Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Count of Monte Cristo

Title: The Count of Monte Cristo
Author: Alexandre Dumas
Original Date of Publication: 1844
This Edition: May 27th 2003 by Penguin Classics
Number of Pages: 1276
Original Language: French
Translator: Robin Buss
Purchase: AmazonBarnes & Noble (ebook)ebayAbe BooksThe Book Depository


What Goodreads has to say:

'On what slender threads do life and fortune hang'

Thrown in prison for a crime he has not committed, Edmond Dantès is confined to the grim fortress of If. There he learns of a great hoard of treasure hidden on the Isle of Monte Cristo and he becomes determined not only to escape, but also to unearth the treasure and use it to plot the destruction of the three men responsible for his incarceration. Dumas' epic tale of suffering and retribution, inspired by a real-life case of wrongful imprisonment, was a huge popular success when it was first serialised in the 1840s.

Robin Buss' lively translation is complete and unabridged, and remains faithful to the style of Dumas' original. This edition includes an introduction, explanatory notes and suggestions for further reading.


What I have to say:


(warning: subtle spoilers)

The Arrest


On August 24, I began reading The Count of Monte Cristo. On September 30, around 11:00 pm, I finished The Count of Monte Cristo. This means that in the space of about one month I lived through 29 years. And they were epic.

If you're looking into reading The Count of Monte Cristo for the first time, I cannot recommend highly enough Robin Buss' translation. As the owner of the bookstore where I bought the 1276 page novel informed me, Buss grew up speaking both French and English in his household, so clearly he knows what he's doing. I found his translation lively, poetic, and moving. And don't even bother reading the unabridged version - seriously, who does that? - be a hipster and read the whole thing.

In reviewing Dumas' masterpiece, I first want to make it clear that I thoroughly enjoyed the novel and gave it four stars on goodreads. The compelling nature of many of the characters and the fast-paced plot kept me up reading the book for days on end and often late into the night - and when that happens with a book published over 170 years ago, you know there's something good there. So if you get the sense further on in this review that I'm criticizing Dumas and his novel, please know that I hold the author in very high regard and loved the novel very much.

The Trial


First of all I want to talk about the characters. I anticipate this will be the longest section in my review - because, let's face it: there are over 40 characters in this book. That doesn't mean I'm going to get through all of them (don't worry - it won't take you longer to read this review than it will to read the actual book). But I do want to look at some of the main characters - from the most compelling to the most pathetic.

Eugenie Danglars

Basically, she's boss. Half the characters in The Count of Monte Cristo suffer from arranged marriages, but while everybody else is suffering and lamenting, Eugenie sits her father down and tells him in effect: "You didn't consult me when you arranged this marriage. We're not living in the era of arranged matches anymore. I don't want to get married. I'm not going to." When her father makes it clear that they'll both be bankrupt unless Eugenie marries the wealthy Prince (he's not a real prince - see the book), Eugenie shrugs and runs away with a woman. Like I said, boss.

The main reason Eugenie's character comes across as so strong is precisely because she knows what she wants and is going to get it - despite what anyone else thinks she can or can't do. Some of the other characters start to seem rather pathetic about mid-way through the book. Albert doesn't want to get married to Eugenie, but the match has already been arranged and he doesn't want to upset his father, so he'll marry her. Valentine is passionately in love with Morrel, but her father has arranged her marriage to Franz, so she'll resign herself and marry him. Morrel loves Valentine and wants to marry her but figures he can't so he'll just kill himself. You know, whatever. In the midst of all of this, you can probably understand why, beside the paragraph when Eugenie outright tells her father she won't marry Cavalcanti, I wrote in pencil,"Eugenie is the best character in the whole book." 

Albert de Morcerf

I love Albert. In fact, he and Eugenie may be my favorite characters, though I also like Mercedes, Noirtier, and Franz, among others. Albert is so simply lovable. He's a sincere person. When he loves someone, such as the Count or his mother, Mercedes, he says so openly. And when someone upsets him, he tells them so openly. He's brave, honest, and simple in character - in the sense that he's a very straightforward person with no deceit and little complexity. You can almost always tell what he's thinking - usually because he'll just tell you. And he's unfailingly loyal. I love Albert.

