Monday, April 07, 2014

Monte Cristo: More than a sandwich!

by Yann Droneaud via Flickr
Okay, I probably am more familiar with the novel than the sandwich, but I had not actually read it until a few weeks ago. In fact, it is the first Alexandre Dumas I've ever read. Not even The Three Musketeers! I'm not sure how I've gone for so long ignoring Dumas, since I've read so many other French writers from Hugo to Robbe-Grillet (and even Michel Houellebecq, whom I'm not sure I should mention in polite company). Of course, I have one other major omission in my reading of French literature. Proust! But there's still time; I'm just working up to it.

There are some classics you can probably get away with pretending that you've read, simply because they are so ubiquitous in literary conversations and essays, not to mention, the movie versions. But somehow, I must have tuned all that out, because I really knew nothing of the plot except that it was a revenge story. Briefly, our hero Edmond Dantes, a young sailor on the cusp of professional success and marriage to the girl he loves, is falsely betrayed to the royalist government as a Bonapartist spy in 1815, just before Napoleon escapes Elba in an attempt to regain power. Edmond is sent to the island prison called Chateau d'If (pictured above) -- the French version of Devil's Island -- and left to die through the machinations of an envious shipmate, a jealous lover, and a guilty judge, who sacrifices Edmond to conceal a dark secret of his own.

I'm not to going to give away much more of the plot, so like me, you can read it with surprise. Suffice to say, Edmond manages to escape his prison and create an entirely new identity (several actually). These feats rather miraculously achieved, he sets about tracking down and exacting revenge on those who were responsible for all that he lost.

The Count of Monte Cristo is a good, old-fashioned adventure story and has a number of well-drawn characters, particularly the villains: Caderousse, Danglars, Morcerf, and Villefort. It is also epic in length (first published in 18 parts as a serialized novel, much like Dickens' works), but if you're ready to settle into a fictional world and stay awhile, you won't mind. I liked the rich historical background, Dumas' description of Carnival season in Rome, and of course, all the details of Parisian life in the 19th Century.

Dantes contemplates suicide:
Before him is a dead sea that stretches in azure calm before the eye; but he who unwarily ventures within its embrace finds himself struggling with a monster that would drag him down to perdition. Once thus ensnared, unless the protecting hand of God snatch him thence, all is over, and his struggles but tend to hasten his destruction. This state of mental anguish is, however, less terrible than the sufferings that precede or the punishment that possibly will follow. There is a sort of consolation at the contemplation of the yawning abyss, at the bottom of which lie darkness and obscurity. (Project Gutenberg edition, p.110)

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