I packed my list with a good bit of nineteenth-century pop fiction, and I did this partly to have some light reading to balance out all the heavy. And during this holiday season, I took advantage of this foresight to set aside The Federalist Papers for The Count of Monte Cristo, which turned out to be a thoroughly enjoyable page-turner that I tore through in two days. It is always a joy to find a book you can’t put down, and it’s proving to be a rare but welcome exception in this project.
I knew the story of the book by reading the dust jacket: Good guy is wronged by several men and sent to prison for many year, after which he escapes, recovers a fabulous treasure, and uses it to exact revenge. And that’s pretty much it. I’ve never been a fan of the revenge genre and tend to resent when entertainers create an easy villain to hate just to deliver cheap satisfaction when they get their due. But I was right there with Dumas and the Count throughout this book, and I eagerly looked forward to the most severe punishments for these scoundrels—if anything I was a bit let down that the scenarios weren’t more extravagant.
The set-up involves our hero, Dantès, getting betrayed by his three closest friends on his wedding day. As a result, he is clapped into chains as a traitor of the Crown and thrown into the notorious Château d’If, which is a real island prison off the coast of Marseilles in southern France, and a truly horrific place, sort of the Alcatraz of the nineteenth century. Locked away without hope, Dantès eventually meets another prisoner who mistakenly tunneled into his cell after like ten years of digging, which ought to drive the old man mad. But instead he takes Dantès on as a project, teaching him about history, culture, language, and art, and the two become fast friends. One gathers that the guards at Château d’If weren’t the most attentive. At some point their friendship deepens to the point where the old man tells him about a fabulous treasure hidden in an island off the coast of Italy called Monte Cristo, which is a pretty lucky turn of events for our hero, given all the revenge that treasure will buy. So when the old man dies, Dantès manages to switch himself into the old man’s funeral sack, and he gets thrown into the Mediterranean from the top of the castle, which seems like a good way to die, but somehow he survives. From there, he manages to make his way to the vast treasure the old man described, and it’s actually there, and it’s real, and it’s all his. It seems like kind of a narrative cheat to give him basically God Power to dispense his revenge, but it certainly helps the book skip along.
Shortly, he is executing his elaborate plots to exact revenge on his three former friends, who have now all gone on to successful middle age, with wealth and power at their fingertips, and the woman Dantès was supposed to marry now wife to the wealthiest of them all. The revenge plots are far too complex to fully remember, much less describe here. But basically Dantès, now known as the Count, finds impossibly perfect weakness in each of them, and traps them with it most painfully. One of the villains had a secret affair with the wife of one of the others, and then smothered the resulting child, only to have the child survive, grow to adulthood, and befriend our friend the Count, just in time for that to figure into his plot. Is it cheating to give the villain that kind of backstory for our hero to exploit? Who cares, it’s awesome. With another villain, he manages to turn his son to crime and his daughter to prostitution. And while I get that spending a couple of decades moldering in a cell while your betrayers enjoy the kind of life they stole from you is quite a lot to expect someone to endure with a clear head, messing with the guy’s kids is still pretty harsh.
One major challenge of the book is the sheer number of characters. By the end, there were so many to keep track of that I was often turning back to the book’s helpful three-page character list, just to keep them all straight. There were the original villains, two of whom took on titles and one of whom changed his name entirely, and then there were their various children and their acquaintances, who play significant roles in the course of events, plus a good guy from the old days and all of his children, all of whom have relationships with one another and figure in various ways. Throw in some Italian princes and self-righteous physicians, and you have your hands full keeping it all straight. Although I guess when a book includes a three-page list of characters before chapter one, at least you know what you’re getting yourself into. Happily, the revenge plots were not too intricate, and a little confusion here and there about who was doing what to whom didn’t end up slowing me down.
My only other complaint about the plot is to note that the crime our antagonist is sent to prison for by his enemies is one for which he is certainly guilty. He acts like he was innocent, and he was certainly done dirty when his pal fingered him to the authorities so he could steal his bride. But none of that changes the fact that he is absolutely guilty of treason. Consider: The book opens as Dantès assumes command of his ship when his captain falls ill and dies. Being a dutiful sailor, he carries out the captain’s final order, which is to deliver a letter to Napoleon Bonaparte, then an enemy of the Crown and exiled on the isle of Elba. Dantès subsequently agrees to take a response from Bonaparte to some guy in Paris he has never met, demonstrating about as much sense as someone who agrees to watch a stranger’s bag at the airport. Now, Dantès may feel like he’s just carrying out his late captain’s orders, but that doesn’t absolve him in this instance from being a servant of an enemy of the Crown, which is what he is ultimately sent to prison for. His enemies use this communication to have him sent away and steal his bride, but one could also say that they’re patriots who were doing the right thing, and our hero’s vows of innocence are the same ones that sound in cellblocks throughout the world. I say, if you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime!
Excerpt from The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexander Dumas
“Is this carriage for me?” said Dantès.
