The Count of Monte Cristo
The Count of Monte Cristo
The Count of Monte Cristo (Paris, 1844–45), by French novelist and playwright Alexandre Dumas, is one of the most popular novels ever written. Set in Marseilles, Rome and Paris in the nineteenth century, it tells the story of Edmond Dantès, a young sailor who is falsely accused of treason and imprisoned in a dungeon for fourteen years. A fellow prisoner tells him where to find treasure buried on a Mediterranean island called Monte Cristo. On Dantès's escape, he acquires the treasure, gives himself the name Count of Monte Cristo, and ruthlessly goes about the slow destruction of his enemies.
Dumas got the idea for The Count of Monte Cristo from a true story, which he found in a memoir written by a man named Jacques Peuchet. Peuchet related the story of a shoemaker named Francois Picaud, who was living in Paris in 1807. Picaud was engaged to marry a rich woman, but four jealous friends falsely accused him of being a spy for England. He was imprisoned for seven years. During his imprisonment a dying fellow prisoner bequeathed him a treasure hidden in Milan. When Picaud was released in 1814, he took possession of the treasure, returned under another name to Paris and spent ten years plotting his successful revenge against his former friends.
Generations of readers have responded to Dumas's riveting, romantic tale of revenge by a man who believes he acts as the agent of Providence. The story has adventure, intrigue and romance in full measure, and also presents a vivid portrait of France from the end of the Napoleonic years to the early 1840s.
One of the most prolific writers of all time, Alexandre Dumas was born on July 24, 1802, in Villers-Cotterêts in France. He was the third child of Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, a general in the French revolutionary army, and Marie-Louise-Elisabeth Labouret Dumas. Dumas's father died in 1806, leaving the family poor. Dumas's schooling was therefore scanty, but he soon developed literary interests, stimulated by his friendship with Adolphe Ribbing de Leuven, a young Swedish nobleman whom he met in 1819. In 1823, Dumas moved to Paris and gained a position on the staff of the Duc d'Orleans. In collaboration with Leuven, Dumas wrote many melodramas. His historical play Henri III et sa cour (Henry III and His Court) was produced to great acclaim in 1829.
Dumas took part in the revolution in 1830 that placed the Duc d'Orleans on the French throne, as King Louis Philippe. During the 1830s, Dumas continued to write hugely successful plays, and his tours of Switzerland and Italy produced many travel books. In 1838, Dumas met Auguste Maquet, who became his collaborator on many works, although they were officially attributed solely to Dumas. During the 1840s, Dumas and Maquet began a series of romanticized historical novels, which were published in serial form: Le Chevalier d'Harmental (1842; translated as The Chevalier d'Harmental, 1846); Les Trois Mousquetaires (1844, translated as The Three Musketeers, 1864), and Le Comte de Monte Cristo (1844–45, translated as The Count of Monte Cristo, 1846). These books were enormously successful, turning Dumas into a worldwide literary celebrity.
His output remained prodigious. Among the works he published in the 1840s were La Reine Margot (1845; translated as Marguerite de Valois, 1846) the first of a sixteenth-century trilogy; Vingt ans aprés (1845; translated as Twenty Years After, 1846), a sequel to The Three Musketeers; La Guerre des femmes (1845–46; translated as The War of Women, 1895); Le Chevalier de Maison-Rouge (1846; translated as Marie Antoinette; or, The Chevalier of the Red House, 1846). Dumas adapted many of these books for the stage. His total literary output amounted to over three hundred volumes.
Dumas became wealthy from his writings. Always flamboyant, he built a mansion for himself called Château de Monte Cristo on the outskirts of Paris. He also built a theatre, the Théâtre Historique, specifically for the performance of his own plays. These establishments were expensive to maintain, and Dumas, who spent money as quickly as he earned it, accumulated many debts. In 1851, he moved to Brussels to escape his creditors, remaining there for several years before returning to Paris. In 1860, he traveled to Italy, where he supported Garibaldi in the campaign for Italy's independence. He lived in Naples for four years before returning to France.
Dumas fathered two children by two different mistresses. His first child was Alexandre Dumas fils, who was to gain fame as a playwright. Dumas eventually married yet another mistress, though the marriage was short-lived.
Dumas continued to write prolifically well into the 1860s. He died of a stroke on December 5, 1870, at Puys, near Dieppe.
Imprisonment and Escape
The Count of Monte Cristo begins with the arrival of a ship in Marseilles, France. One of the crew is a young sailor named Edmond Dantès. Dantès seems to be on the threshold of great happiness. Morrel, the shipowner, promotes him to captain, and he is about to marry a beautiful girl named Mercédès. However, at the feast before the wedding Dantès is arrested for treason. He is innocent, but has been entrapped by a plot hatched by Danglars, a fellow sailor who is jealous of Dantès's promotion, and Fernand, who was his rival for the love of Mercédès. The plot is aided by Villefort, a corrupt prosecutor, and Dantès is imprisoned in the Château d'If. He is not told why he is imprisoned. He remains in the Château d'If for fourteen years. During this time he meets the Abbé Faria, a fellow prisoner who has been digging what he hoped would be a tunnel to freedom, but which leads instead to Dantès's cell. The Abbé is a learned man, and he teaches Dantès everything he knows. He also tells Dantès the location of a secret treasure, which is buried on an uninhabited island called Monte Cristo, in the Mediterranean. When the Abbé dies, Dantès switches places with the corpse and is carried out of the prison for burial. He plans to escape from the grave. But instead of burying him, the jailers toss him into the sea. Even so, he manages to swim to safety. He makes his way to Monte Cristo and discovers the treasure.
Dedication to Revenge
Now a rich man, Dantès dedicates himself to gaining revenge on those who wronged him. Taking on the first of many disguises, as the Abbé Busoni, he tracks down Caderousse, a former untrustworthy neighbor who is now an impoverished innkeeper. Caderousse tells him the story of Dantès's arrest and what has happened since. Villefort, Danglars and Fernand are all now powerful men. Dantès rewards Caderousse and his wife with a valuable diamond. Based on what Caderousse told him, Dantès, now disguised as an Englishman, Lord Wilford, rewards the ship owner Morrel, who had tried many times to intercede with the authorities on Dantès' behalf. Morrel has suffered many losses at sea and is on the verge of bankruptcy. He is about to commit suicide when his daughter Julie brings proof that all his debts have been paid by a mysterious benefactor, who has also given Morrel a diamond for his daughter's dowry.
The scene switches to Rome, where two young Frenchmen, Baron Franz d'Espinay and Viscount Albert de Morcerf (Fernand's son) attend the carnival. They meet Dantès, who has given himself the name Count of Monte Cristo. Monte Cristo uses the influence his wealth buys to save a man named Peppino from execution. He then saves Albert, who has been kidnapped by bandits led by the notorious Luigi Vampa. In gratitude, Albert agrees to introduce Monte Cristo to his social circle in Paris. There Monte Cristo meets Lucien Debray, a diplomat, Beauchamp, a journalist, and Captain Maximilien Morrel, the son of Morrel. They are all fascinated by the remarkable count. Monte Cristo meets Fernand, who is now the Count of Morcef. Morcef is grateful to him for saving his son's life. Monte Cristo also meets Mercédès, who recognizes him but says nothing.
Monte Cristo buys a house at Auteuil, near Paris, which was the scene of a crime committed by Villefort, when he buried the infant child of his lover, Baroness Danglars. Monte Cristo knows this from his servant Bertuccio, who had a grudge against Villefort and tried to kill him at that house. Bertuccio saved the infant's life and raised him as Benedetto. Bertuccio also tells the count that he was a witness to a murder committed by Caderousse and his wife, who killed the jeweler who came to buy a diamond.
- The Count of Monte Cristo has often been adapted for film. The most recent version (2002) was directed by Kevin Reynolds and stars Jim Caviezel as Dantès, Guy Pearce as Fernand Mondego, Richard Harris as Abbé Faria, James Frain as Villefort, and Dagmara Dominczyk as Mercedès.
- A 1975 film version was directed by David Greene and starred Richard Chamberlain as Dantès.
Monte Cristo next meets Danglars, who is now a rich banker. He discovers that the Danglars are unhappily married and that Danglars's wife is having an affair with Debray. Monte Cristo causes Danglars to lose a large amount of money when the banker acts on a rumor spread by Debray about political events in Spain. Danglars demands that his wife, whom he knows is having an affair with Debray, repay him for the loss. Monte Cristo then exploits the latent ill-feeling between Danglars and Morcerf by encouraging Danglars to investigate Morcerf's behavior many years ago in regard to a French ally, Ali Pasha, in Greece.
Monte Cristo gets into the favor of Villefort by saving his wife and son when their carriage goes out of control. Then he deliberately arouses Madame Villefort's interest in the medicinal use of poisons. Villefort and Madame Danglars are terrified when they guess that Monte Cristo knows the secret of their affair. They fear that their child may be alive.
Maximilien wants to marry Villefort's daughter, Valentine. But the Villefort family, except for Valentine's grandfather, Noirtier, want her to marry Franz d'Epinay. The marriage is called off after the paralyzed Noirtier, who many years before was a Bonapartist, communicates that it was he who killed Franz's father, a royalist general. Madame Villefort schemes to arrange an inheritance for her son Edouard by poisoning her father and mother-in-law, and attempting to poison Noirtier and Valentine. Noirtier and Valentine survive.
Caderousse escapes from the prison to which he was sent for aiding his wife in murder. He burgles Monte Cristo's house, but Monte Cristo, disguised as the Abbé Busoni, catches him in the act. Monte Cristo lets him go but Caderousse is then murdered by his accomplice, Andrea Cavalcanti. Andrea is in fact Benedetto, who has been given a fake identity as an Italian nobleman by Monte Cristo. As Caderousse dies, Monte Cristo reveals his real identity.
Morcerf is disgraced when it is revealed that many years ago, when he was in the French army, he betrayed his benefactor, Ali Pasha, and sold Ali Pasha's wife and daughter into slavery. The daughter, Haydée, was bought by Monte Cristo. Albert realizes that Monte Cristo arranged for his father's disgrace and challenges him to a duel. But Mercédès tells Albert the whole story of Dantès' betrayal by Fernand, and Albert apologizes to Monte Cristo before the duel begins. Mercédès leaves her disgraced husband for a life of poverty, while Albert renounces his name and fortune. Morcerf commits suicide.
