Holy revenge story, Batman! The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas, may be the most epic revenge story I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. The Count of Monte Cristo is set against the vivid backdrop of France during the end of the Napoleonic Era and the restoration of King Louis XVIII to the throne. This book starts off somewhat slowly, but when it kicks into adventure time, it kicks ass. This novel was completed in 1844, but believe me when I say it is just as compelling now as it must have been back then. Adventure and intrigue never go out of style. This is a far cry from other works published at that time, even some of my favorites — Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813 and Jane Eyre in 1847 — which are still popular, but less easy to relate to. As much as I adore my Jane Austen, I simply can’t lose myself in a comedy of manners in which the female characters’ SOLE goal in life is to marry a rich bachelor. I have trouble supporting characters that rigidly defined, though I admire the way in which Austen and Brontë painted them.
Dumas, however, gives us a tarnished hero in the character of Edmond Dantès, a young merchant sailor arrested due to false charges brought against him by two jealous rivals (Fernand and Danglars), and imprisoned by an immoral judge (Villefort) simply seeking to make a name for himself. Due to the tragic conspiracy laid against him, the naive and upstanding young Dantès is literally snatched away from his bride-to-be Mercédès on their wedding day and thrown into a horrible prison for fourteen years. This is the relatively slow bit. Granted, I understand that Dantès is in prison, so there’s not a whole lot he can do, but I did get a little tired of his pining. Of course, I’d probably be miserable as well if I was thrown in a dungeon for a crime of which I knew I was truly innocent.
While in prison, Dantès becomes friends with the prisoner in the next cell, and they actually tunnel under the floor to visit one another. His new friend, a priest by the name of Abeé Faria, helps Dantès understand the plot laid against him, including deducing who framed him and then betrayed him to the authorities. Together, the two men plot an escape; their plan takes a very long time, however, and in the years they are incarcerated Faria educates Dantès in many subjects, to the point that he has the education equivalent to that a gentleman of society would have received. Sadly, Faria passes away before he and Dantès are able to execute their escape plans. However, Faria bequeaths Dantès an enormous fortune that he had hidden away on the island of Monte Cristo before being imprisoned. Now, things start to get interesting. Dantès escapes the island prison in a totally unexpected fashion, and manages to gain the treasure Faria had left to him.
Once he has the staggering wealth of a nobleman, Dantès renames himself the Count of Monte Cristo and sets out to seek vengeance on those who wronged him. He finds that Fernand, Danglars, and Villefort have all become extremely rich, and — to make matters worse — his love Mercédès married Fernand, the very man who was responsible for Dantès’ absence. Dantès spends TEN YEARS planning and setting up for his ultimate revenge, though thankfully Dumas skims over that decade of his life. Dumas instead uses vignettes to establish the way in which Dantès lays the foundation for things to come. Some of the stories seem to make no sense, but one hundred pages later you realize that it was all part of a master plan. This whole book felt like a murder mystery in which you were racing alongside the killer, trying to guess when and where he would strike next. And good god – when Dantès strikes, he strikes HARD. He is very Old Testament in his ideas of retribution and the sins of the father being paid for by the son (or wife, or cousin, or friend…). If Dantès views you as guilty in the plot against him, you can pretty much kiss everything you care about in your life goodbye.
Now, I HIGHLY encourage everybody to read this book, so I don’t want to give too many spoilers. The main action of the novel takes place in Paris society, which is all the more interesting for the historical events of the time. Dantès picks away at his enemies little by little, so subtly that at times even I wasn’t sure what his endgame was. Let me assure you, the final result of his labors is extreme. It’s interesting to find yourself rooting so hard for someone doing such underhanded and occasionally awful things, but I truly was cheering for Dantès all the way. I also appreciated the fact that Dumas did not attempt to give the novel an unrealistic happy ending; the mission throughout was to rain misery and pain down on those who had hurt him, so a tidy ending would have been ridiculous. I wondered how Dumas would handle the lingering love between Dantès and Mercédès, but I was satisfied even with the way he resolved that aspect of the storyline.
This book is engrossing and emotional, but still a downright fun read. I found myself reading pages whenever I could spare a moment, even once while in the turn lane at a stop light. Now, of course the language is slightly out of date, even if the ideas are not. I think this actually adds to the appeal. I felt utterly transported to another era, one in which sword fights, city glamor, and sprawling country houses were still natural parts of life. In closing, let me share one of my favorite lines from the novel: “What I demand, madame, is that justice shall be done. My mission on earth is to punish.”
If that doesn’t hook you, I don’t know what will.