Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Count of Monte Cristo

First off, let me explain to the many people who loved the recent movie starring Jim Caviezel that the movie does not deserve to share the same title as the magnificent book. Although the movie is enjoyable in its own right, it fails to capture the amazing complexity of the plot as conceived by Alexandre Dumas. I hope that someday a faithful adaptation can be made, but until that time comes, I shall have to content myself with reading the book. (Note: I have been informed that there is a lengthy French version that is much more faithful to the book, which I will have to check out at some point.) That said, this is a review of the book, not the movie (and like usual contains spoilers, so be careful).

I have been working on this book all summer. I first read it at the end of middle school, and it quickly became one of my favorite books. Now, the summer before I head off to college, I decided to read it again, since I could only remember very broad plot details. When I went back to read it again, I realized that the version I had originally read and fallen in love with was abridged, and the unabridged was close to 1500 pages long. Although full of many long dialogues, like most French novels, it was definitely worth the extra effort.

For those of you who don't know, the book is about the life of a sailor named Edmond Dantes. Sent to prison on trumped-up charges on the eve of his wedding, he spends 14 years in an armed fortress with a learned priest who knows the whereabouts of a fabulous treasure. When he manages to escape and finds the treasure that makes him rich beyond all imagination, he plans his revenge on the three men responsible for sending him to prison and destroying his life forever. They have all become upstanding members of Parisian society, and he slowly, by means of his fabulous wealth, tears their lives down around them, driving one to suicide, one to madness, and one to utter ruin and bankruptcy.

The sheer intricacy of the revenge was what had originally drawn me to the book. Dantes finds out every detail about the mens' lives and uses that knowledge to his full advantage, causing their families to be torn apart, their fortunes to disappear, and everything they love and hold dear to be systematically ripped away. Yet, on second reading, I find the lessons it teaches to be even more provoking.

Throughout the book, Dantes thinks of himself as the avenger of God, bringing justice to those who deserve it. He finds vindication for that idea in the fact that he continues to survive all sorts of inescapable situations, first in getting out of prison, next in finding the treasure, and then in escaping from a duel which he was certain to lose. Yet towards the end of the book he finds that his maneuverings have almost caused a woman to die who is loved by the only man Dantes counts as a true friend, and then discovers that he causes a mother to kill her small child before killing herself. He exclaims when he is informed of the young man's love for the woman:

See, my dear friend, how God punishes the most thoughtless and unfeeling men for their indifference, by presenting dreadful scenes to their view. I, who was looking on, an eager and curious spectator,--I, who, like a wicked angel, was laughing at the evil men committed, protected by secrecy (a secret is easily kep by the rich and powerful), I am, in my turn, bitten by the serpent whose tortuous couse I was watching, and bitten to the heart. (p. 1236)

Although he never ceases to think of himself as God's avenger, he realizes that many of his tactics went beyond the bounds. When he is shown the body of the young boy, who was never supposed to die and was only taken due to the selfishness of the mother, the narrator records

Monte Cristo became pale at this horrible sight; he felt he had passed beyond the bounds of vengeance, and that he could no longer say, "God is for and with me." (p. 1403)

He is so distraught by this, as he then watches the father go mad with grief, that he exclaims, "Oh! enough of this,--enough of this, let me save the last (referring to the last of the three men, and the only one on whom his vengeance was not complete. He then offers the last man full forgiveness, although his life has already been mostly shattered.

Although not a rousing condemnation of revenge in all its forms, the book offers an interesting perspective on the issue. To a certain extent Dantes' actions appear justified, but his methods often leave many others injured, both physically and mentally, and even a few dead. Although he does none of the killing or injuring by his own hand, it is brought about because of his shrewd maneuvering. Towards the end, as the men's lives crash in around them, the reader is moved to pity for them, even knowing the terrible evil they have committed. The count, although the hero, seems at many times to have destroyed his human emotions, causing him to thoughtlessly commit some acts that anyone else would have shuddered at.