I think Albert as a character may be the one that the reader connects with most easily on an emotional level (with the possible exception of Mercedes) - he seems to go straight to your heart, and when bad things start happening to him, your heart just breaks. I was aghast when he challenged one of his best friends to a fight to the death - and even more aghast when he challenged his best friend, the Count. His naive love for the Count is touching when, suffering acutely under the influence of a rumor that threatens his father's honor and that, unbeknownst to Albert, has in fact been propagated by the Count, Albert's friend suggests that they go and see the Count of the Monte Cristo in order to cheer Albert up. "Yes," Albert replies readily. "Let's go see the Count. I like him."

Albert may also be one of the characters in the novel that experiences the most profound change throughout. Introduced to the reader as a lovable, if rather simple, Parisian dandy whose deepest anxieties are over the stylishness of his clothes (or lack thereof) and whose greatest longing is to have a romantic adventure in Rome, the Albert shown to us in the novel's final chapters is quite a different character. He's always been brave, but now he finds the courage to uphold his inherent sense of honor by abandoning his wealth and manifold comforts and supporting himself and his mother entirely on his own. I suppose you could say that Albert grows up.

Valentine de Villefort

Valentine is in many ways Eugenie's foil. Both girls find themselves in a similar situation: their fathers have arranged a marriage for them to a man they do not love. Where Eugenie stands up and kicks butt, however, Valentine sits down and faints. Dumas juxtaposes the two girls several times, pointing out Valentine's gentle, feminine nature beside Eugenie's bold, more masculine nature. One of Albert's friends compares Eugenie to Artemis, the chaste huntress from Greek mythology. If Eugenie is Artemis, virgin goddess of the hunt, then Valentine is her softer counterpart, named for the saint who gives his name to Valentine's Day, and thus representative of traditional feminine love. This juxtaposition is interesting and holds a lot of promise, but in all other respects, Valentine is an uninteresting character. She's a bit like Cinderella, but without the spunk. A dutiful daughter - there's nothing wrong with that - Valentine absolutely refuses to stand up for herself and instead allows herself to be coerced by the men in her life - whether that's her father, her grandfather (but let's face it: her grandfather is awesome so there's no problem there), or her melodramatic and somewhat pathetic lover whom I'm not even convinced she loves. When her star-crossed lover (we'll get to him in a moment) tries to persuade her to run away with him, Valentine is adamant about the fact that she will not stand up for herself. Only when he threatens to kill himself upon her marriage does Valentine agree to run away with him, but with the stipulation that they will wait until the positively last second. And, in the event, they don't actually go through with it.

The only reason Valentine survives the novel is the Count of Monte Cristo, but her character won't survive long in memory.

Maximilien Morrel

Maximilien and Valentine are two peas in a pod: uninteresting, uninspiring, and not at all overbold. The first time I met Maximilien, I was inclined to like him - he was brave and morally upright, and the scene with his father was touching. To top it all off, he was kind to the Count - that was nice. But after his meeting with the Count, Maximilien's character set off on a downward spiral. The more I saw of him, the more uninteresting he became. In the final chapters of the novel, he managed to redeem himself by being so melodramatic and pathetic that he became humorous. Thus when he and the Count enter Marseilles and the Count asks if Maximilien had something he needed to do in town, Maximilien replies, "I will go weep upon my father's grave." I picture the Count rolling his eyes when Maximilen's head is turned. At another point, the Count is engaged in telling Maximilien the unfortunate story of a young man who was sent to prison and abandoned by his friends (hint: the young man is the Count but Maximilien doesn't seem to pick up on that, probably because he's too busy weeping over his father's grave) and Maximilien finds it hard to believe that this other young man has suffered more than he has. He starts comparing his own plight to that of the man in the story. But did that man consider killing himself? he asks, to which the Count replies in the affirmative. But did he lose his father? asks Maximilien. His father died of starvation while his son was imprisoned for 18 years, the Count replies. "Oh," says Maximilien.

