Study Guide

The Count of Monte Cristo Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

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Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

Death as Spectacle

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?

Christ and the Island of Monte Cristo

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.

Romeo and Juliet

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…"

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.

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