What can be said of this epic novel? I finished all 1,243 pages this spring, at the start of lockdown, while we all faced a confinement of sorts. I had that wonderful feeling reading the last few chapters – that heightened sense of things when you know a novel you’ve been enthralled with is going to end, making you savour every sentence that little bit more. When I’d made it to the last page, and that final line, I was already nostalgic for the characters and places I knew would momentarily be departing. I was also bursting to experience more.
This is indeed a tale of life and death, in all its glory. It’s a story of mentee come mentor; crime come justice. It’s about the fragility of love and the search for freedom. It details, in unparalleled prose, the journey to adulthood and the ever-present relationship between honour and morality. It’s about the path towards imperturbability. What follows is a marvel of literature, getting to the very core of Being and social justice (where the punishment fits the crime).
Set in the backdrop of post-revolutionary France in the early 19th century, the plot tracks a sailor, Edmond Dantes, who was imprisoned in the notorious and dismal island-based prison, the Chateua d’If, for thirteen years, after being framed for political conspiracy. The naive and utterly dejected Dantes had gone from a life of prosperity and joy to one of solitary despair, in a matter of hours. Alone for many years, he faced great personal torment, reaching his rock bottom with attempted suicide.
He is saved by a fellow inmate – abbé Faria – who teaches him how to live again, how to thrive, even within the miserable conditions they both find themselves in. The abbé (or priest) even includes Dantes in his escape plan – and in share of the hidden treasure on the Island of Monte Cristo. The riches he was to find represented much more than their material value. It was the lessons he had learned from the priest following over a decade in the Chateua d’If: the education he never received in his former life, alongside lessons in integrity, perspicacity and the temperance of fear.
As a social critique, Dumas points to the morality of certain features of French society: the lawyer, the banker and the military officer – the three men who sentenced Dantes to an undeserved, gloomy incarceration. Our protagonist, through hard earned patience, only had to appreciate the depths of their selfish intentions. In the end, their respective ambition, greed and pride become their own undoing.
The culmination of all the wisdom of Dumas is perhaps summed up on the last page, when he describes the highs and lows of life being ultimately meaningless. Instead, as he puts it, “all that truly signifies us is to wait and to hope”. It’s a profoundly simple message which beautifully parses the extremes of suffering and joy, described in such detail in the story.
If there’s escape to be found beyond your four walls, you’re likely to find it in the Count of Monte Cristo!
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. Published by Penguin Classics, 1996. Originally serialised: 1844-46.