"He found him completely surrounded; everyone was striving to have the honor of speaking with him, as always happens with people who speak little and never say a word without value."
I've been hearing rave reviews of The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas for years. The swashbuckling, old-fashioned imagery associated with the story never struck a chord with me, but after hearing descriptors such as "life-changing" and "immensely satisfying," I buckled and bought the novel about six months ago. My reading schedule is normally packed with volumes that eventually will be taught in my classroom, and I used to rarely make time for my own reading. In the past, I had tackled some 'classics' in my free time during the school year to little success (a memory of reading the first few pages of As I Lay Dying comes to mind), so I didn't place much pressure on myself to complete this new book. In fact, I pretty much assumed it would be back on my bookshelf within a few days. I was partly wrong.
The Count of Monte Cristo begins in Marseilles, a town on the coast of France. The location is given a calm, pastoral atmosphere, and a fairly large but close-knit group of main characters are introduced. Though this beginning section only lasts a few chapters, my meandering through its pages lasted nearly a month. The protagonist, Edmond Dantes, is interesting and likable enough, but it wasn't enough to keep my eyes glued to the pages. Even when he is framed by his jealous 'comrades' and thrown in jail, my interest was only slightly heightened. It may have been because it was during a hectic time of the year, but the novel spent exponentially more time on my nightstand than in my hands.
The scale of the novel starts off very small. Even when Dantes is whisked away to Chateau d'If, a sense of proximity to the world he has left behind is present. At the time, I was disappointed by the sense of wonder that was lacking from my reading experience. Paradoxically, my disappointment eventually helped intensify my wonder later in the book.
The Long Con
Although I will not give much away about the plot in this review, it is common knowledge that Dantes manages to escape Chateau d'If. After this point, the novel jumps considerably into the future, and the reader is thrust into a world of unknown and seemingly pointless characters. Dumas introduces Albert and Franz, two rambunctious brats running around Rome and making fools of themselves. Albert manages to get kidnapped by a group of bandits led by Luigi Vampa (best name ever), only to be saved by the mysterious Count of Monte Cristo.
The reader spends the first few chapters of The Count of Monte Cristo in an isolated locale, receiving copious details about every character. Every motive, every thought is made abundantly clear. Once the flash-forward takes place, minimal background is given, and the purpose of the events are a mystery. This sparked my intrigue as I read, but I also was concerned that the novel would end with a plethora of loose ends.
As the book continues, a myriad of characters continue to be introduced, but extremely subtle connections between the characters begin to be revealed. It is as if the characters slowly come into focus as the book progresses, a slow burn full of countless revelations. Dumas orchestrates this with precision, for whenever I thought I figured out exactly what was happening, a new character was introduced to throw a wrench into the works. It was at this point that I realized I was hooked: the book was no longer collecting dust, and I was yearning to solve the puzzle of these characters, to understand what their purposes were.
I'm not going to spare specific plot details from this point forward, but The Count of Monte Cristo heavily revolves around the concept of revenge. Seeking retribution for those who have done wrong has always been a problematic concept: it can be immensely satisfying, but also morally questionable. The novel tackles this idea in an excellent manner, bringing gratification to the audience while also acknowledging that the line between good and evil is frequently blurred by revenge. A certain character's quest for vengeance drives the book forward, and also adds underlying suspense and excitement.
Dumas could have easily introduced this sprawling group of characters, got each of them somewhat involved with the main story, and allowed them to fizzle away. Luckily, not only is every single character's purpose revealed, but every single character is integral to the story, and every single character is a unique puzzle piece used to choreograph the ultimate act of revenge . One of the most satisfying feelings in a story is having two isolated characters, both of which the reader is very familiar with, meet and interact for the first time. In The Count of Monte Cristo, there are scenes in which three or more well-known characters meet for the first time, at which point multiple earth-shattering revelations come to light, which lead to results that range from heartwarming to downright brutal. Best of all is that everything makes sense. Sure, there are some incredibly unlikely coincidences, but the attention to detail is astounding. Needless to say, by the time the various individual narratives began coming together, I could not put the book down.
As previously stated, The Count of Monte Cristo begins with a sense of familiarity that borders on being dull. Dumas manages to take this familiarity and explode it to a point that teeters on being incomprehensible, involving a cast of characters spread over a sprawling landscape. From this point, Dumas takes the immense scope of the novel and slowly, deliberately brings everything back together. The amazing feat here is not merely the fact that he ties up all loose ends, but the way he does this instills excitement, wonder, shock, and disgust. As I reached the end of the novel, I realized that any part of the book that I found boring or pointless in the end served some purpose, whether revealing a fact about a past event or unveiling and important character trait. The close of the novel feels similar to the beginning: a small scope is restored, and a sense of peace exist. The biggest difference is that the characters have been weathered by the turbulent events of the novel, and the audience, having gone along on the journey, can fully relate.
One of the most well-known quotes from the novel, stated by the Count of Monte Cristo, is that "all human wisdom is contained in these two words - Wait and Hope." Throughout life, there are countless uncertainties that are out of our control, but by persevering and remaining positive, the best possible outcome can be ensured. Dumas reflects this idea in the construction of The Count of Monte Cristo itself, since pressing on through the multiple stretches of confusion in the novel eventually results in vast and lasting satisfaction.