The Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas

The Count of Monte Cristo
 
Plot Overview
 
At the age of nineteen, Edmond Dantès seems to have the perfect life. He is about to become the captain of a ship, he is engaged to a beautiful and kind young woman, Mercédès, and he is well liked by almost everyone who knows him. This perfect life, however, stirs up dangerous jealousy among some of Dantès’s so-called friends. Danglars, the treasurer of Dantès ship, envies Dantès’s early career success; Fernand Mondego is in love with Dantès’s fiancée and so covets his amorous success; his neighbor Caderousse is simply envious that Dantès is so much luckier in life than he is.
Together, these three men draft a letter accusing Dantès of treason. There is some truth to their accusations: as a favor to his recently deceased captain, Dantès is carrying a letter from Napoleon to a group of Bonapartist sympathizers in Paris. Though Dantès himself has no political leanings, the undertaking is enough to implicate him for treason. On the day of his wedding, Dantès is arrested for his alleged crimes.
The deputy public prosecutor, Villefort, sees through the plot to frame Dantès and is prepared to set him free. At the last moment, though, Dantès jeopardizes his freedom by revealing the name of the man to whom he is supposed to deliver Napoleon’s letter. The man, Noirtier, is Villefort’s father. Terrified that any public knowledge of his father’s treasonous activities will thwart his own ambitions, Villefort decides to send Dantès to prison for life. Despite the entreaties of Monsieur Morrel, Dantès’s kind and honest boss, Dantès is sent to the infamous Château d’If, where the most dangerous political prisoners are kept.
While in prison, Dantès meets Abbé Faria, an Italian priest and intellectual, who has been jailed for his political views. Faria teaches Dantès history, science, philosophy, and languages, turning him into a well-educated man. Faria also bequeaths to Dantès a large treasure hidden on the island of Monte Cristo, and he tells him how to find it should he ever escape. When Faria dies, Dantès hides himself in the abbé’s shroud, thinking that he will be buried and then dig his way out. Instead, Dantès is thrown into the sea, and is able to cut himself loose and swim to freedom.
Dantès travels to Monte Cristo and finds Faria’s enormous treasure. He considers his fortune a gift from God, given to him for the sole purpose of rewarding those who have tried to help him and, more important, punishing those who have hurt him. Disguising himself as an Italian priest who answers to the name of Abbé Busoni, he travels back to Marseilles and visits Caderousse, who is now struggling to make a living as an innkeeper. From Caderousse he learns the details of the plot to frame him. In addition, Dantès learns that his father has died of grief in his absence and that Mercédès has married Fernand Mondego. Most frustrating, he learns that both Danglars and Mondego have become rich and powerful and are living happily in Paris. As a reward for this information, and for Caderousse’s apparent regret over the part he played in Dantès’s downfall, Dantès gives Caderousse a valuable diamond. Before leaving Marseilles, Dantès anonymously saves Morrel from financial ruin.
Ten years later, Dantès emerges in Rome, calling himself the Count of Monte Cristo. He seems to be all knowing and unstoppable. In Rome Dantès ingratiates himself to Albert de Morcerf, son of Fernand Mondego and Mercédès, by saving him from bandits. In return for the favor, Albert introduces Dantès to Parisian society. None of his old cohorts recognize the mysterious count as Edmond Dantès, though Mercédès does. Dantès is thus able to insinuate himself effortlessly into the lives of Danglars, Mondego, and Villefort. Armed with damning knowledge about each of them that he has gathered over the past decade, Dantès sets an elaborate scheme of revenge into motion.
Mondego, now known as the Count de Morcerf, is the first to be punished. Dantès exposes Morcerf’s darkest secret: Morcerf made his fortune by betraying his former patron, the Greek vizier Ali Pacha, and he then sold Ali Pacha’s wife and daughter into slavery. Ali Pacha’s daughter, Haydée, who has lived with Dantès ever since he bought her freedom seven years earlier, testifies against Morcerf in front of the senate, irreversibly ruining his good name. Ashamed by Morcerf’s treachery, Albert and Mercédès flee, leaving their tainted fortune behind. Morcerf commits suicide.
Villefort’s punishment comes slowly and in several stages. Dantès first takes advantage of Madame de Villefort’s murderous intent, subtly tutoring her in the uses of poison. As Madame de Villefort wreaks her havoc, killing off each member of the household in turn, Dantès plants the seeds for yet another public exposé. In court, it is revealed that Villefort is guilty of attempted infanticide, as he tried to bury his illegitimate baby while it was still alive. Believing that everyone he loves is dead and knowing that he will soon have to answer severe criminal charges, Villefort goes insane.
For his revenge on Danglars, Dantès simply plays upon his enemy’s greed. He opens various false credit accounts with Danglars that cost him vast amounts of money. He also manipulates Danglars’s unfaithful and dishonest wife, costing Danglars more money, and helps Danglars’s daughter, Eugénie, run away with her female companion. Finally, when Danglars is nearly broke and about to flee without paying any of his creditors, Dantès has the Italian bandit Luigi Vampa kidnap him and relieve him of his remaining money. Dantès spares Danglars’s life, but leaves him penniless.
Meanwhile, as these acts of vengeance play out, Dantès also tries to complete one more act of goodness. Dantès wishes to help the brave and honorable Maximilian Morrel, the son of the kind shipowner, so he hatches an elaborate plot to save Maximilian’s fiancée, Valentine Villefort, from her murderous stepmother, to ensure that the couple will be truly happy forever. Dantès gives Valentine a pill that makes her appear dead and then carries her off to the island of Monte Cristo. For a month Dantès allows Maximilian to believe that Valentine is dead, which causes Maximilian to long for death himself. Dantès then reveals that Valentine is alive. Having known the depths of despair, Maximilian is now able to experience the heights of ecstasy. Dantès too ultimately finds happiness, when he allows himself to fall in love with the adoring and beautiful Haydée.
 
