Collateral Damage: The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas
by Marilyn Green Faulkner
In the evolution of human revolution there are some great moments. Imagine the fierce determination on the faces of the men surrounding King John as the Magna Carta was signed. Picture the desperate expressions of the Paris mob that stormed the dreaded Bastille Prison, or the icy resolve of the noble Washington as he crossed the Delaware to continue a seemingly hopeless battle against overwhelming odds. Yet none of these moments, however daring, can compare for sheer bravery to the day when a poor carpenter’s son climbed a hillside, sat on a rock, and calmly uttered a series of statements that turned his nation’s code of ethics inside-out and transformed the history of the world forever.
“Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy, But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:38-44)
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus presented an ideal of behavior so contrary to the natural inclination of mankind that we continue to ignore it and substitute a more comfortable compromise in its stead. Who among us truly loves his enemies, turns the other cheek, and does not seek revenge against those who persecute him? Our sense of justice recoils at the idea. We cling to the notion that our ills are caused by someone or something that must be ferreted out and punished. If our relationships fail, we blame our spouses, or our upbringing. If we commit crimes, the fault is in our economic system. It’s the government who forces us to cheat on our taxes and our employer whose unfair practices lead us to fail at our work. In those rare cases when we truly are the innocent victims of evil we may spend a lifetime nursing the pain and increasing the damage by attempts to even the score. With the bitter Shylock, we ask, “If you wrong us, shall we not revenge?” (Merchant of Venice, III, i, 66) Yet, as Shylock learned, revenge has a way of backfiring on us, damaging us more than those we seek to punish. The almost irresistible lure and the devastating effects of revenge are the central themes of Alexandre Dumas’ classic tale of adventure, The Count of Monte Cristo.
Alexandre Dumas was the son of one of Napoleon’s most decorated generals. His father, the illegitimate son of a French nobleman and a Negro seamstress, took his mother’s name of Dumas, and rose through the ranks of the military through his bravery and leadership. He was, however, a dissolute man whose example of promiscuity and debauchery was followed by his brilliant son. The young Dumas was determined to make his fortune as a writer, and succeeded early on with several plays and accounts of his travels. When newspapers began to serialize novels in the late 1830’s, Dumas saw an opportunity and began to write his most famous novels, The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo. Both were serialized and were tremendously popular. Though he wrote over 300 plays, novels, travel books and memoirs, and was the most famous author of his day (more famous even than Victor Hugo), Dumas died a poor man, having squandered millions of francs on his reckless lifestyle.
Dumas did have one great virtue; he was a tireless worker, writing up to fourteen hours a day. For his plots he preferred to begin with an idea, such as revenge, and find a historical incident that illustrated his theme. He read an account in a police record of a remarkable conspiracy between three friends to frame a fourth man, named Picaud, for a crime he didn’t commit, so that one of the three could marry his fiance. Picaud spent seven years in prison, and there grew close to a cleric who left him a vast fortune of three million francs. After his release Picaud staged an elaborate revenge on those who had betrayed him that stretched over a period of twenty years. He was eventually kidnapped and murdered by one of the group, who recounted the whole story on his deathbed.
Dumas took this true account as the storyline of The Count of Monte Cristo, preserving many of the main elements but reshaping the protagonist, Edmund Dantes, into a kind of superhero. Dantes, after his escape from prison, dwells like a Sultan in a mysterious hidden grotto where slaves and servants leap to do his bidding. His arrival in Paris causes a sensation, and it is there that he begins to work his revenge. The Count possesses unlimited knowledge, wealth, strength and resourcefulness. As David Coward says, “Heroes do not come any taller. He is the stuff of adolescent dreams, and will retain his fascination while the boy’s heart beats in man.” Dantes believes that he is the agent of Providence, sent to mete out justice to those who have sinned. In the end he finds that revenge is a poison that infects all it touches, symbolized by the terrible deaths of Madame Villefort and her innocent son. To his horror he realizes too late that he is as much a victim of his own vengeance as he was a victim of the men who wronged him.
