Adventure, love, betrayal, death, and revenge lie at the heart of all great works. From comedy to drama, be it a play or a novel or even a painting, greatness comes from a combination of the primary passions that encompass humanity. Alexander Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo is no exception to this rule. Book ended by love and the potential of the future, The Count of Monte Cristo offers a tale of morals without morality, and defines a classic.
To be a classic, a book must inspire, entertain and connect with it’s audience. Age is not a pre-requisite, though certainly the ability of a book to last a hundred years signifies it’s ability for longevity. But as time passes, it’s difficult to maintain a connection with novels, as events which were current at the time fade from memory. A hundred years pass and we remember events of greatness, but the little minutia that can bring a novel to life can also choke it with irrelevancy. It’s beneficial, towards this end, that the staging of The Count of Monte Cristo is nearly inconsequential.
As the novel begins, First-Mate Edmond Dantes is in the prime of his youth, exhibiting great potential and inspiring love in his men. As the Captain of the Pharaon lies dying, he asks Dantes to deliver a letter to the isle of Elba, and if asked, to deliver a letter from Elba to Paris. Regardless of the fact that Napoleon is in exile on Elba, Dantes treats the request as an order. Jealous, the ship’s purser sets up Dantes to be seen as a traitor to the monarchy, and is able to collude with others who share his feelings to frame Dantes for the crime of Bonapatism that his Captain committed.
As a man who is loved by his crew and employer, as well as one who is painted with only the flaw of naivetÃ©, it comes as a surprise to have Dantes railroaded into jail, imprisoned for life. But instead of carrying the reader on a plot device, Dumas crafts an intricate web of happenstance and coincidence that feels natural and believable. At first Dantes is shown hope, when anonymously accused of his crime, as the public prosecutor is out of town and his deputy, Villefort, sounds willing to accept Dantes story. However the letter from Elba bears the name of Villefort’s father, a Bonapartist whom Villefort has been trying to distance himself from all his life. With his reason clouded by fear that Napolean will return and his work will be for nothing, Villefort sacrifices Dantes for his own ambition, sentencing him to life in prison.
This, and the later mention in passing of Napoleonâ€™s failed attempt to regain power, are the only historical facts that are necessary to the telling of the story. Even the saga of Napoleon is touched on enough to permit someone with no historical background in the era to follow the book and not feel adrift. By keeping his story mostly self-contained, the reader can enjoy the world presented.
To entertain the audience across generations requires a story to have adventure, action and romance. Topics that can stir the passions in a person and make the story live. Action is difficult to translate to the page. In a play, the author has the advantage of stage directions and visual interpretation. Today’s media is inundated with movie action sequences with CGI effects speeding up and slowing down martial arts moves in a whirlwind cacophony of chaos. Wisely, Dumas avoids the majority of action sequences, alluding to them, showing us a little, but abstaining from multiple chapters of gratuitous violence. His action lies not in the clashing of swords and wielding of pistols, but the machinations of men and the evil we do to each other with words.
The love for the intelligent, beautiful and caring Mercedes supports Dantes through much of his actions, and is the cause for many of his choices. Arrested at his own rehearsal dinner, Dantes originally strikes a chord in Villefort’s heart, as both men plan to be married soon. After years of imprisonment, Dantes grows past his love for Mercedes until she stands like a holy relic in his heart. He still loves her, but it becomes apparent that Dantes is no longer the man he was, and while the nineteen year-old First Mate was consumed by passion, the nearly forty year-old Count has a different perspective, and his deep passion is now that of revenge.
It is when Dantes is in prison that he is given redemption from his crimes of innocence. But also his time served sows the seeds of revenge in his heart, beginning the crafting of The Count of Monte Cristo into a classic. It’s a plot wagon, the old priest accidentally tunneling into Dantes’ cell and then teaching him all he knows of languages, literature and science. Unknowingly, the priest arms Dantes in his vengeance as well as leads him to the true knowledge of his fate, all through teaching Dantes to use his mind. The two are able to discern that Dantes was set up and betrayed.
Even with that knowledge, Dantes even finds himself unable to exact the revenge he’d intended on his rival, Fernand, when he can’t destroy Mercedes. Also, the young man, Morrel, son of the owner of the Pharaon, desires to marry Villeforte’s daughter, and in the interests of helping the young man whom he sees as a son, Dantes changes his plan to spare her life.
Not everyone lives ‘happily ever after,’ however. The son of Fernand gives up all his money and his fiancÃ©e to join the army while his mother, Mercedes, settles with the pittance Dantes’ had intended to use for their marriage, and secludes herself in a poor man’s house. While many characters are given the road to their own happiness, the gifts given to Dantes’ enemies and friends are similar. Riches are given to men who helped and hurt Dantes, but only the decent men find success and happiness.
Now a hardened cynic, Dantes manages to find pity and grow humane once more when his acts of revenge spiral out of control, taking with them the sanity of Villeforte and the life of Villeforte’s wife and their young son. It is with these tragic losses that Dantes questions his own actions and begins to see life past himself. Even in his adult, mature life outside the prison, Dantes remained fettered by his blinders of self-righteousness. His steadfast belief in honor and the good in men imprisons him, and once free he clings to the thought that few men can be innocent.
As for Dantes himself, love sneaks up and all but tackles Dantes unawares near the end of the novel. All but the densest reader can see the slave HaydÃ©e loves Dantes, faults and all, and leaves with him in the end. It’s a redemption Dantes had not expected, living his life only to revenge his own death, for the young idealist he was will never return. In its place is the mature, wiser man, who’s finally able to live life and accept that tomorrow will bring what it may bring. At long last, Dantes has grown up.