Read an Excerpt
From Luc Sante's Introduction to The Count of Monte Cristo
Le Comte de Monte-Cristo ( The Count of Monte Cristo ) began serialization in the Journal des Débats in 1844 and was published in book form in 1846, shortly after The Three Musketeers , and arguably did even better than its predecessor. The effect of the serials, which held vast audiences enthralled, each member separately but simultaneously, is unlike any experience of reading we are likely to have known ourselves, maybe something like that of a particularly gripping television series. Day after day, at breakfast or at work or on the street, people talked of little else; one then-famous man, reading in bed, woke up his wife to announce that Edmond Dantès had escaped from the Château d'If. The Count of Monte Cristo was translated into virtually all modern languages and has never been out of print in most of them. There have been at least twenty-nine motion pictures based on it (many in the silent era, but one as recently as 2002), as well as several television series, and many movies that worked the name "Monte Cristo" into their titles, capitalizing on the aura of the novel without sharing any but the most cursory aspects of the story. The name has been given to a famous gold mine, a line of luxury Cuban cigars, a sandwich, and any number of bars and casinos—it even lurks in the name of the street-corner hustle three-card monte. The name exudes adventure, mystery, and vast wealth, and it triggers a Pavlovian response in great numbers of people who have never read the book. For better or worse, The Count of Monte Cristo has become a fixture of Western civilization's literature, as inescapable and immediately identifiable as Mickey Mouse, Noah's flood, and the story of Little Red Riding Hood.
Dumas can be given credit, or blame, for initiating many of the conventions of modern popular narrative; without him the history of motion pictures—quite apart from merely those based upon his works—might have been very different. Edmond Dantès, the titular Count, could well have fathered the entire race of superheroes, or at least those who do not owe their inspiration to heroes of the classical era, such as Hercules. In particular, he prefigures Batman, like him a mere mortal, albeit equipped with vast wealth and an unquenchable thirst for justice—or revenge, whichever is closer to hand. Like a superhero, Dantès, once launched on his quest, simply cannot put a foot wrong. He is distant, implacable, godlike, almost diabolical, were it not that the wrongs done to him have given him license to rectify matters to a biblical extent; not having been involved in the original misdeed does not exempt the offspring and relatives of evildoers from the force of his wrath.
Dumas, known for his bonhomie, his inability to hold a grudge, his eagerness to resolve conflicts in the most amicable way, was obviously exorcising decades of buried resentments in his creation of Dantès. His father's experiences may have supplied some of the original impetus, but otherwise his father's character and a transposition of his story is given to the paralyzed but still powerful Noirtier, who holds an entire household in his sway even as he is unable to do more than communicate by moving his eyes. The character of Dantès, though, may be the most naked vehicle for wish fulfillment ever devised by a novelist. The primary allure of the book lies precisely in its being pure, guileless, unbuttoned fantasy, the creation of a Walter Mitty with no inhibitions and a boundless sense of entitlement. It is a very good thing that Maquet convinced Dumas to lay the first part of the story on rather thick; the latitude given the hero in the rest of the book requires a formidable counterweight to be palatable.
What Abbé Faria gives Dantès is no mere workaday fortune, but one comparable to the holdings of Baron Rothschild, the Croesus of the day. In addition, he has taught him three or four languages, history, art history, chemistry, medicine, and an advanced course in poisons, all by whispered conversation in a dark cell and without benefit of pencil and paper, let alone texts. When Dantès emerges from prison, he is so far from broken by fourteen years of darkness, insufficient food, and lack of exercise that he is not merely strong, but ageless. His contemporaries are middle-aged and in decline, but he might as well be a contemporary of their grown children. His beloved, Mercédès, says as much: "See how misfortune has silvered my hair. I have shed so many tears that dark rings encircle my eyes; my forehead is covered with wrinkles. You, on the contrary, are still young, Edmond; you are still handsome and dignified. That is because you have preserved your faith and your strength: you trusted in God, and He has sustained you." She is thereby complicit in the novel's most breathtaking departure from convention: Instead of finding love at long last with his intended, Dantès casually throws her over for his Oriental slave girl, and Mercédès concedes the justice of this—she agrees with Dantès and Dumas in considering herself guilty, less for having married the villain Fernand than for having failed to wait the whole, endless fourteen years.