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


Andrew said...

I agree, Sam. Fabulous book. Great synopsis and "teaser" for those who haven't read it!

I assume you were talking about the modern Hollywood rendition of the Count of Monte Cristo ... but there is a 6-7 hour long French version, with Gerrard Depardeau, which is far more faithful to the book and far better acted. You may enjoy this one, even if even it too falls short of the novel's magnificence.

Julian Montez said...

Great essay on the Count of Monte Cristo! It was one of the required books for school, but I definitely enjoyed it from beginning to end.

This essay also helped me compile some notes for my test on the book tomorrow, also, but that's for an email ;-). Thank you very much, and once again, great review.