It’s my number one favorite book. And I’m going to make this post quick. The Count of Monte Cristo is a book that I would recommend to anyone (unabridged) because of its intricate way of weaving characters together in a maddening tale of imprisonment and revenge.
Edmond Dantes is a young sailor drawn into accusations of supporting the return of Napoleon, shortly after the emperor’s exile from France. Several characters with different motivations come into play here: a jealous rival, in love with Edmond’s soon-to-be wife, Mercedes; Danglars, a jealous rival who wants his promotion, and Villefort, a prosecutor who imprisons Dantes in spite of his innocence, due to his own connection as the son of a Napoleon sympathizer.
Dantes is imprisoned for 21 years (I think?) and once he breaks out he transforms himself into Monte Cristo, a rich vigilante with a very particular set of skills: skills that he masterfully unravels over the course of the book in his epic plot for revenge.
Long story short: he gets it. Mostly by driving everyone else insane. Half the Villefort family ends up poisoned, due to internal disputes. The full toll of Fernand’s dishonor is brought before Mercedes and her son, Albert. They flee him and he commits suicide. Danglars watches his stocks crash in the market, due to expert manipulation by the Count. And then gets off easy at the end of the book when, after imprisonment, the Count reveals himself to him.Then forgives him, and lets him live. With the knowledge that he was bested by his rival in the end.
Should a man really have all that power? Throughout the book, Dantes styles himself like a demigod in the form of his new identity. He believes revenge is his responsibility, and will pursue it to any end. The end of revenge doesn’t just affect his enemies: it practically destroys those around them. Villefort, in addition to his sanity, loses almost everyone in his family to poison. He is ignominiously revealed and dishonored to his peers in court. Fernand, before killing himself, loses his wife and son, along with his reputation. And a man’s entire stock crashes.
Monte Cristo assumes himself as the prime mover of events: the puppet master pulling the strings at every turn. And he knows he’s manipulating people. And takes pride in it. Venomous pride. He doesn’t stop when he sees the situation going out of control. He continues to pull the strings. Like a badass. Or a demigod.
As exhilarating as the story is, it seems also dangerous at the same time. Edmond is now a man blinded by his taste for vengeance that he has essentially become vengeance personified. And at that point he knows no bounds. Sometimes it is almost scary to listen to the way he talks. He sees no fault in himself. He sees justification. And even munificence, as he saves a friend from bankruptcy. Should these good deeds outweigh his vengeance? Or should vengeance be overlooked based on the fact that these men would have gone unpunished for their deeds if not for him?
I feel a little bit of both reading the book. I’m angry that my sympathy for Villefort and Fernand actually grows towards the end of the novel. Because, rather than stereotypical villains, they are drawn out as complex human characters, with different motivations. And Dantes can see that, even as he plots their undoing. He invites them into his house; he sits and has dinner with them. He builds himself up as a friend to his enemies and then slowly rips them apart, inch by inch, until they are all completely destroyed. And I love it. Though it scares me.
It’s scary how deep someone can get into their intentions, especially when the intentions involve revenge. Monte Cristo is merciless in that regard. It never gives him one shred of guilty conscience.The injustice of these men outweighs any consequence they may suffer under his vengeance. The terms were already waged. And for him, he is all good. Because he is playing a godly role: making things right in the world. Only he and no other was destined to do it. But then again, that’s what 21 years of imprisonment can do to someone: it can erase him. And re-form him: in the form of a idea, rather than a man.