“It is for you,” replied a gendarme.
Dantès was about to speak; but feeling himself urged forward, and having neither the power nor the intention to resist, he mounted the steps, and was in an instant seated inside between two gendarmes; the two others took their places opposite, and the carriage rolled heavily over the stones.
The prisoner glanced at the windows—they were grated; he had changed his prison for another that was conveying him he knew not whither. Through the grating, however, Dantès saw they were passing through the Rue Caisserie, and by the Rue Saint-Laurent and the Rue Taramis, to the quay. Soon he saw the lights of La Consigne.
The carriage stopped, the officer descended, approached the guardhouse, a dozen soldiers came out and formed themselves in order; Dantès saw the reflection of their muskets by the light of the lamps on the quay.
“Can all this force be summoned on my account?” thought he.
The officer opened the door, which was locked, and, without speaking a word, answered Dantès’ question; for he saw between the ranks of the soldiers a passage formed from the carriage to the port. The two gendarmes who were opposite to him descended first, then he was ordered to alight and the gendarmes on each side of him followed his example. They advanced towards a boat, which a custom-house officer held by a chain, near the quay.
The soldiers looked at Dantès with an air of stupid curiosity. In an instant he was placed in the stern-sheets of the boat, between the gendarmes, while the officer stationed himself at the bow; a shove sent the boat adrift, and four sturdy oarsmen impelled it rapidly towards the Pilon. At a shout from the boat, the chain that closes the mouth of the port was lowered and in a second they were, as Dantès knew, in the Frioul and outside the inner harbor.
The prisoner’s first feeling was of joy at again breathing the pure air—for air is freedom; but he soon sighed, for he passed before La Réserve, where he had that morning been so happy, and now through the open windows came the laughter and revelry of a ball. Dantès folded his hands, raised his eyes to heaven, and prayed fervently.
The boat continued her voyage. They had passed the Tête de Mort, were now off the Anse du Pharo, and about to double the battery. This manœuvre was incomprehensible to Dantès.
“Whither are you taking me?” asked he.
“You will soon know.”
“We are forbidden to give you any explanation.” Dantès, trained in discipline, knew that nothing would be more absurd than to question subordinates, who were forbidden to reply; and so he remained silent.
The most vague and wild thoughts passed through his mind. The boat they were in could not make a long voyage; there was no vessel at anchor outside the harbor; he thought, perhaps, they were going to leave him on some distant point. He was not bound, nor had they made any attempt to handcuff him; this seemed a good augury. Besides, had not the deputy, who had been so kind to him, told him that provided he did not pronounce the dreaded name of Noirtier, he had nothing to apprehend? Had not Villefort in his presence destroyed the fatal letter, the only proof against him?
He waited silently, striving to pierce through the darkness.
They had left the Ile Ratonneau, where the lighthouse stood, on the right, and were now opposite the Point des Catalans. It seemed to the prisoner that he could distinguish a feminine form on the beach, for it was there Mercédès dwelt. How was it that a presentiment did not warn Mercédès that her lover was within three hundred yards of her?
One light alone was visible; and Dantès saw that it came from Mercédès’ chamber. Mercédès was the only one awake in the whole settlement. A loud cry could be heard by her. But pride restrained him and he did not utter it. What would his guards think if they heard him shout like a madman?
He remained silent, his eyes fixed upon the light; the boat went on, but the prisoner thought only of Mercédès. An intervening elevation of land hid the light. Dantès turned and perceived that they had got out to sea. While he had been absorbed in thought, they had shipped their oars and hoisted sail; the boat was now moving with the wind.
In spite of his repugnance to address the guards, Dantès turned to the nearest gendarme, and taking his hand,
“Comrade,” said he, “I adjure you, as a Christian and a soldier, to tell me where we are going. I am Captain Dantès, a loyal Frenchman, thought accused of treason; tell me where you are conducting me, and I promise you on my honor I will submit to my fate.”
The gendarme looked irresolutely at his companion, who returned for answer a sign that said, “I see no great harm in telling him now,” and the gendarme replied:
“You are a native of Marseilles, and a sailor, and yet you do not know where you are going?”
“On my honor, I have no idea.”
“Have you no idea whatever?”
“None at all.”
“That is impossible.”
“I swear to you it is true. Tell me, I entreat.”
“But my orders.”
“Your orders do not forbid your telling me what I must know in ten minutes, in half an hour, or an hour. You see I cannot escape, even if I intended.”
“Unless you are blind, or have never been outside the harbor, you must know.”
“I do not.”
“Look round you then.” Dantès rose and looked forward, when he saw rise within a hundred yards of him the black and frowning rock on which stands the Château d’If. This gloomy fortress, which has for more than three hundred years furnished food for so many wild legends, seemed to Dantès like a scaffold to a malefactor.
“The Château d’If?” cried he, “what are we going there for?”
The gendarme smiled.
Public Domain. Translated by Anonymous