Andrea, who was to be married to Eugénie Danglars, is arrested for murder. Eugénie, who never wanted to marry him, disguises herself as a man and runs off with her friend Louise d'Armilly. Andrea briefly escapes, but he is recaptured. At his trial, he explains that he is the son of Villefort, the man who is prosecuting him. Distraught, Villefort rushes home. There he finds that his wife has committed suicide. Villefort had discovered that it was she who was poisoning his family, and told her to kill herself or face trial and a death sentence. When Villefort discovers that his wife has also killed their young son, Edouard, he goes insane, but not before Monte Cristo has revealed his real identity to him.
Monte Cristo arranges for Danglars to be ruined financially. Danglars leaves his wife and goes abroad, while Madame Danglars falls out with Debray. Danglars embezzles some money and goes to Rome, where he is kidnapped by bandits led by Luigi Vampa. They rob him of all his money, except for fifty thousand francs. Monte Cristo tells him he is now forgiven. Then he reveals to Danglars his true identity as Edmond Dantès. Danglars is completely broken by the loss of all his wealth.
With all his enemies vanquished, Monte Cristo arranges for Maximilien, who believed Valentine to be dead, to be reunited with her. Then he sails off in his yacht, having found love once more with Haydée.
Ali is Monte Cristo's mute valet. He is totally loyal to his master, who saved his life.
Beauchamp is a radical journalist and a loyal friend of Albert de Morcerf. He is one of Albert's seconds in the duel with Monte Cristo.
Benedetto is the son of de Villefort and Madame Danglars. Villefort buried him at birth, believing he was dead. He was found by Bertuccio, who raised him. Benedetto grows up to be a scoundrel. Because of who Benedetto is, Monte Cristo uses him in his plot against Villefort, giving him a new identity as an Italian nobleman, Andrea Cavalcanti. Andrea becomes engaged to Eugénie Danglars, but he is then arrested for the murder of Caderousse. At his trial he identifies Villefort, who is prosecuting him, as his father, thus ruining Villefort.
Bertuccio is a Corsican who swears a vendetta against Villefort because Villefort made no effort to find the murderer of Bertuccio's brother. Later, Bertuccio is wrongly arrested for the murder committed by Caderousse and his wife. Monte Cristo, in the guise of Abbé Busoni, manages to arrange his release. Bertuccio then enters the service of Monte Cristo.
Gaspard Caderousse is a greedy and untrustworthy neighbor of Dantès. He is present, and drunk, when Fernand writes the note accusing Dantès of treason. Caderousse knows Dantès is innocent but does nothing to help him. Many years later, when Caderousse is an innkeeper, Dantès visits him, disguised as the Abbé Busoni. Caderousse tells him the entire story of why Dantès was imprisoned and what has happened to the conspirators since. Busoni rewards him with a diamond. But after Busoni has gone, Caderousse and his wife murder a jeweler who offered to buy the diamond. Caderousse is arrested and sentenced to hard labor. He escapes but continues a life of crime. His end comes when he burgles Monte Cristo's house. Monte Cristo, in disguise as the Abbé Busoni, catches him red-handed, but then lets him go, guessing correctly that he will be immediately killed by his accomplice, Benedetto.
Cloclès is a loyal elderly employee of Morrel.
Count of Monte Cristo
Doctor d'Avrigny is physician to the Villefort family. He suspects that the mysterious deaths of several family members are murder, but he says nothing to the authorities.
Franz d'Epinay is a young nobleman who visits Rome with his friend Albert de Morcerf. Later, Franz engages to marry Valentine de Villefort, but he cancels the engagement when he discovers that Valentine's grandfather, Noirtier, was the man who killed his father, a royalist general, many years earlier.
As a young man, Danglars is a sailor on the Pharaon. He is envious of Dantès and writes a note falsely accusing him of being a Bonapartist conspirator, causing Dantès to be imprisoned. Using unscrupulous means, Danglars pursues a career as a banker. He becomes rich and marries an aristocrat. The marriage is an unhappy one, however. Monte Cristo arranges for Danglars's downfall by plotting a series of financial disasters for him. Danglars leaves his wife, and his daughter runs away from their home. Eventually, when Danglars has only fifty thousand francs left, Monte Cristo forgives him, but Danglars is completely shattered by his financial ruin and his hair turns white.
Eugénie Danglars is the daughter of the Danglars. She is horrified at the thought of marriage and is pleased when her fiancé, Andrea Cavalcanti, is arrested for murder. Deciding to live independently, she disguises herself as a man and runs away with her friend, Louise d'Armilly.
Madame Danglars comes from an ancient family and was married to a marquis. After his death, she married Danglars. However, the marriage is not a happy one, and the couple live largely separate lives. Madame Danglars takes lovers, including Villefort, with whom she has a child, and later Debray. After her husband leaves her, she is also abandoned by Debray.
Edmond Dantès is a highly capable and good-hearted young man of nineteen who is on the brink of great success and happiness. He is about to be promoted to captain of a commercial trading ship and to marry the girl he loves. But the envy and treachery of Fernand, Danglars, Caderousse and Villefort result in his being falsely imprisoned for treason for fourteen years. On his escape, he vows to reward those who in his absence were kind to his father and punish those who conspired against him. Dantès acquires great wealth by finding the treasure that his fellow prisoner, the Abbé Faria, told him was buried on the island of Monte Cristo. Giving himself the title of Count of Monte Cristo, as well as several aliases, he then rewards his friends in the Morrel family and pursues his enemies with single-minded determination and great ingenuity. He sees himself as the agent of divine Providence. However, he comes to doubt this when his scheme against Villefort results in the death of the innocent boy, Edouard. He overcomes his doubts when he makes a trip to the chateau where he was imprisoned, which rekindles his memories of the injustice he suffered. He can then pursue his vengeance against his final enemy, Danglars.
Monsieur Dantès is Dantès's father. He lives in poverty, which worsens after his son's imprisonment. Mercédès and Morrel try to look after him, but eventually, overwhelmed by his misfortunes, he refuses to eat and starves himself to death.
Albert de Morcerf
Albert de Morcerf is the son of the Count and Countess de Morcerf. Unlike his father, Albert is a man of integrity and courage. His life is saved by Monte Cristo when he is kidnapped by bandits in Rome, and Monte Cristo comes to recognize Albert's essential goodness, even though they come close to fighting a duel. When Albert learns of his father's disgrace, he forgives Monte Cristo for his part in making his father's crimes public. He also renounces his name and fortune and vows to make a fresh start in life by joining the army.
Count de Morcerf
See Fernand Mondego
Countess de Morcerf
See Mercédès Herrera
Marquis de Saint-Méran
Marquis de Saint-Méran is a wealthy royalist in high favor with the court. His daughter Renée marries Villefort. He is later poisoned by Madame Héloïse de Villefort.
Marquise de Saint-Méran
Marquise de Saint-Méran is the wife of the Marquis de Saint-Méran. She and her husband are poisoned by Madame Héloïse de Villefort.
Renée de Saint-Méran
Renée de Saint-Méran becomes Villefort's first wife and the mother of Valentine. She dies young.
Edouard de Villefort
Edouard de Villefort is the Villeforts' young son. He is poisoned by his mother just before she commits suicide. His death causes Monte Cristo to reconsider whether his actions have been just.
Héloïse de Villefort
Héloïse de Villefort is Villefort's second wife, and the mother of Edouard. She poisons the Marquis and Marquise de Saint-Méran, and Valentine, as part of her plot to ensure an inheritance for her son. On being found out by her husband and told to commit suicide or face prosecution, she chooses suicide, and she also murders her son.
Monsieur de Villefort
Monsieur de Villefort is the twenty-seven-year-old deputy public prosecutor in Marseilles who sends Dantès to prison unjustly. Villefort knows Dantès is innocent, but he wants to protect his father, Noirtier, a Bonapartist, who was the addressee of the letter that Dantès had been asked to deliver from Elba. During Dantès's imprisonment, Villefort becomes the powerful Deputy Minister of France in Paris. However, Villefort is guilty of one secret crime. He had an affair with Madame Danglars, and he buried their baby alive. However, the baby was rescued and was raised as Benedetto. When as a young man, Benedetto is charged with murder, he exposes Villefort's crime in court. Villefort goes home and finds his wife has committed suicide and also killed their son Edouard. The shock of all these events drives him insane.
Valentine de Villefort
Valentine de Villefort is the daughter of Monsieur and Renée de Villefort. She is in love with Maximilien, but she falls victim to the poison plot of her stepmother, who wants Valentine's inheritance to end up with her son Edouard. Monte Cristo saves Valentine's life and arranges for her to be united with Maximilien.
Lucien Debray is the Secretary of the Minister of the Interior in Paris who carries on an affair with Madame Danglars. She eventually finds out that Debray is only interested in the money they are making from a profitable joint business venture which has drained the fortune of her husband.
Abbé Faria is a learned and resourceful priest imprisoned in the Château d'If. He and Dantès become close friends after Faria digs through to Dantès's cell. Faria teaches Dantès languages, science, culture and spirituality. He also tells him where to find buried treasure. Although Faria dies before the two of them can put their escape plan into action, it is Faria who equips Dantès with all he needs to successfully take on the identity of the Count of Monte Cristo.
Haydée is the daughter of Ali Pasha, who was betrayed by de Morcef. As a young girl, Haydée was sold into slavery and purchased by Monte Cristo, in whose service she remained. Haydée testifies against de Morcerf at his trial, which ensures his conviction.
Emmanuel Herbault is a clerk who works for Morrel. He marries Julie Morrel.
Julie Morrel Herbault
Julie Morrel Herbault is the daughter of Morrel. Monte Cristo, calling himself Sinbad the Sailor, uses her as the channel through which he pays Morrel's debts and restores the family fortunes. She marries Emmanuel Herbault.
