that the Count will be back again, like the Christian belief in the "second coming" of Christ.
Alexandre Dumas practically rewrites Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet over the course of this novel. Put your hands together for the stars of Dumas's version of Romeo and Juliet, Max Morrel and Valentine de Villefort (and the crowd goes wild).
According to Valentine's dad, Max is not rich enough to be considered a worthy suitor for her. The two must meet secretly in the garden (OK, no balcony scene, but still – a secret garden!), for Valentine has been promised to another, more eligible bachelor. The two promise to marry anyway, and with Valentine's grandfather's help and the Count's help, they do. The Count's plan involves secret and super hardcore sleeping pills that Valentine takes. Max and the rest of the world thinks that Valentine has died as a result of being poisoned, but really, she's just asleep. The Count convinces Max to wait for one month before committing suicide (which Max really wants to do, because life isn't worth living without his Valentine). When that month is over, the Count gives Max a pill he promises will kill him. But the pill merely puts Max to sleep, and when he wakes up, Valentine is there to kiss him on the kisser.
This is the happy version of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, where the lovers actually live happily ever after in each other's arms – the ending we always want when we see Shakespeare's play acted out but that never happens. Why do you think Dumas borrowed this plot from Shakespeare? And what is significant about the fact that Dumas changes Shakespeare's ending? What story might Dumas be trying to tell here?
"You fear nothing but death, I think you said?"
"I did not say that I feared it. I said that it alone could prevent me."
"And old age?"
"My mission will be accomplished before I am old."
"There are other things to fear, Monsieur," Villefort said, "apart from death, old age, and madness. For example, apoplexy, that lightning bolt which strikes you down without destroying you, yet after which all is finished. You are still yourself, but you are no longer yourself: from a near-angel like Ariel you have become a dull mass which, like Caliban, is close to the beasts. As I said, in human language, this is quite simply called an apoplexy or stroke. Count, I be you to come finish this conversation at my house one day when you feel like meeting an opponent able to understand you, and eager to refute what you say, and I shall show you my father, Monsieur Noirtier de Villefort…" (48.60-66)
Apoplexy, a stroke – no matter what you call it, it's a scary thing, a silent, remorseless killer. Villefort may be trying to frighten the Count, but he's not lying. We need only look at his father, Monsieur Noirtier, to see the havoc it can wreak. The crown prosecutor's little spiel hints at the philosophical implications of the affliction, but Dumas wants us to look a little deeper. That whole "lightning bolt" thing can't help but recall the image of God striking down a sinner on the spot.
Dumas has total control of the book's narrative – sort of like the Count himself when you think about it. He can switch the focus of the story abruptly, as he does when we're first introduced to Franz d'Epinay. Dumas doesn't do much with the "inner monologue" of his characters – oftentimes when they're thinking something, they simply mutter it.
Having said all this, we should note that at a few points during the novel he lets the characters themselves narrate the action; we get to hear Bertuccio's take on the (unsuccessful) murder of de Villefort and Haydée's account of her father's betrayal. These are exceptions to the rule, though. Dumas is usually reading minds and calling the shots.
This is a tough one, because there's really nothing basic about The Count of Monte Cristo. The book seems to fit into a number of categories, at least at first glance. It's a rags to riches story, you might think. After all, Edmond literally goes from rags (in prison) to riches (on the island of Monte Cristo). There is also the sense of his "Overcoming the Monster," if you consider man's capacity to hate his fellow man a kind of monster. Considering how silly and awkward all these attempts to slap a name on The Count's plot are, we think it's best we move on and look at why it doesn't fit.
Here's the thing: Booker assumes that a book is going to have one big old plot arc, and The Count of Monte Cristo doesn't. For one, there's more than one plot: The whole Villefort poisoning story can really stand on its own – even though it is a big part of the story; and something about the prison sequence feels…self-contained. You know, they've made whole movies about that kind of thing, and most of them don't involve the protagonist absorbing the whole mass of human knowledge at the same time. Second, and this is really big, there's really no arc to speak of. It's really more of a little peak at the beginning (Edmond's rise to the top), followed by a big drop (Edmond's fall into the dungeons of the Chateau d'If), followed by a BIG rise (Edmond's prison break and ten year scheme-planning period, during which everything goes according to plan), followed by a little fall (the Count's crisis of conscience), ending with the nice little happy voyage over the horizon. This is all to say that most of the theoretical plot-graph is one big red (aren't the lines on these sorts of things always red?) rising line – and that's not even taking into account the subplots. So, yeah, like we said, it's not really basic at all.
Edmond's really got everything going for him at this point. All he wants to do is serve his boss, respect his father, and love his soon-to-be wife. He's happy, and he has no idea that anybody might be conspiring against him.
In a normal novel, we might be halfway through the plot at this point, but for Dumas this is really just set up. This is what sets everything in motion, but things keep moving for a long, long time.
This whole sequence of events really changes the game. Not only does Edmond get out of jail, he gets limitless resources and a whole new identity as the Count of Monte Cristo. It's the beginning of a whole new narrative.
We now interrupt your regularly scheduled programming for a special announcement: It'd really be wrong of us to tell you there was a "climax" to The Count of Monte Cristo. Trying to single out one pivotal moment in the course of the story would be sort of like picking your favorite child from a family with a few dozen kids. There isn't really one moment where the Count pulls out all the stops and starts kicking butt. He's classier than that; he knows how to wait, to really savor the moment. Everything the Count does – from saving Albert de Morcerf to getting unlimited credit from Baron Danglars to intimidating Bertuccio – seems like it might be the straw that breaks the camel's back, and yet Monte Cristo is always standing in the background, letting things take their course. Even when it seems like he's going to duel with Albert – and let himself get killed – he gets a reprieve at the last moment.
It's easier to think of The Count of Monte Cristo as a study in suspense. From the moment Edmond gets out of jail, we're primed for some serious action, but it never comes. Even when his adversaries, the men he has sworn get revenge on, begin to die or go mad, we don't really feel great about it. The Count has spent so much time planning that, by the time he gets around to executing his plans, he's come to understand that something's seriously wrong…which brings us to the next stage.
The de Villefort incident disturbs the Count's plan and signals a great, if late, shift in the narrative, casting Monte Cristo's whole plan into a new and disturbing light.
Here, the Count is finally able to do something positive, to bring somebody "back to life," instead of driving them to suicide or madness. Leaving behind Valentine and Maximilian, he sets out to start fresh.
Edmond is betrayed.
Edmond becomes the Count; The Count gets ready.
The Count gets even…but he overdoes it a little bit and has to reconsider his actions. He makes amends, then disappears into the sunset.