The Count of Montecristo by Alexander Dumas: The Powers of Fiction and Orientalism

I recently read The Count of Montecristo by Dumas for the first time. I have read The Three Musketeers twice, the second time less than a year ago, and ever since I have been wanting to crack this other beloved ‘classic.’ In The Three Musketeers I was struck by how Dumas had single-handedly invented a swashbuckling, smart-ass talkin’ type of adventure story that has been with us ever since, through to Starsky and Hutch (t.v. series, not the film, please, some dignity) and the Lethal Weapon movies. It was great to drink from the source and find the water to be so fresh. But the unabridged The Count of Montecristo beckoned, with its daunting 1,300 pages, like a dark lighthouse shining in the distance, ominous and thrilling. I had to read this powerhouse of western popular literature, this Star Wars of the nineteenth-century.

The novel tells the story of Edmund Dantes, who is framed for a crime he did not commit and banished to a dungeon in a castle on a desolate island. There, he learns of a magical treasure from a fellow inmate, escapes and… well, let’s just say that one of the men responsible for the imprisonment puts it best when he says: “Yes, but people get out of prison and when you get out of prison and you are called Edmond Dantes, you take revenge.” Slow, insinuating, hidden and incontrovertible revenge, hidden in plain sight. He comes back to France, unimaginably rich and like a methodical, soulless vampire, seeks to destroy the men responsible for his suffering. It’s a cool set-up and Dumas does a lot with it. He packs the novel with thrills, uncanny gothic scenes, savage murder, endless disquisitions on money and credit, philosophical ruminations on the orient, extended and over-the-top sentimental pap, Italian travelogue, and bandit literature. The novel is thrilling for a few hundred pages, fascinating for another two hundred, exhausting and boring for another few hundred and then breathlessly exciting for the finish. It’s a feast. And it does give you some things to think about.

The Count of Montecristo and the Powers of Fiction

The conceit at the center of the plot of the novel is the fantasy of a man with almost limitless means to manipulate, control and ultimately punish others. At one point in the novel, Maximilien declares that the Count seems to control his every action and know his every thought. This is why I think that the character of the Count of Montecristo is an analogue of the figure of the author, the ultimate puppet-master, the figure that knows and controls all. The repeated mention of The Arabian Nights (or 1001 Nights) in the novel supports this reading, because, after all, what is the Arabian Nights if not a celebration of the powers of story-telling and authorship?

Orientalism

The Count of Montecristo is a profoundly orientalist work, meaning that it draws from images and concepts associated with the exotic and threatening East to define its protagonist and his quest for vengeance. The Count is many things–he is a Byronic, vampiric figure, and a cosmopolitan, but he is also an oriental character. His way of achieving vengeance is that of the Orient, as Montecristo himself speaks of poisons and crime with the Crown Prosecutors villainous wife. It is interesting to note that as an oriental, avenging figure, Montecristo becomes opaque when revenge is his primary function. Before and after that, Montecristo is a man, Edmund Dantes, and as such, a feeling, complex being.

Well, there is more to say, but I think I rather read Ivan Turgenev, so I am signing off from these speedy notes.

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