Analysis of Major Characters
 
Edmond Dantès
 
Before his imprisonment, Edmond Dantès is a kind, innocent, honest, and loving man. Though naturally intelligent, he is a man of few opinions, living his life instinctively by a traditional code of ethics that impels him to honor his superiors, care dutifully for his aging father, and treat his fellow man generously. Dantès is filled with positive feeling, admiring his boss, Monsieur Morrel; loving his father; adoring his fiancée, Mercédès; and even attempting to think kindly of men who clearly dislike him.
While in prison, however, Dantès undergoes a great change. He becomes bitter and vengeful as he obsesses over the wrongs committed against him. When his companion, Abbé Faria, dies, so too does Dantès’s only remaining deep connection to another human being. Dantès loses the capacity to feel any emotion other than hatred for those who have harmed him and gratitude toward those who have tried to help him. He moves through the world like an outsider, disconnected from any human community and interested only in carrying out his mission as the agent of Providence. It is not until Dantès finds love again, in a relationship with Haydée, that he is able to reconnect to his own humanity and begin to live humanly again
 
Danglars
 
A greedy and ruthless man, Danglars cares only for his personal fortune. He has no qualms about sacrificing others for the sake of his own welfare, and he goes through life shrewdly calculating ways to turn other people’s misfortunes to his own advantage. Danglars’s betrayal of Dantès starts him on the path to utter disregard for other people’s lives, but this betrayal is not the cruelest of his acts. Danglars abandons his wife and attempts to sell his own daughter, Eugénie, into a loveless and miserable marriage for three million francs.
Though he manages to claw his way into a position of great wealth and power, Danglars’s greed grows as he grows richer, and his lust for money continues to drive all his actions in the two decades that the novel spans. Even when faced with the prospect of starvation, Danglars prefers to keep his fortune rather than pay an exorbitant price for food. Finally, Danglars relents in his pathological avarice, allowing that he would give all his remaining money just to remain alive. Only after Danglars repents for the evil he has done does Dantès consider Danglars redeemed and pardon him.
 
Mercédès
 
Resigned to the blows that fate deals her, Mercédès acts as a foil to her onetime fiancé, Dantès. Though she is a good and kind woman, her timidness and passivity lead her to betray her beloved and marry another man, Mondego. Mercédès remains miserable for the rest of her life, despising herself for her weakness and longing for Dantès, whom she has never stopped loving. Yet, for all her avowed weakness and fear, Mercédès proves herself capable of great courage on three occasions: first, when she approaches Dantès to beg for her the life of her son, Albert; second, when she reveals her husband’s wickedness in order to save Dantès’s life; and third, when she abandons her wealth, unwilling to live off a fortune that has been tainted by misdeeds. At the end of the novel, Mercédès is left with nothing to live for, aside from the hope that Albert might somehow improve his own life. She is the character whose suffering is the most complete, despite the fact that there are others who bear far more guilt.
 
Caderousse
 
Caderousse exemplifies human dissatisfaction, helping to illustrate that happiness depends more on attitude than on external circumstances. Though fate—or, more precisely, Dantès—treats Caderousse fairly well, he is never truly satisfied with his life. No matter how much he has, Caderousse always feels that he deserves more. With each improvement in his position, Caderousse’s desires only increase. He is pained by the good fortune of his friends, and his envy festers into hatred and ultimately into crime. Not only covetous but also lazy and dishonest, Caderousse consistently resorts to dishonorable means in order to acquire what he wants, thieving and even murdering in order to better his own position. Ultimately, Caderousse’s unending greed catches up with him, and he dies while trying to rob Monte Cristo.
 