Mercédès Herrera is a beautiful young girl in Marseilles who is engaged to marry Dantès. After Dantès is imprisoned, she is grief-stricken. Eighteen months later, she agrees to marry Fernand, but she never ceases to love Dantès. Although she ascends to a high social position in Paris, her marriage is unhappy. Later, when Dantès as Monte Cristo visits her, she recognizes him immediately, but says nothing. At another meeting, she persuades him not to kill her son in a duel. When her husband commits suicide, Mercédès renounces her title and her husband's wealth. Helped by a monetary gift from Monte Cristo, she goes to live in the small house in Marseilles which was once owned by Dantès' father. She plans to spend the rest of her life in prayer.
Jacopo is a sailor who saves Dantès's life after Dantès has escaped from prison and is trying to swim to safety. Jacopo pulls him out of the water just as Dantès's strength gives out. He becomes a loyal friend of Dantès and stays devoted to him after Dantès becomes Monte Cristo. Monte Cristo rewards him by making him captain of his yacht.
Fernand Mondego is a fisherman from Marseilles who is in love with Mercédès. When he learns that Mercédès is to marry Dantès, he mails the letter Danglars has written to the authorities accusing Dantès of being a Bonapartist conspirator. After Dantès is imprisoned, Fernand joins the army, and when he returns he marries Mercédès. Fernand rises in the world, accumulates wealth by dubious means, and takes the title of the Count of Morcerf. His wife and son are his pride and joy, but he loses them both when it is revealed that many years earlier he betrayed a French ally, Ali Pasha, and sold Pasha's wife and daughter into slavery. In disgrace, de Morcerf shoots himself.
Maximilien Morrel is the son of Morrel the shipowner. He is an upright young man who becomes a captain in the army. He falls in love with Valentine de Villefort, and after many twists and turns, Monte Cristo, who admires Morrel and befriends him, arranges for them to be together.
Monsieur Morrel is a shipowner in Marseilles. He promotes Dantès to captain of the Pharaon. After Dantès's arrest, he tries many times to intercede with the authorities on Dantès's behalf, even though is it politically dangerous for him to do so. Fourteen years later, after Dantès has escaped, Morrel has fallen on hard times. His ships are lost at sea and his creditors are pressing him for payment. He is about to commit suicide when Monte Cristo intervenes and pays off his debts.
Monsieur Noirtier is Villefort's father. He and his son are on opposing sides politically. Noirtier is a prominent Bonapartist who kills a royalist general in a duel. As an old man he suffers a paralyzing stroke, but he still manages to save his beloved granddaughter Valentine from being compelled to marry Franz d'Epinay. He does this by producing an old journal that records his duel with the royalist general, who was Franz's father.
Signor Pastrini is the owner of a hotel in Rome. He arranges the meeting between Monte Cristo and Albert de Morcerf.
Peppino is a member of Luigi Vampa's gang of bandits. He owes his life to Monte Cristo, who used his wealth to buy a pardon for Peppino just before Peppino was due to be executed.
Luigi Vampa is a notorious bandit leader in Rome who is responsible for kidnapping Albert de Morcerf. He releases Albert on the instructions of Monte Cristo, to whom he owes friendship because the Count once declined to hand Vampa over to the authorities when he had the opportunity. Vampa's gang later kidnaps Danglars and again follows the instructions given by Monte Cristo.
See Edmond Dantès
The Limitations of Human Justice
When Dantès escapes from prison, he is obsessed with gaining revenge against those who betrayed him, as well as rewarding those who remained loyal to him. The revenge theme drives the entire narrative, and Dantès, as Monte Cristo, pursues it patiently and ruthlessly. He believes he is one of those "extraordinary beings" who act as agents of divine Providence. He brings punishment when it is deserved and when it is due. Monte Cristo states this quite explicitly to Villefort when they first meet in Paris and engage in a philosophical discussion (Chapter 48, "Ideology"). Monte Cristo takes Villefort to task for thinking about justice only in terms of human law and society. He, on the other hand, is aware of a more profound reality. He tells the astonished Villefort of an encounter he had with Satan, in which he declared that "the most beautiful, noblest, most sublime thing in the world is to recompense and punish." Dantès requested that he become Providence itself. Satan told him that the most he could aspire to was to be an agent of Providence.
Topics For Further Study
- Research the role of DNA in freeing people who have been wrongly convicted. How many prisoners on death row have been freed by DNA evidence showing they could not have committed the crime? How can a man be compensated for spending ten years or more in prison for a crime he did not commit? How can such mistakes be avoided in the future?
- On the evidence of The Count of Monte Cristo, is there justice in the world? For everyone, or just for some? If there is such a thing as innocent suffering, how could that be reconciled with the existence of a God who is love as well as justice?
- Write a paragraph describing the wrongs committed by each of Monte Cristo's three main enemies. Who committed the worst crimes? Was the punishment each man received related to the nature of his crime? Were the punishments appropriate?
- Analyze the role Caderousse plays in the writing of the letter accusing Dantes, and Monte Cristo's visit to him after the prison escape. Does Monte Cristo give him the diamond in genuine appreciation, or is it to test him, knowing that Caderousse's greed will get the better of him?
Eventually, Monte Cristo comes to see the limitations that attend a human being who seeks to appropriate to himself a function of the divine. Having previously used the Biblical notion that the sins of the father are visited on the children to justify the devastation he was prepared to wreak on whole families, he is brought up in shock at the death of the innocent nine-year-old Edouard. He realizes that even though Edouard is the son of Villefort, one of the guilty men, Edouard does not deserve the death he receives. For the first time, this supremely self-confident man doubts the wisdom of his mission of revenge. Monte Cristo feels he has gone too far and can no longer say, "God is for and with me." With unaccustomed humility, he acknowledges to Maximilien that the gods operate with a kind of infallibility that is not permissible to a mere man. He leaves Paris with many regrets, although he tries to reassure himself that he never misused the power he was given for any "personal good or to any useless cause." But he cannot shake off his misgivings: "Having reached the summit of his vengeance by a long and tortuous path, he saw an abyss of doubt on the other side of the mountain." Although a visit to the Château d'If rekindles his sense of righteousness about his mission, fortifying him for his final revenge on Danglars, he is still a changed man. He tells Danglars that he forgives him, because Monte Cristo himself is in need of forgiveness for what he has done.
Love is Stronger than Hatred
For all the years in which he plots and carries out his vengeance, Monte Cristo cuts himself off from the values of the heart. He does not permit himself to love, or to have normal human relations. Even though he rewards the Morrel family for their loyalty to him, he does not get emotionally close to them. He remains distant. After he has done his duty to the Morrels, he bids farewell to kindness and gratitude, and vengeance becomes his only goal. His state of mind can be seen in the cold manner in which he speaks about torture, justice and punishment to Albert and Franz before they witness the execution in Rome. Albert is so shocked by Monte Cristo's words and manner he almost faints.
However, Monte Cristo's heart is not quite dead. He does show compassion when he grants Mercédès's request not to kill Albert in the duel, and again when he visits her in Marseilles after he has left Paris, his revenge almost complete. He plans to give her half his fortune, and would have done so there and then had Mercédès not insisted that Albert must first approve of the arrangement.
A major step in Monte Cristo's recovery of his ability to love comes when he goes to great efforts to ensure that Valentine is united with Maximilien. He has realized that he does not have to hate Valentine just because she is Villefort's daughter. The sins of the father do not always have to be visited upon the children. But it is only when he allows himself to fall in love with Haydée that he recovers his full humanity. He can now enjoy life again in the present moment without having to dwell on the injustices of the past. As he explains to Maximilien, only those who have known great unhappiness can enjoy its opposite, ultimate bliss. After the grim execution of justice, the love of Maximilien and Valentine, and of Monte Cristo and Haydée, shows that love will triumph in the end.
The Romantic Novel
The Count of Monte Cristo is an example of a romantic historical novel. In a romantic novel, the emphasis is on action, adventure, heroism and love. Characters are usually either good or bad, with few shades in between. There is always a happy ending. Good triumphs over evil.
The hero of a romantic novel is a larger-than-life, usually idealized character. He is a man of courage, integrity and daring. In The Count of Monte Cristo, Dantès's qualifications to be a romantic hero are clearly delineated in the opening few chapters. This, for example, is the very first description of him:
He was a fine tall slim young fellow, with black eyes, and hair as dark as the raven's wing, and his whole appearance bespoke that calmness and resolution peculiar to men accustomed from their cradle to contend with danger.
The early chapters go on to show Dantès behaving with integrity and virtue in all areas of his life. His credentials as a romantic hero are established. Similarly, the bad characters, Danglars and Fernand, are given their envious, duplicitous natures right at the beginning. The reader then clearly knows what to expect from them. Once these simple character lines are put down, they do not change. Character development is not where the interest of the romantic novel lies.
The romantic novel is often considered escapist literature. It does not reflect events that could really happen. For example, Monte Cristo's prodigious ability to be at the right place at the right time and to manipulate events and people exactly as he pleases would strain credulity to the breaking point in a realistic novel, but in a romance, such things are willingly accepted by the reader.
Napoleon and the Restoration of the Bourbons
The year 1815, in which The Count of Monte Cristo begins, was a watershed year in European history. It brought to a conclusion over twenty years of war. The turbulence had begun in 1789, with the outbreak of the French Revolution. In 1792, France established itself as a republic, and King Louis XVI was beheaded on January 21, 1793. Revolutionary France alarmed the rest of Europe with its aggressive territorial ambitions, and within two months of the king's execution, a general European war broke out. It was during this war that Napoleon Bonaparte, who was born on the island of Corsica, rose to power within the French Army and transformed it into a formidable military force. In 1799, he seized control of France, and in 1804 declared himself emperor. Until 1812, Napoleon controlled most of Europe. But he over-reached himself by invading Russia in 1812. After his army was forced to retreat from Moscow, Napoleon's power was on the wane.
In April, 1814, Napoleon abdicated as Emperor and was sent into exile on the island of Elba. The major European powers, Prussia, Austria and Britain, had declared him to be a destroyer of the peace of the world. Louis XVIII, brother of the executed Louis XVI, ascended to the French throne. This event, which put the Bourbon dynasty back in power, is known as the First Restoration. It is this political situation that existed in France when The Count of Monte Cristo begins.
