Study Guide

The Count of Monte Cristo Themes

By Alexandre Dumas

  • Revenge

    Revenge is everywhere in The Count of Monte Cristo. No matter what the situation, no matter who is speaking, it lurks in the corners, propelling the story forward. We wait on tenterhooks, wondering when we're going to see the Count get his retribution, and how he's going to get it. That tension, playing out in our minds and in the words and thoughts of the characters, is essential. At book's end, we have to ask ourselves, as Edmond asks himself, if we're satisfied with the way things turn out. Was the revenge worthwhile? Was it really justified? Was it all Edmond hoped it would be?

    Questions About Revenge

    1. Here's a big question: Is Edmond justified in seeking his revenge?
    2. And another: Is he really successful when he finds it? Are his ten years of planning well spent?
    3. Edmond/The Count's views on revenge seem to be distinctly old school: he talks about taking an eye for an eye, and insists that the sins of fathers will be passed down to their sons – and beyond. Beauchamp, on the other hand, argues that such thinking is wrong – especially in the tumultuous times they've lived through. Is one of them right and the other wrong? They can't both be right, right?

    Chew on This

    Edmond's revenge is only successful when he realizes he must forgive. Only then does he rise above the level of the men who wronged him in the first place.

    Though Edmond manages to escape from prison after fourteen years, he may as well have remained there for an extra ten years. His thirst for revenge is just as confining – mentally and morally speaking – as his jail cell ever was. Revenge keeps him from beginning anew.

  • Fate vs. Free Will

    The characters in The Count of Monte Cristo don't spend too much time worrying about the "free will" part of the equation. Usually they only stop to consider the repercussions of their decisions way after the fact. When things start going badly for certain characters, they feel that unknown forces have turned against them. Does that mean things really are fated to happen? The Count certainly seems to think that he's been tasked with carrying out God's will, but even he reconsiders his actions.

    Questions About Fate vs. Free Will

    1. After Villefort is driven mad, Monte Cristo changes his plan and decides to pardon Danglars. This leads to a conundrum: If the Count is carrying out God's will, as he claims, are we to believe that his change of heart was always a part of the plan? Or is it, on the contrary, evidence of free will?
    2. Villefort acts as though his father's stroke and subsequent paralysis were an act of God, and portrays apoplexy as the hand of Fate. How do the Villefort poisonings, which mimic the effects of apoplexy, change our perception of the affliction, if at all? In other words, does the book encourage us to see suffering as a question of fate, or something brought on by free acting individuals?
    3. Which characters are most concerned with fate? When do they begin to contemplate it?

    Chew on This

    In the end, Dumas shows fate to be a convenient excuse for human failings, and justifications for the unjustifiable.

  • Perseverance

    Conventional wisdom says good things come to those who wait. At book's end, the Count of Monte Cristo seems to agree; in fact, he couldn't make his thoughts any clearer: Wait and hope, he tells Valentine and Maximilian, wait and hope. Monte Cristo should know, of course – he spends 24 years figuring out what he wants and then working to get it. The word itself couldn't be more fitting. Edmond's life is so full of hardship; his prospects are so low, that only 100% pure, unadulterated perseverance will do. Determination is much too soft a word. In the case of The Count of Monte Cristo, though, perseverance isn't just about the patience of any single man, but the persistence of an ideal, of conviction, of justice.

    Questions About Perseverance

    1. Edmond spends ten years planning his revenge, whereas Danglars, Fernand, and Villefort spent a considerably shorter time putting Edmond away. Can we assume that Edmond is fueled by hatred for the men who imprisoned him? If we do, can we really respect him? Is it better to casually ruin someone's life or to plan their fall meticulously?
    2. At one point, the Count likens himself and his project to God creating the world. Is this mere arrogance? Or is there something to the comparison?

    Chew on This

    Edmond's ability to see his plan through might be called a triumph of the human spirit, but it's a triumph for humanity's dark side.

    At its core, Edmond's endeavor is just another case of obsession on a massive scale.

  • Justice and Judgment

    It's no coincidence that one of the main characters in The Count of Monte Cristo is a prosecutor. Dumas wants to see you thinking long and hard about justice and judgment, whether it be human or divine, swift or lingering, inside court or out in the world. Villefort may be a lawyer, but he doesn't have a monopoly on justice. Far from it. Time and time again, we see that justice is a slippery thing; even the most righteous characters find themselves wondering if they're on the right side of the line between moral and immoral, good and evil.

    Questions About Justice and Judgment

    1. Is Villefort's ability to judge others really compromised by his own personal failings?
    2. Wronged by the justice system, Edmond decides to take matters into his own hands. He calls himself an avenger and a servant of God, but couldn't you just as easily call someone like that a dangerous vigilante?
    3. How do the Count's associations with men well outside the bounds of traditional law – for instance, bandits and smugglers – reflect upon him? How do they change the way we look at these so-called criminals?

    Chew on This

    Although most every formal legal proceeding in The Count of Monte Cristo is tainted by corruption, Dumas makes it clear that the legal principles underpinning the law are sound; it is only the people in charge of observing them who have been compromised.