Themes, Motifs & Symbols
 
Themes
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
 
The Limits of Human Justice
Edmond Dantès takes justice into his own hands because he is dismayed by the limitations of society’s criminal justice system. Societal justice has allowed his enemies to slip through the cracks, going unpunished for the heinous crimes they have committed against him. Moreover, even if his enemies’ crimes were uncovered, Dantès does not believe that their punishment would be true justice. Though his enemies have caused him years of emotional anguish, the most that they themselves would be forced to suffer would be a few seconds of pain, followed by death.
Considering himself an agent of Providence, Dantès aims to carry out divine justice where he feels human justice has failed. He sets out to punish his enemies as he believes they should be punished: by destroying all that is dear to them, just as they have done to him. Yet what Dantès ultimately learns, as he sometimes wreaks havoc in the lives of the innocent as well as the guilty, is that justice carried out by human beings is inherently limited. The limits of such justice lie in the limits of human beings themselves. Lacking God’s omniscience and omnipotence, human beings are simply not capable of—or justified in—carrying out the work of Providence. Dumas’s final message in this epic work of crime and punishment is that human beings must simply resign themselves to allowing God to reward and punish—when and how God sees fit.
Relative versus Absolute Happiness
A great deal separates the sympathetic from the unsympathetic characters in The Count of Monte Cristo. The trait that is most consistently found among the sympathetic characters and lacking among the unsympathetic is the ability to assess one’s circumstances in such a way as to feel satisfaction and happiness with one’s life. In his parting message to Maximilian, Dantès claims that “[t]here is neither happiness nor misery in the world; there is only the comparison of one state with another, nothing more.” In simpler terms, what separates the good from the bad in The Count of Monte Cristo is that the good appreciate the good things they have, however small, while the bad focus on what they lack.
Dantès’s enemies betray him out of an envy that arises from just this problem: despite the blessings these men have in their own lives, Dantès’s relatively superior position sends them into a rage of dissatisfaction. Caderousse exemplifies this psychological deficiency, finding fault in virtually every positive circumstance that life throws his way. Caderousse could easily be a happy man, as he is healthy, clever, and reasonably well off, yet he is unable to view his circumstances in such a way as to feel happy. At the other end of the spectrum are Julie and Emmanuel Herbaut—they are fully capable of feeling happiness, even in the face of pressing poverty and other hardships. The Dantès of the early chapters, perfectly thrilled with the small happiness that God has granted him, provides another example of the good and easily satisfied man, while the Dantès of later chapters, who has emerged from prison unable to find happiness unless he exacts his complicated revenge, provides an example of the bad and unsatisfiable man.
Love versus Alienation
Dantès declares himself an exile from humanity during the years in which he carries out his elaborate scheme of revenge. He feels cut off not only from all countries, societies, and individuals but also from normal human emotions. Dantès is unable to experience joy, sorrow, or excitement; in fact, the only emotions he is capable of feeling are vengeful hatred and occasional gratitude. It is plausible that Dantès’s extreme social isolation and narrow range of feeling are simply the result of his obsession with his role as the agent of Providence. It is not difficult to imagine that a decade-long devotion to a project like Dantès’s might take a dramatic toll on one’s psychology.
Yet Dantès’s alienation from humanity is not solely due to his obsessive lust for revenge but also to his lack of love for any living person. Though he learns of his enemies’ treachery years before he escapes from prison, his alienation from humanity begins to take hold only when Abbé Faria dies. Until Faria’s death, Dantès’s love for Faria keeps him connected to his own humanity, by keeping the humanizing emotion of love alive within him. When Dantès learns that his father is dead and that Mercédès has married another man, his alienation is complete. There are no longer any living people whom he loves, and he loses hold of any humanizing force. 
This humanizing force eventually returns when Dantès falls in love with Haydée. This relationship reconciles Dantès to his humanity and enables him to feel real emotion once again. In a triumphant declaration of emotion, he says to Haydée, “through you I again connect myself with life, through you I shall suffer, through you rejoice.” Dantès’s overcomes his alienation, both from society and from his own humanity, through his love of another human being.
Motifs
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
 