The restored Bourbons had the support of the old aristocracy, who had been dispossessed of their lands by the revolution, but they did not have the allegiance of all the people. Many wanted the Emperor to return, and there were conflicts between royalists and Bonapartists. This is reflected in the early part of the novel. Villefort's father, Noirtier, is a Bonapartist and a former Girondin (the Girondins were a political faction during the French Revolution), whereas Villefort is content to serve whoever is in power, although he claims to be a royalist. It is this situation, in which a restored monarchy represses and persecutes the remaining Bonapartists, that Dantès gets caught up in.
Compare & Contrast
Today: As a long-established parliamentary democracy, France is a more stable society under the Fifth Republic, which began in 1958.
1840s: The use of the recently invented electric telegraph makes communications much faster than ever before.
1840s: Railway construction begins all over Europe. The French railway system is constructed with Paris at its center.
Today: France has a high-speed rail network that is one of the most advanced in Europe. High-speed trains travel at top speeds of between 150 mph and 180 mph. The system is safe and there have been no fatal accidents in two decades of operations.
Napoleon remained on Elba for only ten months. He escaped and landed with 1,100 men near Cannes on March 1, 1815. He crossed the Alps and marched on Paris, gathering support from peasants and soldiers alike. When he entered Paris, Louis XVIII realized the danger too late—he is presented in The Count of Monte Cristo as complacent—and fled. But another war soon broke out. Heavily outnumbered, Napoleon was defeated by the British general, Wellington, at the Battle of Waterloo in June, 1815. Napoleon returned to Paris and abdicated. His return had lasted only just over three months, the period known as the Hundred Days. He was again sent into exile, this time to the island of St. Helena, in the South Atlantic, where he died six years later. Louis XVIII returned to the French throne. It was then dangerous once more to be known as a Bonapartist (as Dantès finds out). In the south of France there was an outbreak of unrest in which many Bonapartists were killed, and the Chamber of Deputies, under Royalist control, demanded and took action against Bonapartists active during the Hundred Days, whom they called traitors.
The Count of Monte Cristo was originally published in serial form, and was a huge success. People would wait in long lines to buy the latest installment. Within a few months the novel was translated into ten languages. Dumas had also published another extremely successful novel, The Three Musketeers, in the same year. With the publication of The Count of Monte Cristo, Dumas became famous worldwide. In Europe, his literary reputation was higher than that of Charles Dickens or Victor Hugo.
The Count of Monte Cristo has remained popular with readers for over 150 years, and is often considered to be Dumas's masterpiece. Writing in 1902, H. A. Spurr (The Life and Writings of Alexandre Dumas) stated that the theme of the novel "is taught so effectively, so honestly, and on so great a scale, that the book has a moral value which should preserve it from oblivion for generations to come."
Spurr's prediction proved to be correct. In recent years, F. W. J. Hemmings, in The King of Romance: A Portrait of Alexandre Dumas, described the novel as "the greatest 'revenger's tragedy' in the whole history of the novel." And in 2003, Robert McCrum, literary editor of the British newspaper, The Observer, in his list of the 100 greatest novels of all time, placed The Count of Monte Cristo in fourteenth position, calling it "a masterpiece of adventure writing."
However, in spite of the novel's high standing amongst readers in every generation since its first publication, The Count of Monte Cristo has not generally received such high accolades from literary scholars. There is a perception that Dumas's novels fall short of the demands of serious literature. In fact, The Count of Monte Cristo has often been viewed as a well-plotted adventure novel, well suited to popular taste, but little more. In Writers for Children, Avriel H. Goldberger has tried to bridge this gap between popular acclaim and literary standing in the work of Dumas. She acknowledges that The Count of Monte Cristo ranks with the great revenge stories of all time, but states:
This is not because Monte Cristo has equal merit as a work of art or as a probe of the psyche, but because it speaks so powerfully to our need to fantasize impossible victories of the individual against injustice.
Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English and has published many articles on nineteenth-century literature. In this essay Aubrey discusses The Count of Monte Cristo in the context of its literary allusions to Byron and Shakespeare, with reference to some of the philosophical implications of Monte Cristo's beliefs about divine justice.
The Count of Monte Cristo vicariously satisfies the fantasies of everyone who has ever dreamed of winning the lottery or who has idly plotted revenge against their enemies, knowing full well they will never act on their darkest desires. Monte Cristo is like a nineteenth century Superman. His miraculous, Houdini-like escape from prison, when he manages to escape drowning even though a cannon ball is tied to his feet, sets the tone for what follows. Everything goes right for the formidable Count, who seems like a lord in charge of his own destiny and that of others. Coincidences happen at the most opportune time for him; he seems to have eliminated from life the element of unpredictability and chance. He never makes a mistake, he seems to know everything, he is always in full possession of himself, and he has an air of invincibility about him. Given his single-minded dedication to his mission, his extraordinary force of personality and his prodigious wealth, it is not surprising that others regard him with a kind of awe. Beauchamp, for example, when he witnesses Monte Cristo's utter certainty of victory in the duel with Albert, is not sure whether he is dealing with a mere braggart or a supernatural being. And Villefort, when he first meets Monte Cristo in Paris, has a similar thought, not knowing whether the man who thinks he is an agent of Providence is a mystic or a madman.
"The problem of innocent suffering does not trouble Monte Cristo (at least not until the death of Edouard), even though his revenge wreaks devastation on whole families."
During the part of the novel that is set in Rome, to give his character some extra heft, Dumas hints that Monte Cristo is to be regarded as something of a Byronic hero. The English Romantic poet Lord Byron, a favorite of Dumas's youth, was revered throughout Europe as the incarnation of the rebellious Romantic spirit. He died a heroic death in 1824, fighting for the cause of Greek independence. During his lifetime, Byron's magnetic personality, his cultivation of the persona of an outsider, and the whiff of scandal that always seemed to surround him, made him one of the most talked about men of the age, the precursor of the modern celebrity. Women were drawn to him, and chaperones were anxious to steer their young charges away from him. When Byron visited Rome, one aristocratic English lady warned her daughter, when Byron was in the vicinity, "Don't look at him, he is dangerous to look at" (quoted in Phyliss Grosskurth's Byron: The Flawed Angel). Byron seemed to embody the same spirit that he breathed into his restless, tormented heroes. Like Edmond Dantès heroes, the heroes of Byron's dramatic poems have suffered great wrongs that set them apart from the rest of society, but they remain indomitable. This is the background against which Franz d'Epinay's observation of Monte Cristo can be understood:
Franz could not … even think of [Monte Cristo] without representing his stern head on the shoulders of Manfred or beneath the casque of Lara. His forehead was marked by the line that indicates the constant presence of a bitter thought. He had those fiery eyes that seem to penetrate to the heart, and the haughty and disdainful upper lip that gives to the words it utters a peculiar character that impresses them on the minds of those to whom they are addressed.
Manfred and Lara are both heroes in Byron's dramatic poems of those titles. These works are mentioned again by Albert de Morcerf, when he tries to explain to his mother who Monte Cristo is. Like his friend Franz, Albert regards Monte Cristo as a Byronic hero,
whom Misery has marked with a fatal brand … one of those wrecks, as it were, of some ancient family, who, disinherited of their patrimony, have achieved one by the force of their adventurous genius, which has placed them above the laws of society.
In spite of the direct references to Byron, however, the resemblances between Monte Cristo and the Byronic hero are largely superficial. The Byronic hero is a much more complex figure than Monte Cristo. He is usually guilty of some sin or transgression against society's laws, and searches for meaning in a universe that refuses to yield one. This is not Monte Cristo at all; Monte Cristo is confident of the moral order of the world and his role in upholding it. The truth is that Dumas tossed in the Byronic allusions simply because he wanted a few more ingredients to stir into his literary pot. They are Romantic seasonings to give the stew a popular flavor.
What Do I Read Next?
- Dumas's famous novel The Three Musketeers (1844) is an adventure and a romance set in seventeenth century France and features the four heroes, Athos, Porthos, Aramis and D'Artagnan.
- Although it is on a much smaller scale than The Count of Monte Cristo, Edgar Allan Poe's chilling short story "The Cask of Amontillado," first published in 1846, also features a protagonist whose sole focus is revenge on the man who has wronged him.
- Lord Byron's poem "The Prisoner of Chillon," first published in 1816, was inspired by the story of a sixteenth century priest who spent six years in solitary confinement in the Castle of Chillon in Switzerland. Byron's prisoner goes through despair and near delirium but eventually finds a kind of peace.
- Culture and Society in France 1789–1848 (1987), by F. W. J. Hemmings, is a much-cited study that traces the continuities and discontinuities of French culture and society during this turbulent half-century.
The same applies to the opinion of the Venetian lady, Countess G—, also in the Rome episodes, that Monte Cristo is a vampire. She is convinced of this because of the count's pale appearance: "seems to me as though he had just been dug up," she says to Franz. Vampire lore was in vogue at the time, and was often associated with Byron, whose heroes' obsession with darkness and the destructive aspects of love made them resemble the vampire figure. John William Polidori, Byron's personal physician, published the first vampire novel in 1819. The Vampyre was soon adapted to the French stage by Charles Nodier, so it would have been familiar to French readers and theatregoers. Dumas himself attended a performance of Le Vampire in 1823. Readers of The Count of Monte Cristo would certainly have recognized the Countess's description of Monte Cristo as the "new Lord Ruthven," since Lord Ruthven was the name of Polidori's vampire. Of course, there is just enough of a similarity between the vampire myth and Monte Cristo to make the allusion work. Like the vampire, Monte Cristo has returned (seemingly) from the tomb (the Château d'If) to destroy the lives of the living.
In addition to beefing up his main character with whatever literary bric-a-brac he could lay his hands on, Dumas also appears to have raided another of his favorite authors, William Shakespeare, for some help with plot devices. When Madame Villefort faints in order to divert suspicion from herself after her victim Valentine is discovered apparently dead, she is following the example of Lady Macbeth, who pulls a similar trick after the murder of Duncan in Macbeth. Shakespeareans may also recognize in the flight of Eugénie and her friend Louise, in which Eugénie disguises herself as a man, an echo of Rosalind and Celia fleeing to the forest of Arden in As You Like It.