It is in the spiritual rebirth of Dantes that the novel goes beyond a simple romantic adventure. He is faced at every turn with the impossibility of true revenge, and we are forced, through his experiences, to question our own sense of justice. For example, his rival has married the woman he loved, and they have a son. Should this son of his enemy be destroyed, breaking the heart of his beloved Mercedes? Dantes finds that he cannot exact vengeance on the guilty without harming the innocent. Today this dilemma faces us, as we strive to mete out justice to terrorists and find instead that thousands of innocent women and children are driven from their homes in the violence of war. In the climactic scene where Dantes finally confronts Mercedes, she challenges his notion of justice by reminding him of the “collateral damage” attendant to revenge, and begging for the life of her son. He comes to the realization that his intricate plans for revenge may not be inspired by God. On the contrary, he admits, “Providence is now opposed to them when I most thought it would be propitious.” (889) As Dantes brings his plan to a close he attempts to mitigate the damage he has set in motion, and finds a place for mercy and forgiveness in his heart.
In the figure of Edmund Dantes, Dumas created a folk hero whose popularity has never waned. Numerous film versions have been created, and The Count of Monte Cristo has been continuously in print and beloved in countless languages since its debut. Of Dumas’ unique ability to create characters that crossed national boundaries Victor Hugo said, “The name of Alexandre Dumas is more than French, it is European; and it is more than European, it is Universal.” The great William Thackeray wrote to a friend that he “began to read Monte Cristo at six one morning and never stopped until eleven at night.” George Bernard Shaw placed him in the same order with Dickens. There aren’t many books that will pull me out of bed for a few extra chapters late at night, but this was one that kept me up way past my bedtime. By following the path of revenge as far as it will take him, Monte Cristo shows us what a dangerous path it is for any of us to tread, and the reason why the scripture counsels, “Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord.”
The Count of Monte Cristo is the Best Books Club selection for November. We invite you to share your comments by clicking on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Readers comment on How Green Was My Valley, by Richard Llewellyn
Our October selection drew some affectionate comments from readers. Here is a sampling:
I was touched by your review of Llewellyn’s masterpiece. My first exposure to the story was through the black and white film made in the 1940s with Paul Robeson playing and singing a daring vignette to add to the tale. Since then, I have read the book every year as an inward pilgrimage to hold onto the sweet memories of the sad crippled boy who becomes an observer of the ins and out of life in his beloved but doomed village. It is deeply romantic, with thrilling tales of love that cannot be, deeply tragic as industrial disaster robes homes of fathers and sons, and compellingly rich in humour. Llewellyn is a master crafter and I still weep as I read his closing words, “How green was my valley then, and the valley of those that are gone.”
Thank you for reviving treasured memories. Ronnie
I remember watching How Green Was My Valley as a teenage and being so touched by it (at a time in my life when little else was touching me.)
I have read your “books of the month.” I spent many years growing-up in a mining town. In another time I probably would have gone “underground” at the age of twelve. But even so, I was personally aware of the dangers, hardships, and just plain hard work and ruined health of friends and neighbors. At the age of eight, my step-father and best friend was killed in a cave-in. So Llewellyn’s book, to me, was more than just another interesting tale. Thanks for including me in your Group. Darryl
Best Books Club Reading List: December 2000 – June 2002
I’ve had many requests for our reading list, past and future. Here are the books we have read together so far and the upcoming books for the first half of 2002. Check the archives at Meridian for articles on any books you missed.
December 2000 A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
January 2001 Master and Commander, Patrick O’Brian
February 2001 Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte
March 2001 Celestial Navigation, Anne Tyler
April 2001 Silas Marner, George Elliot
May 2001 The Chosen, Chaim Potok
June 2001 A Room With a View, E.M. Forster
July 2001 The Keys of the Kingdom, A.J. Cronin
August 2001 The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and/or Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
September 2001 Mansfield Park, Jane Austen
October 2001 How Green Was My Valley, Richard Llewellyn
November 2001 The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexander Dumas
December 2001 The Human Comedy, William Saroyan
The Christmas Books, Charles Dickens
January 2002 O Pioneer, Willa Cather
February 2002 Dear and Glorious Physician, Taylor Caldwell
March 2002 Cranford, Elizabeth Gaskell
April 2002 Angle of Repose, Wallace Stegner
May 2002 The Phantom of the Opera, Gaston Leroux
June 2002 The Once and Future King, T.H. White
2001 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.