    Given the tumultuous times and his equally tumultuous past, Edmond's quest for personal justice is understandable; only by taking matters into his own hands can he settle himself and his scores.

  • Transformation

    In The Count of Monte Cristo, the transformed becomes the transformer. Edmond, irrevocably changed during his time in prison by forces outside of his control, learns to transform the world around him. Everything from his clothing to his personality to his name is changeable. Some of his transformations are comic – witness his ability to shift from one "character" to another effortlessly – while others are deadly serious. Oftentimes all it takes is a superficial adjustment, but when the situation calls for something more, the Count can rise to the occasion.

    Questions About Transformation

    1. Given his incredible ability to change his or anyone else's circumstances – look at how he saves the Morrels and turns Benedetto into Prince Andrea Cavalcanti – isn't it almost criminal for Monte Cristo to use his abilities in the way he does?
    2. Do the Count's physical and superficial transformations reflect his internal, moral ones?
    3. Given how quickly and easily Edmond/Monte Cristo can change his identity, can we, as readers, really get a good handle on the character by the end of the book?

    Chew on This

    By the end of The Count of Monte Cristo, Edmond has spent so much time being other people that he is forced to stop and consider his true identity.

    Only by losing himself in other identities can Edmond deal with the pain of his time in prison; having been transformed against his will, he must take control of his image in order to find himself.

  • Hatred

    As a wise man once said, "Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering." OK, that was Yoda, and Yoda's not technically a man, but you get the point. Hatred is powerful stuff, and powerful stuff is hard to control. It may lead the hater into some uncomfortable positions, and, more often than not, it has unintended consequences. Many of the characters in The Count of Monte Cristo, the Count included, wonder if their misfortunes spring from some kind of divine hatred, but more often than not, it's a human doing the hating.

    Questions About Hatred

    1. "Oh, don't misunderstand me," the Count tells Albert de Morcerf. "I like everybody in the way that God ordered us to love our neighbours, that is, in Christian charity. I only bestow true hatred on certain people" (68.63). Is this really a defensible position?
    2. As far as Dumas is concerned, is there any justification for hate? If so, what is it?
    3. While hatred may ultimately motivate the Fernands and Danglarses of the world to commit heinous acts, does there seem to be a common motive behind the contempt displayed in The Count of Monte Cristo?

    Chew on This

    Though Monte Cristo claims to be acting in the interests of God, his actions stem from human hatred just as much of those perpetrated by Danglars and Fernand.

    In The Count of Monte Cristo, we learn that hatred cannot lead to good, no matter what has inspired it.

  • Ambition

    There's nothing wrong with ambition. Really, we wouldn't get much done without it. In the case of The Count of Monte Cristo, though, the ambition in question would more accurately be called over-ambition. Most of the characters are overachievers, but not in the annoying but harmless teacher's pet kind of way. No, these overachievers are so driven that they're willing to do just about anything to get what they want. This doesn't just apply to the Danglarses and the Fernands of the world; Edmond is just as set on getting what he wants, when he wants. He's one of those guys who thinks "impossible" is just another word for "challenging."

    Questions About Ambition

    1. Are there any "ambitious" characters in The Count of Monte Cristo who don't get greedy or go too far in order to get what they want?
    2. What's the difference between Edmond's ambition and that of Danglars and Fernand?
    3. Is ambitious really the right word to describe Edmond's ten years of planning? Is there a stronger, more accurate word out there somewhere?

    Chew on This

    As far as Dumas is concerned, ambition is a dangerous commodity, as addictive as any drug and as destructive as hatred and envy.

    By the end of The Count of Monte Cristo, we find that ambition is a necessary, if destructive force, just as essential to human activity as air or water.

  • Manipulation

    Manipulation is a bit of dirty word. Nobody wants to feel like they've been manipulated by anyone – not by Fate, by God, or by their parents. In The Count of Monte Cristo Edmond must feel this bad kind of "manipulated" when he realizes why he's in prison; the same goes for the disgraced Fernand, Danglars, and Villefort after Edmond is through with them. But there is a positive side to manipulation, too. The kind of manipulation the Count practices requires a tremendous amount of creativity and cleverness. Yes, it helps to have unlimited resources on your side, but the Count's masterful manipulations also require a huge amount of knowledge.

    Questions About Manipulation

    1. In order to exact revenge on a few people, Monte Cristo enlists dozens of people, both willingly and unwillingly. Is he right in doing so? Is the overall effect on all the people he "works with" positive?
    2. We marvel at the amazing things the Count is able to do. Should we, perhaps, be gasping in horror instead? Are we manipulated in the same way as the other characters are?

    Chew on This

    Putting aside any questions of morality, Edmond's endeavor is first and foremost a testament to human creativity.

    Rather than give us a fiery Romantic hero, Dumas portrays Monte Cristo as a logical, reasonable man; though he may be driven by passion, in practice his passion is transformed into well-measured action.