For the first book in my “Classics Challenge,” I chose The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, reasoning it would probably be a page-turner. When I picked up the unabridged version in the bookstore, I almost second-guessed myself. It may be a page-turner, but there are a LOT of pages--which makes sense since it was first published in serial form. When you’re getting paid by the word, it makes sense to use as many words as possible--and Dumas certainly did that. I've never approved of abridged versions of Great Books, but in this case, I think a lot of the description and some of the subplots could have been cut or shortened. In fact, I think I read a version abridged for children when I was around ten--and it turns out that I still think I remembered the best parts.
The story begins this way: Edmond Dantes is on the verge of seeing all his dreams come true. The nineteen-year-old sailor receives a promotion to captain as the book opens, allowing him to plan his wedding to his sweetheart, the beautiful Mercedes. Unbeknownst to him, other men are jealous of his good fortune, and anonymously denounce him to the authorities as a dangerous supporter of the exiled emperor Napoleon. Dantes never receives a fair trial and is imprisoned in the Chateau d’If. He almost goes mad, but connects with the Abbe Faria, a gentle priest of great learning who teaches him everything he knows and helps him deduce the men who caused his downfall. The Abbe’s death allows Dantes to escape from the island prison, while the secret of the immense treasure of Monte Cristo goes with him, to aid him in his quest for revenge.
At heart Monte Cristo is a revenge fantasy in which the author gives his character unlimited resources with which to work the demise of the people who destroyed his life. After the Count appears in Paris, the author dwells heavily upon his vast wealth, the better to establish that nothing can stop his intricate revenge plot. I got tired of reading about how rich the Count is, as well as the frequent use of Oriental imagery and comparison to the Arabian Nights.. I was ready to move on, to see how these people (some of whom are not immediately connected with the conspirators) would be dealt with. Some of the offenders are easy to recognize; others have changed their names when they earned titles, and of course there are their children to keep track of. Dumas certainly keeps the reader’s interest up with the multiple subplots, and underneath it all, we can feel the Count’s indefatigable purpose marching inexorably onward. This is probably why the novel “works” for so many readers despite the implausible elements of the plot. Dumas does not disappoint in wrapping the whole story up neatly; no modern ambiguity for him, which I appreciate. If I’m going to commit to reading a 1,300 page book, I want resolution by the end, and I got it here.
Since the sections after the Count appears in Paris do not allow us into Dantes’ thoughts, we must figure out his plan for ourselves. Toward the end of the novel, we learn that the Count thinks of himself as the tool of God’s justice. Only when one of his plans ends in tragic, unintended consequences does he wonder if he was wrong:
"Monte Cristo became pale at this horrible sight; he felt that he had passed beyond the bounds of vengeance, and that he could no longer say, 'God is for and with me.'"
Soon afterward, however, his self-doubt vanishes, and he sails away with his beautiful young former slave, returning to the East where he found her. This addition of a May-September romance may have been to help the reader feel that Dantes was fully recompensed for his lost love, but I thought it would have been a far stronger ending to have the Count, the ultimate Byronic hero, sail away into the sunset alone, the way he entered Parisian society, while his friends watch thankfully and the few enemies who are still alive try to comprehend what happened.