A Shakespearean plot device hard for anyone to miss is when Valentine drinks the potion given to her by Monte Cristo. The potion will induce in her a sleep that resembles death, she will be buried by her mourning family, but will then awake and be reunited with her lover, Maximilien. This is of course exactly what is planned in Romeo and Juliet, except that the outcome in the Shakespearean play is tragic. A happy outcome of the fake death of a lover can be found in Much Ado About Nothing, where Claudio and Hero are separated by Hero's apparent death (which is a trick), only to be reunited at the end. Maximilien's intense grief at apparently losing Valentine is an echo of Claudio's suffering at the apparent loss of his love.
The Shakespearean play that looms largest over The Count of Monte Cristo is of course that other great revenge story, Hamlet. Although Hamlet should not in any way be considered a source of The Count of Monte Cristo, it is interesting to note some of the similarities and contrasts between the two. Like the count, Hamlet believes he has a mission from God to avenge a wrong. He has been appointed by heaven as "scourge and minister" (act 3, scene 4, line 175). But the reflective, vacillating Prince of Denmark does not go about his task with the same cold fixity of purpose that characterizes Monte Cristo. Although he eventually accomplishes his revenge, two entire families are wiped out in the process, not to mention the fate suffered by those two hapless courtiers, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Innocent suffering is embodied in the tragic figure of Ophelia, who is caught up in events that are not of her doing but which overwhelm her just the same.
The problem of innocent suffering does not trouble Monte Cristo (at least not until the death of Edouard), even though his revenge wreaks devastation on whole families. The reason he does not question his own actions is because he believes that suffering is a punishment by God for sins. He uses that argument to the dying Caderousse (although Caderousse is certainly not innocent). The count absolves himself from blame for not preventing Caderousse's murder by saying that he refuses to interfere with the workings of justice. He considers it sacrilege to oppose the will of Providence. Caderousse thinks he sees through that argument, saying, "If God were just, you know many would be punished who now escape." But this does not cut any ice with Monte Cristo. He uses the same argument for inaction when Madame de Villefort goes on her poisoning spree, which produces four innocent victims. He tells Maximilien that he is not at all concerned by the poisonings, which demonstrate only that the justice of God has entered the Villefort house. He advises Maximilien to let justice do its work.
The idea that everyone who suffers somehow deserves their own misery, and those who die untimely deaths are merely recipients of the justice of God, is not an argument that can stand much scrutiny. If Monte Cristo were to be consistent, he would also have to acknowledge that according to the beliefs he has adopted, his own father's suffering and death, the injustice of which he seeks to revenge, must also have been a part of the judgment of God. And what of his own sufferings during his fourteen-year imprisonment? Could not the same argument be applied in that instance? It is surely a weak, self-serving argument for a person to hold that someone else's suffering or death is sent by God for purposes of justice, whereas their own suffering, or that of the people they love, is the result of the evil actions of other people.
To his credit, Monte Cristo eventually comes to realize that he erred in believing himself to be equal to God. He acknowledges that God is the only source of wisdom and supreme power. Ironically, if he had taken more notice of his enemy Villefort, who commented at their first meeting in Paris that "you may be above others, but above you there is God," he might have learned it a lot sooner. But humility is usually the last of the virtues to be acquired. It comes to Monte Cristo in his final words to Maximilien, that the sum of all human wisdom is contained in the two words, "wait and hope." Indeed. But mere waiting and hoping would make for a very dull novel. Revenge by a man appointed as the agent of Providence produces a much more exciting read, as Dumas well knew, and none of his readers would have it otherwise.
Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on The Count of Monte Cristo, in Novels for Students, Gale, 2004.
In the following essay, Stowell compares elements of The Count of Monte Cristo to Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, and speculates on how the former may have influenced the latter.
Since few of Emily Brontë's private papers survived her death in 1848, whilst those close to Charlotte preserved whatever they could of her written material when she died, there is a huge imbalance of evidence for the reading preferences of the two writers. Literary influences on Charlotte are therefore easy to confirm; those on Emily far less so. Moreover, the novel-styles of the two are very different: Charlotte's prose is full of allusion and quotation (whether acknowledged or unacknowledged), her imagery often derived from her own favourite books; the prose in Wuthering Heights is by contrast reference-free, figurative language infrequent and original. Yet both writers are indebted to their intense reading habits as children, and it is possible that Emily had before her, during the composition of her novel, the model of the irresistible tale that was then sweeping through Europe, The Count of Monte Cristo.
Most of the literary influences on Charlotte Brontë are helpfully provided by the writer herself in a letter to Ellen Nussey, a schoolfriend, in 1834:
'If you like poetry let it be first rate, Milton, Shakespeare, Thomson, Goldsmith, Pope (if you will though I don't admire him), Scott, Byron, Campbell, Wordsworth and Southey … Scott's sweet, wild, romantic Poetry can do you no harm nor can Wordsworth nor Campbell's nor Southey's … For fiction read Scott alone; all novels after his are worthless.'
This letter was written hurriedly (at the end she wrote, 'If you can read this scrawl it will be to the credit of your patience') and it has significant omissions. Of course, Charlotte does not mention her Bible reading—the foremost influence on her prose as it was upon her life. Neither does she mention books Ellen would already have known: The Pilgrim's Progress, The Arabian Nights' Entertainments or Aesop's Fables—the last two of which inspired many of her juvenile stories. Nor is there mention of Ossian, whom we know she had read, or of Cowper, whose poems impressed her deeply. Charlotte's writing was influenced by her reading of periodicals as a girl, particularly Blackwood's Magazine and Fraser's, even to the extent of certain of her novels' images being traceable to particular stories.
Of the books in Haworth Parsonage during Charlotte and Emily's formative years, the children had particular favourites, and what Lucy Snowe says in Villette applies certainly to the authoress:
'I had great pleasure in reading a few books, but not many: preferring always those on whose style or sentiment the writer's individual nature was plainly stamped.'
Accordingly, the few books that the young Charlotte Brontë read and re-read were intensely absorbed by her.
The reading list for Ellen Nussey shows Charlotte Brontë's fervent admiration of Scott's works, particularly the novels. Further statements in her letters refer to Scott as the greatest of novelists and to Kenilworth as 'one of the most interesting works that ever emanated from the great Sir Walter's pen.' Mrs Gaskell tells us that Scott's works were in the Parsonage library (some editions are still preserved at Haworth) and on her visit to Scotland, after her rise to fame, she made the pilgrimage to Abbotsford.
In all of Charlotte Brontë's novels, quotation from Scott's poems is frequent. In The Professor Crimsworth overhears Frances reciting lines from The Covenanter's Fate, lines which the author undoubtedly knew by heart herself since there are four slight mistakes in wording. There are four quotations from The Lay of the Last Minstrel in Jane Eyre alone. There is also the rhetorical passage on poetry inspired by the gift of Marmion from Rivers to Jane. In Shirley we read that Parson Helstone, 'in a shovel hat, sitting erect on the back of a shaggy pony, "rode lightly in"' to the yard at Hollow's Mill to help in its defence against frame-breakers. The humorous effect of the quotation from Scott presupposes in the novel-reader acquaintance with a dramatic incident in The Lay of the Last Minstrel, where five hundred horse-men appear unexpectedly at a confrontation in canto IV stanza xii. The very surname of Shirley Keeldar is taken from Scott's novel The Black Dwarf. And there is a reference to a vivid scene in chapter 8 of Old Mortality in a passage describing Lucy Snowe's attitude to the 'lecture pieuse' which was a nightly feature of life at the pensionnat in Villette:
'No Mause Headrigg ever felt a stronger call to take up her testimony against Sergeant Bothwell, than I to speak my mind in this matter of the popish "lecture pieuse."'
The indebtedness to Scott's poetry and prose is undeniably great. Charlotte Brontë wrote with the expectation of her audience's having full acquaintance with the great man's romantic tales. They become a source of common reference. One wonders, however, if the writer herself realised the full extent of her borrowings; for Charlotte's fondness for Ivanhoe influenced her plotting of Jane Eyre and Shirley, as well as the prose-style of all her novels. (Ivanhoe also furnished the plot for her juvenile story The Green Dwarf.) Miss F. Ratchford briefly indicated the connection between the old Saxon woman Ulrica in Scott's novel and Rochester's mad wife Bertha Mason as long ago as 1941. However, Miss Ratchford did not emphasise the degree of indebtedness of Charlotte's borrowings from Scott as much as she might have (preferring to see Byron as the chief literary source for the Brontë family's writings). The parallels between the deaths of Ulrica and of Bertha Mason are worth examination. Scott writes:
'The fire was spreading rapidly through all parts of the castle, when Ulrica, who had first kindled it, appeared on a turret, in the guise of one of the ancient furies, yelling forth a warsong, such as was of yore raised on the field of battle by the scalds of the yet heathen Saxons. Her long dishevelled grey hair flew back from her uncovered head; the inebriating delight of gratified vengeance contended in her eyes with the fire of insanity; and she brandished the distaff which she held in her hand, as if she had been one of the Fatal Sisters, who spin and abridge the thread of human life … [she sings a "barbarous hymn"] … The towering flames had now surmounted every obstruction, and rose to the evening skies one huge and burning beacon, seen far and wide through the adjacent country. Tower after tower crashed down, with blazing roof and rafter … The maniac figure of the Saxon Ulrica was for a long time visible on the lofty stand she had chosen, tossing her arms abroad with wild exultation, as if she reigned empress of the conflagration which she had raised. At length, with a terrific crash, the whole turret gave way, and she perished in the flames which had consumed her tyrant.'
Bertha Mason, like Ulrica, kindles the fire which eventually destroys her; she is on the roof of Thornfield Hall:
'standing waving her arms, above the battlements, and shouting out till they could hear her a mile off… She was a big woman, and had long, black hair: we could see it streaming against the flames as she stood … We saw him [Rochesterl approach her; and then, ma'am, she yelled, and gave a spring, and the next minute she lay smashed on the pavement.'
