Sunday, August 31, 2014

August's Book: The Count of Monte Cristo

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
Literature (1844 - 460 pp.)

This entry will not be particularly academic, as a mountain of academic material has already been written on The Count of Monte Cristo. There is not much more I can reasonably add on a blog. Additionally, I will only hint at a few parts of the book, as The Count of Monte Cristo is so plot-driven it is difficult to comment on much without accidentally giving spoilers. While it may seem like the story is so well-known there is no harm in spoiling it, some people have not read even the most obvious literary choices.

The Count of Monte Cristo combines early modern French romance with travelogue to create a swashbuckling adventure story. Our hero, Edmond Dantes, is a successful young merchant sailor who is wronged by his peers for various reasons and then whirled through a twisting, exciting adventure. This adventure is primarily located in Marseilles and Paris, but detours to Rome and (offstage) to Greece. Dumas's consistent references to Hamlet and to Greco-Roman mythology underscores the educated nature of most of the characters, who are mostly noble either by birth or by acquisition of a title.

Two of the defining aspects of The Count of Monte Cristo are the melodrama and the humour. Characters regularly go on lengthy rants in flowery language, often about threatening to commit suicide whenever something goes wrong. More surprising is that sometimes the third-person omniscient narrator is similarly flowery. A well-written example is when considering a character's choice of future husband: "What devotion does she deserve from him for whom she has sacrificed everything! How ought she really to be supremely loved! She becomes at once a queen and a wife, and it becomes impossible to thank her sufficiently." (300) However over the top a passage like this is, it makes me smile. Similarly, Dumas is fond of cracking jokes within the narration. Possibly the funniest example is in explaining the difficulty for an ignoble man to appear noble among strangers: "Many, also, who were not aware of the circumstances attending his withdrawal from Paris, were struck with the worthy appearance, the gentlemanly bearing, and the knowledge of the world displayed by the old patrician, who certainly played the nobleman very well, as long as he said nothing, and made no arithmetical calculations." (430) The mental image of incompetence here is enough to make the reader feel like one of Dumas's elites.

Dumas demonstrates no interest in showing what characters like Danglars, a banker, or Villefort, a lawyer, actually do for a living. Danglars delivers exhortations on the importance of money above all else while speculating wildly; Villefort froths at the mouth while discussing a very one-sided view of justice. Everything is moulded to Dumas's principal interest of crafting a riveting adventure. Other details, like how someone fresh out of a long-term prison sentence can retain social skills, are equally fantastical. The one time The Count of Monte Cristo is not quite so riveting is when characters, most notably Albert de Morcerf and Franz d'Epinay, appear seemingly out of nowhere in order to be more mysterious, which may come off as confusing rather than intriguing. Even so, all the characters' valuable secrets are generally revealed a few dozen pages later. The book's winding plot is eventually explained in full, with no lingering question at the end.

Interesting fact: The Count of Monte Cristo is approximately 464,000 words, yet the edition I read is only 460 pages. That is a little over 1,000 words per page. Anyone reading the same edition may find that each page takes about twice as long to read as that of a different book. There is a good reason why.

Thanks to a friend for recommending this one. As it was serialized from 1844-1845 in its original incarnation, it proved quite voluminous for a series of blog entries called Book a Month. Just about anything can be read in a short period of time, though... I suppose.

Ease of Reading: 8
Educational Content: 3

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