Mercedes

Mercedes is the heart of The Count of Monte Cristo. Motivating all her actions are a mother's love for her son and a woman's love for her husband (or the man who would have been her husband had he not been sent to jail for 18 years and then been presumed dead - it happens). The moment that stands at the heart of the book is that when Mercedes accosts the Count as Edmond Dantes and begs him to spare the life of her son. She kneels before the man she once loved - and still loves - and will always love - to plead for the life of the son who is more precious to her than anything else on this earth. It is a moment of deep emotion, heart, and intensity - and the most thoroughly moving scene in the entire book:

The stranger looked all around her to make sure that she was quite alone then, bending forward as if she wanted to kneel down, and clasping her hands, she said in a desperate voice: "Edmond! You must not kill my son!"
The count took one pace backwards, gave a faint cry and dropped the pistol he was holding. 
"What name did you say, Madame de Morcerf?" he asked. 
"Yours!" she cried, throwing back her veil. "Yours, which perhaps I alone have not forgotten. Edmond, it is not Madame de Morcerf who has come to you, it is Mercedes." 
"Mercedes is dead, Madame," said Monte Cristo. "I do not know anyone of that name." 
"Mercedes is alive, Monsieur, and Mercedes remembers, for she alone recognized you when she saw you, even without seeing you, by your voice, Edmond, by the mere sound of your voice. Since that time she has followed you step by step, she has watched you and been wary of you, because she did not need to wonder whose was the hand that has struck down Monsieur de Morcerf."
Perhaps it is only too appropriate that, as the character with the most heart in all of the novel, Mercedes' ending is the one that seems to the reader the most tragic and undeserved. Carried away on the wings of the happy ending which comes after so much heartache, and the Count's final, transcendent words, echoed by Valentine, the reader touches down only for a moment, and that only to repeat a single name, questioningly - the name of the woman loved by Edmond Dantes for so long, and who loved Edmond Dantes even longer. We ask of Fate, or the Count, or God, or Dumas - for we are uncertain which of these fatalistic forces we should hold responsible for the outcome of her story - what of Mercedes? And we are left without an answer: Fate, or God, or the Count, or whoever it is we should ultimately hold responsible, are overwhelmingly silent on this point.

I can understand why most adaptations of The Count of Monte Cristo depart from the original ending to grant Mercedes her happily ever after; not only is the outcome of her story almost unbearable, but it feels like a splinter in the novel. There is a falling out or falling apart that occurs when the Count takes his final leave of Mercedes, and from that point on, the book feels less like a cohesive whole; at the end of it, the characters pair off and go their separate ways. And even though some of these characters seem perfectly happy and there is nothing to convince us that they are otherwise, we have doubts and hesitate to concede to them their happy ending. For how can Edmond Dantes be truly happy without Mercedes at his side? Having the Count reunited with Mercedes at the end of the story just feels more whole. But perhaps Dumas never intended to write that kind of a story.

The Verdict


After that tangent which wasn't really a tangent, I feel like there's probably nothing left to say and you wouldn't even read it anyway. I could talk at length about the Count, but I don't really want to, which seems like a cop-out in a review of The Count of Monte Cristo, but enough has been said about him in any case; Mercedes' is the story that begs for more attention. I could talk about Haydee, Father Noirtier, Villefort and his crushing defeat at the hands of the Count, or Madame Danglars' gently tragic ending and the fact that I liked her more than I ever had before the last time she ever appeared in the novel. I could glory in the shape of the book and the closure gained when Edmond revisits Marseilles, Chateau d'If and Monte Cristo in the final chapters, or I could revel in the beautiful serenity of the moment near the end of the novel when the Count meditates over a quiet ocean and a star-filled sky. Had we but world enough and time, I could talk to you about all these and a host of other things. But why delineate them for you here? The best and surest way for you to experience them is to read the book yourself - so do. I think you'll enjoy it. Then, if you feel inclined, we can talk about The Count together.

Release (or not)


After reading the novel and seeing an immensely disappointing stage adaptation of it, I have resolved to embark upon a Quixotic venture and watch every film adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo that I can get my hands on. I will find the one (or at least watch them all before admitting defeat). When I have done so, I will report my conclusion. Stay tuned. 

In the meantime, I'd love to hear your thoughts on The Count of Monte Cristo. Have you read it? Seen an adaptation I should explore? Which characters moved you, and which left you feeling somewhat less that satisfied? Just because you (yes - I am talking to you) have never commented on this blog before doesn't mean I will give up on you. After all, as Dumas reminds us, "until the day when God shall deign to reveal the future to man, all human wisdom is summed up in these two words, - 'wait and hope.'" That's not a bad motto.

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