Visually, the two incidents are almost identical; it is almost plagiarism.
"Of course, it is always possible that Dumas and Emily Brontë are both working from similar literary backgrounds, that the influence of Scott and Byron was operating independently on both writers, and that Emily had no knowledge of Dumas' work. Even so, the comparison produces interesting results."
A scene in Shirley concerns the defence of Hollow's Mill by Robert Moore and a body of soldiers against a Luddite attack. The scene replicates the storming and defence of the castle in chapter 30 of Ivanhoe. At first sight the similarities could be coincidental: the organised attack; the capturing by the attackers of the outworks and their breaking down of these (in Ivanhoe an outer 'barrier,' in Shirley the mill-yard gates); their attack on the main building; the arousing of Moore's and Ivanhoe's 'fighting animal' (Charlotte Brontë's phrase); and Ivanhoe's longing to help but powerlessness because of his wounds, just like Caroline Helstone's longing and helplessness. These could easily be mere coincidence. But what is vital here is the method of narration of the attack in both cases. In Ivanhoe the first stages in the storming of the castle are recounted through the medium of Rebecca, who describes the scene to Ivanhoe, using her eyes and her sensibility to enhance the effect by at once narrating the battle and portraying the wonder, horror and anxiety of the girl. This is precisely what Charlotte Brontë does when she uses Caroline and Shirley to give us their narration of the Luddite attack. Just as Rebecca looks down on the siege from the tower, protected by a shield, Caroline and Shirley look down into the hollow from the hill, protected by darkness. There can be little doubt that Ivanhoe was in the author's mind when she wrote of the attack on Moore's mill. This is confirmed by imagery that Shirley uses in her attempt to dissuade Caroline from trying to intervene:
'How [would you help Moore]? By inspiring him with heroism? Pooh! These are not the days of chivalry: it is not a tilt at a tournament we are going to behold, but a struggle about money, and food, and life … It is not for love or beauty, but for ledger and broadcloth, he is going to break a spear.'
Because the scene in Ivanhoe inspired the writing of the attack on the mill, such imagery comes almost inevitably into the dialogue. The merest thought of Scott's classic sets the mind thinking of heroism, chivalry, tiltings at tournaments, and breaking spears for love and beauty.
Disparate ingredients come together in Charlotte Brontë's writing: extreme emotion and Christian stoicism; the Gothic novel and the novel of Victorian domesticity. In a similar way, her writing is a fusion of all the reading that she avidly pursued in her early years. Above, I used the word 'plagiarism,' but this does not do justice to the authoress. The comment of G. H. Lewes, writing in the December issue of Fraser's Magazine 1847, is more apt. Of her prose he said:
'Although by no means a fine style, it has the capital point of all great styles in being personal, the written speech of an individual, not the artificial language made up from all sorts of books.'
In the same way that Chaucer used source material from Boccaccio, and Shakespeare took ideas from Chaucer, Charlotte Brontë borrowed from Scott. But she was also so much under his influence that her prose-style was affected by his evocative romances.
For a considerable time after the publication of Wuthering Heights readers accepted Charlotte Brontë's attribution of the power of that novel to Emily's remarkable untutored imagination. In the preface to the second edition of Emily's book she wrote that it was:
'hewn in a wild workshop, with simple tools, out of homely materials. The statuary found a granite block on the moor; gazing thereon, he saw how from the crag might be elicited a head, savage, swart, sinister; a form modelled with at least one element of grandeur power. He wrought with a rude chisel, and from no model but the vision of his meditations.'
More recently, scepticism has been voiced of Charlotte's romanticising of her sister's creative processes. The origins of Wuthering Heights have been detected in local folk-lore and ballads, transmitted particularly from the Brontës' servant Tabitha; Patrick Brontë's Irish stories of his father Hugh Prunty and an uncle called Welsh have been suggested by Edward Chitham as furnishing the basic plot; stories heard by Emily during a brief stay at Law Hill school near Halifax about a certain Jack Sharp are said to influence the novel. On the literary side, Hoffman's Romantic works are cited as a source; and a particular tale in Blackwood's, 'The Bridegroom of Barna,' which concerns the love of the children of rival families and the hero and heroine of which are united only in death when they are buried in a single grave, seems very reminiscent of the Heathcliff and Cathy story. And, once again, Scott comes into the picture. Q. D. Leavis has shown how Wuthering Heights' conflict between a primitive society (the Heights) and a refined society (Thrushcross Grange) echoes Scott, whose 'own sympathies were with the wild rough border farmers … The Black Dwarf has long been known as the source for the surnames used in Wuthering Heights.' Most recently Rose Lovell-Smith has examined the structuring of some of the dramatic scenes of Wuthering Heights and pointed out similarities with the Waverley Novels.
So far, the literary detection of 'sources' falls way short of that performed for Charlotte's novels. Much recent criticism of Wuthering Heights, inasmuch as it concentrates on identifying sources at all, focuses on the 'Gothic' ingredients of the story, although two critics explore completely different areas: Patricia Thomson establishes an influence on the novel by George Sand, and David Musselwhite argues at length that Emily's reading in Brussels of French literature was a formative factor. Interestingly, this last study suggests that, as well as the childhood influence of Gothic and Romantic literature, reading by Emily in her adult years had a strong effect—a finding that marks a significant difference from Charlotte's development; for Emily was twenty-four when she went to study under M. Heger.
According to Mrs Gaskell, Emily was initially far more reluctant to bow to M. Heger's unorthodox teaching methods than was Charlotte. For the sisters he dispensed with the traditional grounding in grammar and vocabulary, and instead proposed to read to them some of the masterpieces of the most celebrated French authors. The master and pupils would then analyse the literature, concentrating upon a value-judgement. The follow-up exercise was for the pupils to 'catch the echo' of the French writer's style 'so reproducing their own thought in a somewhat similar manner.' Emily may have disagreed with the teaching method, but in the words of her sister worked 'like a horse.' It is from the hints in Mrs Gaskell's biography that Mr Musselwhite deduces the influence of such authors as Casimir de la Vigne, Bossuet, Hugo, and Guizot.
One wonders what the intellectual M. Heger made of the prolific output of Alexandre Dumas. A man of academic restraint, he may well not have had much taste for the robust ripping yarns of the creator of D'Artagnan and Edmond Dantès. Yet the European general public was captivated. Dumas had scored an enormous success with Henry III and his Court in 1829, a play which helped to inaugurate the new 'Romantic' drama, and he followed this up with Kean in 1836. Meanwhile he began reading history, with a view to making himself into the French Walter Scott. (Scott's influence was as strong in France as in England; so was Byron's.) By 1844 The Three Musketeers had been published and, taking advantage of the new fashion for running novels in serial form, Dumas' story of love and revenge The Count of Monte Cristo began to appear in Le Journal des Débats in August 1844 and ended in January 1846. According to David Coward, 'when the episodes were collected (as they at first were by opportunist Belgian publishers who paid no royalties) and sold in multi-volume sets, he became not merely France's best-known writer but also the most famous Frenchman of his day …'
Emily Brontë was back home in Haworth Parsonage by the end of 1842. However, The Count of Monte Cristo was rapidly translated into many languages. The first English versions were made in 1846 and were immediate best-sellers. And did Emily Brontë need to wait for a translation? She was fluent in French and German and may have had access to the pirated editions of the novel available from Belgium. Charlotte wrote to M. Heger on 18 May 1845 'I read all the French Books I can get.'
Just when Emily Brontë started to write Wuthering Heights is a matter of conjecture. Dates as far back as 1837 have been implausibly suggested. The actual writing of the novel is 'not likely to have started before October 1845' and the manuscript was in the publisher Newby's hands 'during the months of early summer of 1847.' That is, the novel was probably written largely during 1846, just when Monte Cristo fever was at its height.
The similarities in the plots of The Count of Monte Cristo and Wuthering Heights are immediately obvious. In both books the male protagonist of low birth is deeply in love with, though not married to, a young female. This love is not allowed to be consummated because of the machinations of people close to the protagonist who have taken an instinctive dislike to him and wish to see him thwarted. The protagonist then must suffer years of deprivation and exile, yet almost miraculously he returns, far wealthier and more refined than he was previously to find his loved one married. He insinuates himself back into the society from which he was expelled. His purpose is revenge. Methodically and irresistibly he puts himself into a position of power over his enemies, but chiefly by exploiting the children of those enemies. All the while he is careful to remain within the law. However, at the precise point when he can culminate his vengeance upon the second generation of victims (the first generation safely dealt with), the vengeance is perceived as unfulfilling and the need for it evaporates.
There are, of course, differences between the careers of Heathcliff and Edmond Dantès: the latter is formally engaged to Mercedes and is a respected young seaman; the plotting against Dantès is much more conscious and organised; when Dantès returns as the Count of Monte Cristo, the reader knows where he has been and how he has acquired his Arabian Nights mystique and wealth; and Dantès' abandonment of revenge is his own decision, brought on by witnessing the suffering he has himself caused.
However, the general pattern of the story of Wuthering Heights certainly follows that of Dumas' novel. What Emily Brontë does, and this makes the pattern less obviously a borrowing, is to disturb the chronology of her story by using several narrators, a device which is alien to Dumas who was far less of a craftsman.
It is not merely in terms of plot that the two novels have similarities. Both the adult Heathcliff and the later Dantès have physical appearances which are striking and yet sinister—both are 'Byronic,' with a fascinating yet dangerous magnetism for the women they encounter. Beneath a veneer of culture both have a ruthlessness which dominates their existence and causes them single-mindedly to control the lives of others. Both are solitary figures, associated with the supernatural (Heathcliff has a relationship with Cathy which goes beyond the grave. Dantès is often nicknamed 'Lord Ruthven' by Parisian society; Ruthven is one of the earliest vampires in literature, the forerunner of Dracula). Both books have passages of sickening violence, and the progression of the books seems to be inexorably towards the bitter and pessimistic triumph of vengeance until, happily, unexpected optimism enters the stories and 'civilised values' prevail. Finally, the books both take melodramatic characters, the stuff of legend or myth, and root them in real life.
