After 1245 pages, I’ve arrived at the end of Alexandre Dumas’ novel, The Count of Monte Cristo. Writing a blog post almost seems superfluous, given how iconic it is in the annals of popular fiction, but let’s have a shot at it.
The premise is well known: during the French restoration, a young sailor named Edmond Dantes is falsely denounced as a Bonapartist agent by three men who stand to profit from his disappearance. He winds up getting imprisoned under horrific conditions in the Chateau D’If, where he by chance finds out about a fortune hidden away on the small island of Monte Cristo. After fourteen years he engineers his escape and takes the treasure. Becoming the titular Count of Monte Cristo, he spends the next decade preparing to take revenge on his persecutors.
Monte Cristo‘s chief success lies in its intricate plotting and suspense. Dumas knows how to ratchet up tension, intrigue and action, and deserves the popularity given to him for that. If anything, the novel’s length is justified by its almost encyclopedic array of examples on how to play your audience.
That said, the chief issue I had with the book was its characterization, which at times made those 1245 pages a bit of a slog. Like a lot of 19th century serials, Monte Cristo is a bit bloated. But unlike, say, a Dickens novel where the characters are so fun that you don’t care that nothing’s really happening, Dumas struggles to make the characters surrounding the Count compelling. And this is an issue for a novel whose Wikipedia article contains a flow chart mapping all the character relations. I often found myself scratching my head trying to remember who character X was and where I had seen them previously.
This makes me feel divided over a lot of the developments within the story. For instance, on the one hand, I appreciate the romance subplot between Morrel and Valentine because it adds a wrinkle to the climax that makes it all the more exciting. On the other hand, the setup to that payoff is more endured than appreciated.
The Count himself is a sort of proto-Batman: a tragic man who uses his wealth, and intellectual and physical prowess to create elaborate plots to ensnare his enemies. The Count doesn’t see his vengeance as a private affair, but instead believes himself to be appointed as an executor of God’s judgment, sacrificing his own humanity to fulfill that role. And, indeed, most of his plots have a sort of “wages of sin” character to it where he indirectly entraps his victims with their own vices.
There is a lot of Catholic imagery dripping throughout the book, and at the back of a lot of the character arcs is whether they will ultimately repent or not, and whether mercy or judgment will win out in the heart of the Count. Not all of this is as well realized as it could be: in particular the story plays a lot with the spiritual power of suffering and with divine providence and evil, without really articulating anything definite to say.
But it was a fine read, and enough to make me consider dipping into the rest of Dumas’ oeuvre. Apparently it was popular enough in Japan to warrant a sci-fi anime adaptation: