The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas, is the biggest book I’ve ever read. It weighs in at 1456 pages (in the edition I read). Unfortunately, it could have done without 500 or 600 of them. Dumas also makes the mistake of taking us away from Monte Cristo’s perspective for most of the book–but I’ll get back to that in a moment.
The book begins with an introduction to Edmond Dantès, an upright, charming young man about to be married to the girl of his dreams. Shortly after arriving back in Marseilles after a voyage, two men who are jealous of Dantès’ success accuse him of conspiring with the Bonapartists to bring back the exiled Napoleon. It might not have come to anything but for the actions of a third man who, in order to suppress the role of his father in the conspiracy, sentences Dantès to life imprisoned in the Chateau d’If. Dantès escapes 14 years later, after learning languages, science, politics, and more from an Abbé who’s been in prison even longer. This all takes place in the first 450 to 500 pages and it’s a great introduction. You see the transformation from immature man to a hard, bitter one. While the book is third person, Dumas sticks closely to Dantès’ perspective. We get to see his surprise and confusion, and then his slow-burning anger. The Abbé tried to teach Dantès acceptance, but the only thing that Dantès has on his mind is revenge on the three men who sent him to the Chateau d’If.
After a riveting description of the escape, the novel jumps forward in time about ten years. The rest of the book is told from the perspective of other characters. You can sense Dantès’ plan starting to take shape, but it happens so slowly that the revenge is not just cold, it’s glacial. The action doesn’t start to heat up until the last 450 pages or so. At that point, everything falls into place.
What I find interesting about the ending is that Dantès never seems to act against his three enemies directly. He just arranges things to put them in tight positions. In order to extricate themselves, they just make things worse. Danglars–who wrote the letter that sent Dantès to prison–is driven to embezzlement. Mondego–who delivered the letter–is driven to suicide after Dantès arranges things so that Mondego’s past betrayals come to light. And Villefort–the man who sent Dantès to prison–is exposed as an attempted child murder and his wife turns into a poisoner. 450 pages sounds like a lot, but so much happens that it just flies by. To cap it all off, there’s an odd little homily about waiting and hoping at the very end.
The middle of the book, frankly, drags. It takes so long for Dantès to put things in motion that I lost interest for a while. I have no idea why this part wasn’t cut before publication, unless it was intended as filler. It was serialized, but unlike Dickens’ novels, this doesn’t have enough action in the middle to carry readers through. Mid-nineteenth century French readers must have had a lot of patience to see it through.
The last two thirds of the book, I thought, would have been a lot more interesting and meaningful if we had access to Dantès’ inner monologue. I can see why Dumas might have wanted to tell the story of other characters’ perspective. It preserves a sense of mystery. Dantès’ targets must have thought that–after years of good fortune–their luck had suddenly turned. They never learn who’s responsible. Of the three, only Danglars figures it out. But I think this ignorance takes the sting out of the revenge. I would argue that, from Danglar, Mondego, and Villefort’s perspective, it doesn’t count as revenge. I guess I’m of the Inigo Montoya school of thought on this: Before you take your revenge, you let your victim know what they did and how they’re going to pay for it.
And because we watch the action from everyone else, we don’t get experience either Dantès’ satisfaction or regret over his success. He briefly wonders if his revenge went too far, but that’s all we get. It’s like watching a play, but all the action happens in the wings or off stage and we just see characters react to unseen events. This book would have been a lot more satisfying if Dumas had written the book in the first person.