It is fashionable at the moment to use Wuthering Heights as a text on which to formulate critical theory, whether it be from a position of psychoanalysis, deconstruction, Marxism, feminism, or whatever. Academic readers may well be fascinated with the relationship between the 'core story' and the 'frame story,' with the book's 'layered narrative' of power-structures in Victorian England, with the book as a 'dialogic text' or as some kind of myth. However, the impact of the novel on most readers is due to its being an excellent story, convincingly told. If this story also concerns primitive and universal desires in conflict with acquired cultural values, then the text is certain to appeal strongly to a 'civilised' readership where the strict taboos associated with sexual love and revenge create a need for vicarious escape.
Of course, it is always possible that Dumas and Emily Brontë are both working from similar literary backgrounds, that the influence of Scott and Byron was operating independently on both writers, and that Emily had no knowledge of Dumas' work. Even so, the comparison produces interesting results. Yet it is fascinating to think that Emily Brontë, borrowing in a way far different from the way her sister borrowed, was putting into practice M. Heger's method of composition: observing the ways an acknowledged French 'masterpiece' achieved its success, and then going away to write her own piece, using the reading as a general stimulus. We must remember that the only formal training the two Brontës received in composition was at the hands of M. Heger. Dumas' irresistible tale of love and revenge is transmuted through Emily Brontë's experience and imagination and brought solidly close to home in West Yorkshire.
Robert Stowell, "Brontë Borrowings: Charlotte Brontë and Ivanhoe, Emily Brontë and The Count of Monte Cristo," in Brontë Society Transactions, Vol. 21, No. 6, 1996, pp. 243–51.
Emily A. McDermott
In the following essay, McDermott examines specific classical allusions in The Count of Monte Cristo, including references to the story of "Pyramus and Thisbe," and Virgil's "Dido."
The pages of The Count of Monte Cristo are dotted with classical allusions, little markers of the regimen of voracious reading which the previously little-lettered Dumas had undertaken at the onset of his literary career. To cite only a sample of close to a hundred such allusions, reference is made at one time or another in the novel to aspects of Plutarch, Martial, Pliny, Caesar, Cornelius Nepos, Ennius, and Pindar. Gods, mythological figures, and figures from history or historical legend abound, from Jupiter to Hebe, from Tantalus, Icarus, and Omphale to Curtius, Nero, and Poppaea. Ships, horses, and characters are graced with Greek and Latin names: Pharaon, Eurus, Médéah, Haydée, Coclès. In the scene in which Dantès first uncovers his treasure on the Isle of Monte Cristo, the hero is compared serially to Hercules, Sisyphus (who, ironically or not, in The Count of Monte Cristo is pushing his rock down), and a Titan; the Isle itself is styled "cet autre Pélion." The briefly mentioned Hellenophobia of Albert de Morcerf is well overbalanced by the classicophilia of Louis XVIII, who, in a scene of delicious parody, scribbles cribbed notes in his text of Horace and answers his advisors of state with gnomic pronouncements drawn from Vergil and Horace. In fact, a less hardy critic than the present one might well have been abashed to undertake a study of Dumas's use of classical allusion after reading the cutting description of the king as litterateur:
"Attendez, mon cher, attendez, je tiens une note très heureuse sur le Pastor quum traheret; attendez, et vous continuerez après."
Il se fit un instant de silence, pendant lequel Louis XVIII inscrivit, d'une écriture qu'il faisait aussi menue que possible, une nouvelle note en marge de son Horace; puis, cette note inscrite:
"Continuez, mon cher duc," dit-il en se relevant de l'air satisfait d'un homme qui croit avoir eu une idée lorsqu'il a commenté l'idée d'un autre. "Continuez, je vous écoute."
All the examples of classical allusions or groups of allusions cited thus far are, in a sense, casual; that is, they are self-contained and fall into no pattern. While their identification serves as a gloss on the author's erudition and, perhaps even more, on the educational and literary prescriptions of the times, it provides no particular insight into Dumas's artistry. On the other hand, an early reference to a Roman hero provides more meat for analysis. The epithet "Brutus" is applied to Villefort when he returns to his betrothal dinner after treacherously committing Edmond Dantès to the Château d'If: "'Eh bien! trancheur de têtes, soutien de l'État, Brutus royaliste!' s'écria l'un, 'qu'y a-t-il? voyons!'" While more than one Brutus might merit the title "soutien de l'État," the conjunction of the name with the earlier epithet "trancheur de têtes" makes it clear that the reference is to the traditional story (Liv. 2.5) of Lucius Junius Brutus, who as consul meted out a sentence of death by beheading to his own two seditious sons. The reference may thus by seen to contain—even more than the evident ironic comment by the author on Villefort's unjust treatment of Dantès—a neat prefiguring of the events at the end of the novel, when an agonized Villefort will be compelled to "sentence" his wife (and, through her, unwittingly, his son) to execution for her crimes. The chapter in which he ponders her punishment in fact picks up the beheading image of this early allusion to Brutus, as discussed below.
"… the parallelism between the present lovers and Ovid's earlier ones (like Shakespeare's) has served to accentuate the reader's tense uncertainty of the outcome to be presented by the author and so to color his or her judgment of the righteousness of the Count's vengeful course of action."
On the other hand, this critic at least has been at a loss to discover any meaningful connection between this first reference to Brutus in the novel and three which follow. In the next reference, Dantès himself, when he first arrives at the Isle of Monte Cristo, is likened to the same Lucius Brutus, who was said by the Romans to have become leader of Rome through his successful interpretation of a riddling oracle which bade him to kiss his mother (Liv. 4.56): "Dantès, malgré son empire ordinaire sur lui-même, ne put se contenir: il sauta le premier sur le rivage: s'il l'eût osé, comme Brutus, il eût baisé la terre." Toward the end of the novel, the Count in turn likens himself to the Late Republican Marcus Brutus (like Lucius called by Dumas simply by his cognomen, "Brutus"): like Brutus before Philippi, he says, he too—on the eve of his duel with Albert—has seen a "fantôme," in the form of Mercédès. In a fourth locus, Albert likens the Count of Monte Cristo ambiguously to one of these two Brutuses, saying: "Je pense que c'est un homme charmant, qui fait à merveille les honneurs de chez lui, qui a beaucoup vu, beaucoup étudié, beaucoup réfléchi, qui est, comme Brutus, de l'école stoïque, et … qui par-dessus tout cela possède d'excellents cigares." One may wonder if the incongruity of the collocation of Stoic philosophy with hedonistic pleasure in the honors of the table and fine cigars may be taken as an index of Albert's self-noted failure to profit by his classical education. But these three later recurrences of reference to the Roman hero appear to be simply separate casual allusions, somewhat awkward in the aimless repetition of allusion to the same historical name.
In three other cases, however, I suggest that classical references by Dumas are more complex and, once fully appreciated, add wit, texture, and depth to his narrative.
The fifty-first chapter of The Count of Monte Cristo appears under the heading "Pyrame et Thisbé." The story begun therein, that of the courtship of Maximilien and Valentine through a garden gate, is thus obviously glossed by the tale told by Ovid (Met. 4.55f.) of young lovers whose only avenue of communication is a chink in the wall that separates their yards. But while the chapter heading itself is the only explicit reference in the novel to Ovid's star-crossed lovers, one and perhaps two elements of the diction of Dumas's narrative implicitly reinforce the identification of the two pairs of lovers. Twice Dumas attributes to Maximilien a heightened perceptivity occasioned by love: at one point in the narrative, Maximilien comprehends the cause of a delay in his assignation with Valentine "avec cette rapidité d'intuition particulière aux amants"; later, "avec cet instinct particulier aux amants," he knows instantly that the death of Valentine's maternal grandfather bodes ill for their relationship. While such references to a lover's instinctive perceptivity may be too commonplace to have any special significance, it is at least conceivable that there is a specific echo here of Ovid's parenthetical exclamation concerning the perspicacity of lovers: "quid non sentit amor?" (4.68).
There is a clearer and more intricate relation between Ovid's and Dumas's narratives in the incident in which Valentine gives her little finger to Maximilien to kiss. The crack in Pyramus and Thisbe's wall is so small that it affords a path for speech alone: "vocis fecistis iter" (4.69), says Ovid in an apostrophe to the lovers; and again, "inque vices fuerat captatus anhelitus oris" (4.72). Fate, in the form of Dumas, has provided Maximilien and Valentine with a larger opening through which to communicate. Yet, when Maximilien requests that Valentine extend her little finger through the grating for a kiss, she responds, somewhat scandalized: "Maximilien, nous avions dit que nous serions l'un pour l'autre deux voix, deux ombres!." It is as if she rebuked him for asking for more than their prototypes received—as if she had said, "Maximilien, we said we would be to each other as Pyramus and Thisbe, two voices only." But Maximilien is hurt at her refusal, and she relents. This ability to touch lips to little finger constitutes a clever "improvement" by Dumas on Pyramus and Thisbe's situation. In Ovid's narrative, the lovers berate the wall:
invide dicebant paries, quid amantibus obstas?
quantum erat, ut sineres toto nos corpore iungi,
aut, hoc si nimium est, vel
ad oscula danda
(Met. 4.73–75, emphasis mine)
What Pyramus and Thisbe ask of the wall in their contrary-to-fact wish, Dumas has wittily granted to Maximilien and Valentine. Their wall lies open for the giving of kisses.
The identification of the pairs of lovers, Pyramus/Thisbe and Maximilien/Valentine, has a pervasive effect on the reader's experience of the events of the novel. The ancient lovers' story ends tragically. Thisbe, arriving first at their midnight assignation, is frightened by a mountain lion into hiding in a cave; in her haste she drops her shawl, which the lion tears with its bloodied jaws before retreating into the forest. When Pyramus arrives, he is deluded by this token into believing Thisbe dead. In sorrow and remorse at his late arrival he kills himself. Thisbe, upon finding him dying, in turn takes her own life. This succession of story elements—a false death followed by serial suicide, is reinforced by the more familiar Shakespearean version of the story.
