Monday, June 02, 2014

Book Review: The Count of Monte Cristo

The Count of Monte Cristo
Alexandre Dumas

A literary classic and, happily, a wildly popular entertainment, The Count of Monte Cristo is an epic adventure like the author’s, Alexandre Dumas’, The Three Musketeers novels, but set in the contemporary France and Italy of the eighteen-thirties and forties just before the onset of the industrial revolution. This was an era when one traveled by sail and swift horses and depended on letters of introduction, when men fought duels with swords or pistols for the honor of their names and that of their families. The Count of Monte Cristo is the story of a man who comes to believe he is an instrument of divine justice and retribution.

Originally published in serial form and full of cliff-hangers, The Count of Monte Cristo is a page turner. The plot is as convoluted as an Indiana Jones movie and as pointless to summarize. However, Dumas demonstrates that a great author needs no computer animation to create vivid special effects. Strong emotions—horror, despair, heartbreak, terror, exaltation, love—in exotic locales are the hallmark of the romantic era, but as the Count’s revenge unfolds the story becomes a psychological thriller set in the mannered drawing rooms of the Parisian elite. One after another characters are drug down by their own flaws, their greed and ambition.

Like Victor Hugo, his exact contemporary, Dumas’s father was a Napoleonic general, the famous Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, to this day the highest ranking officer of color for a continental army. Readers of that time had the great English romantic poets—Keats, Tennyson, and Byron—on their shelves. Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame had been published ten years previously. Edgar Allen Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death and many of his other great stories were nearly contemporaneous, as was A Christmas Carol. Dickens was at the height of his powers. Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and the epic Moby Dick (Melville) would appear soon. Hugo, clearly influenced by The Count of Monte Cristo, was beginning work on Les Miserables. Jean Valjean, like the Count, wrestled with his conscience and God.

Readers of contemporary historical romances will find much to love in The Count of Monte Cristo. It is the great, great grandparent of the romance genre. Ladies swoon and broad-chested men declaim with melodramatic bravery. Dumas could weave a great yarn, but he endures because he was a great writer. No doubt Oscar Wilde cut his teeth on Dumas’s witty epigrams. This is a view into a lost world where men still called one another “Your Excellency” without irony, but, we care about The Count of Monte Cristo because we care about the mysterious Count.

Check it out.

David Blake
Fiction Department
Central Library

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