Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

This is a monumental book but the thing that amazed me the most about it was how tightly controlled the plot was. I had got the mistaken impression that it wandered about a bit, and contained stories within stories but, although at times it appears to be heading in this direction, everything is ultimately connected to the Count and comes back to him.

The story is well known, a brief recap is all that is necessary: Edmond Dantès, a young man about to be made captain of his ship and marry the girl he loves is falsely arrested for being a part of a Bonapartist conspiracy and spends fifteen years in the prison on Chateau D'If with an Abbé who tells of a magnificent treasure hidden on the island of Monte Cristo. Some twenty five years after the arrest the mysterious Count of Monte Cristo emerges, pursuing vengeance against those who wronged him.

I spent a long time reading this not because I didn't enjoy it but because I found the first half easy to put down. The story was vivid enough to stay in my head so that I could leave it for a couple of weeks and then pick it up again without a hitch but it was not compelling enough to grip me. This changed at about the midway point and I read the second half of the book in a couple of days. I think the difference was that it began to centre on the personal relationships. The Count was meeting the people from his past, rather than being the aloof and mysterious stranger, and the emotions that he and the others went through, as well as the action as he exacted his revenge and the difficulties that faced the Count as he formed bonds with the next generation and realised that his actions were affecting them, were moving and fascinating. The second half is also more morally complex; in the first half he is obviously wronged but in the second he becomes as much the perpetrator of wrongs as the sufferer, and his internal struggles with this are very interesting, especially in terms of his relationship with his old love, Mercédès.

At first Edmond is not a particularly interesting character. He is simple but good and brave, really quite dull. The scheming Danglars is far more interesting in the first few chapters. The long spell in prison was also not that gripping although you saw how the character of Dantès was formed by his association with the old Abbé Faria and how his intellect developed. It made me a bit impatient though; I felt like I do when watching films of comic books where they insist on giving you all the background to how the character became a superhero for the first two hours, rather than just getting into the action and letting you find out the history as you go along. However, once transformed into the Count, regularly compared to Lord Ruthven from John Polidori's The Vampyre because he is so pale, distant and mysterious, he is far more interesting. His riches allow him to live as he wishes and he has anything he wants but the pain and torment inside him is evident as he will not allow himself to forget the past. Although always controlled when in company, the internal struggles which he gives into when alone are some of the most moving parts of the book as he sees not only the effects of his actions on others, but also realises what he has done to himself by his desire for revenge and the happiness he has sacrificed.

So, as I read this for the Index Librorum Liberorum Challenge, why was Dumas banned by the Catholic church? The Catholic Church banned both Dumas père and fils, and the list states that père is prohibited because of 'Omnes fabulae amatoriae' which with my rusty GCSE Latin, I translate as 'all love stories'. I imagine The Count would be part of this, as it is very much a story about love and hate. When reading it I could see why the Church may not like it; the Count is a man who sees himself as a vessel of God, doing His bidding when carrying out his revenge, a twisted view of religion. It also contains scenes of illegitimate birth and extra-marital affairs. It doesn't seem much of a reason to ban an author, but maybe it was enough in the mid- 1800s.

(Cross-posted at Eloise by the Book Piles)


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