Is it still one of my favorite books? It's definitely still way up on the list, but not for all the same reasons it was there before. It shows what is wrong with revenge, and it also features an amazingly intricate plot that is sure to fascinate any reader of good literature. Just be warned, it's quite an undertaking, but the pay-off is tremendous. And the dialogue is much more interesting than Victor Hugo's, as a little bit of a plus.

NOTE: I know I promised the Harry Potter post next, but I lost the beginnings of my first draft, and I'm working on my grandma's computer in the mountains. I plan to rewrite it tomorrow, but I can't guarantee it. So enjoy this review of the book I finished today, and Harry Potter will hopefully be posted before the end of the summer :D

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Hidden Treasures

Whew, can you say "Sam's a bad blogger"? I've discovered something very important: I blog best when I'm procrastinating from school. Knowing that, don't expect any consistent posting until September after I've settled into school. I'm actually writing the Harry Potter post now, however, just in time for the release of the final book, so that should be coming sometime in the next two weeks. In the meantime, here's a meditation on Job 28 from my quiet time this morning.

I think Job 28 is one of the most beautiful chapters in Scripture, and especially in Job (second only to God's monologue of creation in chapters 38-41). The entire chapter is worth quoting here; please take the time to read it and savor the beauty and truth contained within:

“Surely there is a mine for silver,
and a place for gold that they refine.
Iron is taken out of the earth,
and copper is smelted from the ore.
Man puts an end to darkness
and searches out to the farthest limit
the ore in gloom and deep darkness.
He opens shafts in a valley away from where anyone lives;
they are forgotten by travelers;
they hang in the air, far away from mankind;
they swing to and fro.
As for the earth, out of it comes bread,
but underneath it is turned up as by fire.
Its stones are the place of sapphires,
and it has dust of gold.

"That path no bird of prey knows,
and the falcon's eye has not seen it.
The proud beasts have not trodden it;
the lion has not passed over it.

“Man puts his hand to the flinty rock
and overturns mountains by the roots.
He cuts out channels in the rocks,
and his eye sees every precious thing.
He dams up the streams so that they do not trickle,
and the thing that is hidden he brings out to light.

“But where shall wisdom be found?
And where is the place of understanding?
Man does not know its worth,
and it is not found in the land of the living.
The deep says, ‘It is not in me,’
and the sea says, ‘It is not with me.’
It cannot be bought for gold,
and silver cannot be weighed as its price.
It cannot be valued in the gold of Ophir,
in precious onyx or sapphire.
Gold and glass cannot equal it,
nor can it be exchanged for jewels of fine gold.
No mention shall be made of coral or of crystal;
the price of wisdom is above pearls.
The topaz of Ethiopia cannot equal it,
nor can it be valued in pure gold.

“From where, then, does wisdom come?
And where is the place of understanding?
It is hidden from the eyes of all living
and concealed from the birds of the air.
Abaddon and Death say,
‘We have heard a rumor of it with our ears.’

“God understands the way to it,
and he knows its place.
For he looks to the ends of the earth
and sees everything under the heavens.
When he gave to the wind its weight
and apportioned the waters by measure,
when he made a decree for the rain
and a way for the lightning of the thunder,
then he saw it and declared it;
he established it, and searched it out.
And he said to man,
‘Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom,
and to turn away from evil is understanding.’”

Think of the camera that follows Saruman's rooks into the mines at Isengard during The Fellowship of the Ring. Reading this chapter is like following that camera, but instead of the heat of the lava and the squalor of the orcs, we are treated to huge caves filled with gold, silver, sapphires, and multitudes of precious jewels. It's a beautiful, breathtaking sight.

But then Job asks the question: Where is wisdom? That which is valuable above all else, where can it be found? Only God knows where it is or how to find it, for it was he who created it. Wisdom is found in the fear of the Lord, for only when we fear God will he impart wisdom to us.

I don't have a lot to say about this passage, mainly because it speaks for itself. No matter how beautiful creation is, it can never match the beauty of wisdom. That is why Solomon tells us in Proverbs 2 that "if you seek [for wisdom] like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God." Wisdom is the ultimate treasure, and it is found in knowing God. Search for him and find him, and you will have everything you need.