Names
The constant changing of characters’ names in The Count of Monte Cristo signifies deeper changes within the characters themselves. Like the God of the Old Testament, Dantès assumes a host of different names, each associated with a different role in his schemes as the agent of Providence. He calls himself Abbé Busoni when standing in judgment, Lord Wilmore when engaging in acts of excessive generosity, and Monte Cristo when assuming the role of avenging angel. That Dantès possesses so many identities suggests that he lacks a true center.
Villefort also changes his name, though for different reasons: he refuses to adopt his father’s title of Noirtier, a name closely associated with the despised Bonapartist party. Villefort’s choice of names signifies both his political opportunism and his willingness to sacrifice ruthlessly those close to him for his own personal gain. Fernand Mondego’s change of name to Count de Morcerf is, on one level, merely a sign of his ascent into the realm of power and prestige. Yet, since Mondego pretends that Morcerf is an old family name rather than merely a title he has purchased, the name-change is also a symbol of his fundamental dishonesty. Mercédès also undergoes a change of name, becoming Countess de Morcerf. This change in name, however, as we learn when Mercédès proves her enduring goodness, does not accompany a fundamental change in character. Instead, her name-change merely emphasizes her connection to her husband, Dantès’s rival, and, by association, her disloyalty to Dantès. Only Benedetto’s change of name, to Andrea Cavalcanti, seems to signify nothing deeper than the fact that he is assuming a false identity. All of the other name changes in the novel are external signals of internal changes of character or role.
 
Suicide
Many characters in The Count of Monte Cristo—Dantès, Monsieur Morrel, Maximilian Morrel, Haydée, Fernand Mondego, Madame d’Villefort, and Albert de Morcerf—contemplate or even carry out suicide during the course of the novel. Dumas presents the act of suicide as an honorable and reasonable response to any devastating situation. As in much Romantic literature, suicide in The Count of Monte Cristo is most closely linked with failed romantic relationships.
In fact, eagerness to take one’s own life for the sake of a beloved is held up as one of the only sure signs of absolute devotion. Monte Cristo is convinced that Maximilian loves Valentine, for instance, only when he sees that Maximilian sincerely wants to die when confronted with her loss. Likewise, Monte Cristo believes that Haydée loves him only when she swears that she would take her life if he abandoned her. The frequency with which suicide is mentioned or contemplated by characters might seem to reflect a cavalier attitude toward this most serious of acts. However, suicide is clearly regarded as a serious action: Dantès gravely warns Maximilian not to take his life if there is anything in the world that he regrets leaving. The characters in the novel are not arrogant about life—they simply live it melodramatically, finding the world devoid of hope and meaning on a fairly regular basis.
 
Politics
The Count of Monte Cristo is a historical novel, with key plot elements drawn from real historic events. Politics, therefore, play a significant role in the novel, particularly in branding certain characters good or bad. All of the major sympathetic characters are somehow connected to the democratic ideals of the Bonapartist party, from Morrel and Noirtier, who were once ardent fighters in the Bonapartist cause, to Dantès, who emerges as a champion for individual rights. Likewise, in his wooing of Valentine, Maximilian fights for social equality, another Bonapartist ideal. Many of the major unsympathetic characters, by contrast, are overwhelmingly associated with the oppressive, aristocratic royalists, such as Morcerf and Villefort. Others are simply self-serving capitalist opportunists, such as Danglars, responsible for ushering in the soul-deadening age of the Industrial Revolution. In this sense, Dumas does not assign political allegiances arbitrarily, but uses them as windows into the souls of his characters.
 
Symbols
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
 
The Sea
When Dantès escapes from prison, he plunges into the ocean, experiencing a second baptism and a renewed dedication of his soul to God. He has suffered a metaphorical death while in prison: the death of his innocent, loving self. Dantès emerges as a bitter and hateful man, bent on carrying out revenge on his enemies. He is washed in the waters that lead him to freedom, and his rebirth as a man transformed is complete. The sea continues to figure prominently in the novel even after this symbolic baptism. Considering himself a citizen of no land, Dantès spends much of his time on the ocean, traveling the world in his yacht. The sea seems to beckon constantly to Dantès, a skilled sailor, offering him perpetual escape and solitude.
 
The Red Silk Purse
First used by Monsieur Morrel in his attempt to save the life of Dantès’s father, Dantès later uses the red silk purse when he is saving Morrel’s life. The red purse becomes the physical symbol of the connection between good deed and reward. Morrel recognizes the purse and deduces the connection between the good deed performed on his behalf and the good deed he once performed himself. Morrel concludes that Dantès must be his savior, surmising that he is working from beyond the grave. Morrel’s daughter, Julie, then emphasizes the symbolic power of the purse by keeping it constantly on display as a relic of her father’s miraculous salvation.
 
The Elixir
Dantès’s potent potion seems to have the power both to kill and to bring to life, a power that Dantès comes to believe in too strongly. His overestimation of the elixir’s power reflects his overestimation of his own power, his delusion that he is almost godlike, and his assertion that he has the right and capacity to act as the agent of Providence. It is significant that, when faced with Edward’s corpse, Dantès thinks first to use his elixir to bring the boy to life. Of course, the elixir is not powerful enough to bring the dead to life, just as Dantès himself is not capable of accomplishing divine feats. The power to grant life—like the power to carry out ultimate retribution and justice—lies solely in God’s province. It is when Dantès acknowledges the limits of his elixir that he realizes his own limitations as a human being.
 
 

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