There is perhaps no more famous account of love, betrayal, and revenge in literature than The Count of Monte-Cristo by Dumas. I first encountered the story in my mid-teens and was instantly captured by it.
The basis of the story is simple: young Edmond Dantes is a sailor with a bright future – soon to be made Captain of a profitable merchantman, engaged to Mercedes, a Catalan girl noted for her beauty, having just completed an extremely profitable trading voyage for his employer, Morrel. It seems that he has already reached his happy ending, in the first few pages of the novel.
But there are those jealous of his success, most especially Fernand, who wants Mercedes for himself, and Danglars, another officer of the ship who wanted the command of the vessel that will go to Dantes. The two conspire to write an anonymous letter denouncing Dantes as a supporter of Bonaparte (at the time a serious charge), and Dantes is seized and arrested on the very eve of his wedding. Worse, the prosecutor Villefort, while originally sympathetic to Dantes' plight, discovers that a letter Dantes was carrying from Elba (location of Bonaparte's exile) is addressed to Villefort's father. Villefort therefore allows Dantes to be convicted and sentenced to the terrible prison of the Chateau d'if.
But in prison, Dantes discovers a secret which could change everything for him – the location of a fabulous treasure – as well as gaining an education from the Abbe Faria, a fellow prisoner who held this secret. When Dantes finally manages his escape, he locates the treasure… and swears vengeance upon those who took away everything from him in a single day.
Dumas' writing is old-fashioned, but still powerfully gripping. Edmond's anguish and confusion at what has happened to him are heartrending, even more so when he has a moment of hope in the presence of Villers, only to have it dashed to pieces due to something utterly beyond his control. Too, there is a moment of black despair suddenly turned to brilliant hope in one of my favorite literary Moments of Awesome, when Dantes cries out to God that he is near despair, and a voice replies, seemingly from the stones themselves, "Who speaks of God and despair at the same time?"; this is the point at which Dantes first meets Abbe Faria.
One of the most impressive things about The Count of Monte-Cristo is the careful attention to detail in Edmond Dantes' plans for revenge – and the fact that he chooses, first, to follow the path of mercy and reward to the innocent, before he embarks on the mission of the destroyer. Dantes has not wholly lost his humanity – although there are several times at which one may have just cause to wonder how far he is willing to go. Eventually, however, he himself realizes there are limits beyond which revenge must not go, or it becomes of itself an evil far worse than that done to the avenger.
I have read The Count of Monte-Cristo many times, and always found myself struck anew by some detail of the setting or the events therein – the new methods of speedy communication just emerging into common use, the way in which the fate of many in the book (and in the real world) was affected by the swiftly-changing political realities in France, the at once cosmopolitan and yet very insular discussion of lands and customs distant from France proper.
Dantes himself is always an interesting study as a person – he tries to make himself a passionless arbiter of justice as "The Count of Monte-Cristo", but cannot, quite, erase the kindly, innocent boy that he was before he ever saw the black gate of the Chateau d'if. One of those present at the letter-writing, Caderousse, who could easily have prevented his being jailed, is given not one but two chances to change the course of his life, when Dantes could easily have justified it to himself to include Caderousse in his campaign of revenge.
Indeed, as the Count he seems more prone to allowing people to test themselves to destruction, passing judgment upon themselves by their own actions, than he is to direct vengeance; he plays an almost Mephistopholean role in tempting his adversaries and those around them with opportunities to do wrong, and only bringing down vengeance upon them when they avail themselves of these opportunities – showing that they did not betray him in a single moment of weakness, but were acting according to their true natures.
Ultimately, and surprisingly, The Count of Monte-Cristo turns out not to be a story of pure dark vengeance but of despair and redemption, of choices made, and of letting go of the past. Edmond Dantes spares lives he could have taken, saves others that had been forfeit, and in the end allows himself to let go of the love and hate of the past and find a new love where he had never thought to find it.
It is little wonder that this is one of my favorite old novels… or that it is one of the great and enduring classics of Western literature.