The classically astute reader of Dumas's work, then, having been alerted by the chapter-heading, would be led to fear that the parallelism between the affairs would extend beyond the lovers' mode of communication and end with tragic death for both Maximilien and Valentine. When the Count of Monte Cristo stages Valentine's death and burial to ward off further attempts at her poisoning, her fictive death presents the reader with one more realized element in the foreshadowed correspondence between the romances; all that is wanted to complete the equation is Maximilien's suicide from grief at a death he believes to be real and, finally, Valentine's suicide to join him. Dumas's repeated allusion to Maximilien's suicidal intent purposefully heightens the tension which thus affects the reader. This tension reaches a climax when Mme. de Villefort's suicide unexpectedly results as well in the unwarranted death of little Édouard. The Count's shattered reaction to Édouard's murder, his realization that the events he has so carefully put into motion now have momentum of their own and can escape his control, make one fear all the more that the foreshadowed tragic ending may fall on Maximilien and Valentine despite the Count's "controlling" hand and will. When the Count returns home directly after Édouard's death and his own frantic attempt to revive the boy, he meets Maximilien, "qui errait dans l'hôtel des Champs-Élysées, silencieux comme une ombre qui attend le moment fixé par Dieu pour rentrer dans son tombeau." Maximilien quickly makes it clear that the only obstacles between him and his longed-for release are the pledges he has made to the Count to meet certain conditions before he may indulge his suicidal desires. The reader who may have found the Count's timing recklessly close in averting Maximilien's father's suicide years before, who has since witnessed Édouard's unplanned death, and who has as well appreciated the ominous foreshadowing contained in the Pyramus and Thisbe parallel may be pardoned if his faith in the Count's ability to assure a happy ending for his protégés falters, at least temporarily.
In fact, Maximilien and Valentine's love story is destined to end happily. But until that happy ending has finally been achieved, the parallelism between the present lovers and Ovid's earlier ones (like Shakespeare's) has served to accentuate the reader's tense uncertainty of the outcome to be presented by the author and so to color his or her judgment of the righteousness of the Count's vengeful course of action.
A second significant classical allusion introduces a pattern of imagery woven into the chapter headed "Le Juge," in which M. de Villefort arrives at his resolution to exact from his wife full penalty for her crimes. Villefort's painful deliberations are characterized by Dumas as follows:
c'était dans un moment où le magistrat, harassé de fatigue, était descendu dans le jardin de son hôtel, et sombre, courbé sous une implacable pensée, pareil à Tarquin abattant avec sa badine les têtes des pavots les plus élevés, M. de Villefort abattait avec sa canne les longues et mourantes tiges des roses trémières qui se dressaient le long des allées comme les spectres de ces fleurs si brillantes dans la saison qui venait de s'écouler.
We have already recognized from Dumas's references (previously discussed) to Lucius Brutus that the author was familiar with the first books of Livy. In this passage, when Villefort slashes at flowers while steeling himself to bring his wife to justice, he is significantly compared to Tarquinius Superbus, who in Livy's narration (in turn derived from Herodotus 5.92.6) sends a covertly murderous response to his son Sextus' inquiry concerning the next step in their campaign against a foe:
nihil voce responsum est; rex velut deliberandus in hortum aedium transit sequente nuntio filii; ibi inambulans tacitus summa papaverum capita dicitur baculo decussisse.
The messenger cannot figure out why Tarquin will speak no word of answer to him; but when he reports Tarquin's actions and inexplicable silence to Sextus, Sextus immediately understands that his father's symbolic answer was that he should eradicate the enemy forthwith. The parallels between the two passages are patent: a sentence of death is decided after the judge has "descendu dans le jardin" (cf. "in hortum aedium transit"); there, "courbé sous une implacable pensée" (cf. "tacitus"), he beheads flowers in a manner which betokens the summary judgment soon to fall upon his victims.
The metaphorical identification between Villefort's role as judge and the motif of cutting or slashing is continued in two further passages within the same chapter. When Villefort awakes the morning after the flower-decapitation incident (recall his address as "trancheur de têtes"), even the phenomena of morning meteorology suggest the necessity for his following through in fact on the course of action symbolized by his actions the day before in the garden:
Il ouvrit sa fenêtre: une grande bande orangée traversait au loin le ciel et coupait en deux les minces peupliers qui se profilaient en noir sur l'horizon … L'air humide de l'aube inonda la tête de Villefort et rafraîchit sa mémoire. "Ce sera pour aujourd'hui, ditil avec effort; aujourd'hui l'homme qui va tenir le glaive de la justice doit frapper partout où sont les coupables." (emphasis mine)
And, finally, as Villefort prepares to deliver to his wife the ultimatum that she must commit suicide or face public trial and execution, the same motif infects the father's last meeting with his son, whom Mme. de Villefort will include, Medea-like, in her suicide. Villefort bids his son leave the adults alone:
Édouard avait levé la tête, avait regardé sa mère; puis, voyant qu'elle ne confirmait point l'ordre de M. de Villefort, il s'était remis à couper la tête à ses soldats de plomb.
It is not necessary to strain to explain the transfer of the decapitator image from Villefort to his son: we may simply note that the very presence of this third repetition of cutting/beheading imagery contributes to and continues the grimly foreboding atmosphere surrounding the events which will lead to Villefort's family ruin. And, while the recurrent imagery itself might be noticeable without appreciation of the allusion to Livy, it is only in light of the Tarquin parallel that its import may be fully felt.
The final classical allusion to be discussed here occurs early in the novel, at the point when Mercédès approaches Villefort seeking news following Dantès's arrest. Discomfited by Mercédès's dignity and (we may infer) by his own awareness of wrong-doing, Villefort falls prey to a sense of role reversal: "il lui sembla que c'était lui l'accusé, et que c'était elle le juge." He responds brusquely and disengages himself:
Et, gêné par ce regard fin et cette suppliante attitude, il repoussa Mercédès et rentra, refermant vivement la porte, comme pour laisser dehors cette douleur qu'on lui apportait.
Mais la douleur ne se laisse pas repousser ainsi. Comme le trait mortel dont parle Virgile, l'homme blessé l'emporte avec lui. Villefort rentra, referma la porte, mais arrivé dans son salon les jambes lui manquèrent à son tour; il poussa un soupir qui ressemblait à un sanglot, et se laissa tomber dans un fauteuil.
"Comme le trait mortel dont parle Virgile, l'homme blessé l'emporte avec lui." What is the point of the comparision of a guilt-ridden Villefort to a wounded character in the Aeneid? The evident point of reference is that "douleur" follows its object behind closed doors as if it were a physical weapon stuck in a wound. If that is the sole point of correspondence between the two compared loci, the allusion is clearly of the class I have earlier labelled "casual." Such an explication, however—while it offers a suitable interpretation of the point of reference in the equation Villefort/l'homme blessé—does not do full justice to the organic effect of the allusion. Rather, I suggest, the effect of Dumas's evocation of the Aeneid here is to prefigure Villefort's ruin at the end of the novel and to reveal a complexity which is not usually imputed to Dumas's work.
First I will submit that readers of Vergil, upon initially reading Dumas's line, may be a bit taken aback. Arrows left in wounds? There are several in the Aeneid, but attempts to pinpoint a single Vergilian locus as Dumas's archetype here encounter various difficulties.
At least one translator has assumed that primary reference is to book 12 of the Aeneid, where Aeneas is struck by an arrow (12.318–319) while trying to calm the armies in preparation for his single combat with Turnus; wounded, he is helped back into camp by his comrades, where they remove the arrow, treat his leg and send him back into battle (12.383f.). Several points, however, argue against this assumption. First, that location of the reference is complicated by the patent incongruity of Aeneas' god-aided recovery and Dumas's application of the epithet "mortel" to the offending arrow. Even beyond the simple inapplicability of the epithet, the substantive parallelism asserted by such an allusion—that festering grief or guilt is like an arrow left in a wound—would surely be skewed by the miraculously speedy and complete recovery of Villefort's classical counterpart. On the other hand, this locus is the only one of those to be discussed in which the setting of the arrow-in-a-wound trope is such that Dumas's application of the trope to "l'homme blessé" is fully appropriate: for the other loci present us, respectively, with a wounded lion, woman, and deer, never a man or hero.
A second conceivable location of the allusion is the Aeneid passage in which Turnus' wrath in battle is compared to that of a wounded lion (Aen. 12.4–8). But such a location is inhibited by a context and effect which are strikingly dissimilar to those of Dumas's passage: whereas the keynote of the arrow which strikes Villefort is the lingering, hidden damage it inflicts, the missile ("telum": an "arrow" is not specified) which the lion bites off in his wound enrages him and spurs him on to greater ferocity. The lion's fearless joy in combat ("gaudet" [12.6], "impavidus" [12.8]) is far removed from Villefort's sinking, sighing capitulation to uncertainty.
The two passages in Vergil which not only leap to mind immediately upon reading Dumas's allusion but also provide the most fitting parallels to Villefort's sufferings here are the two striking and thematically interconnected passages in which first Dido, then a tame deer are struck by arrows. In the former, Dido in love is likened to a deer pierced by a hunter's arrow:
est mollis flamma medullas
interea et tacitum vivit sub pectore vulnus.
uritur infelix Dido totaque vagatur
urbe furens, qualis coniecta cerva sagitta,
quam procul incautam nemora inter Cresia fixit
pastor agens telis liquitque volatile ferrum
nescius: illa fuga silvas saltusque peragrat
Dictaeos; haeret lateri letalis harundo.
(Aen. 4.66–73 emphasis mine)
The specific description of Dido's wound ("vulnus") as festering "tacitum … sub pectore" is strikingly echoed by Dumas's further reflections on Villefort's "blessure" on the page following his Vergilian allusion; after describing Villefort as prey to "ce battement sourd … retentissant au fond de son coeur et emplissant sa poitrine de vagues appréhensions" (emphasis mine), Dumas continues:
Mais la blessure qu'avait reçue Villefort était de celles qui ne se ferment pas, ou qui ne se ferment que pour se rouvrir plus sanglantes et plus douloureuses qu'auparavant.
The motif appears again in book 7, when war is incited between Italians and Trojans as a result of Ascanius' thoughtless killing of an Italian herder's pet deer. This deer, nurtured since its infancy by human hands, wears garlands in its horns, obeys human commands, and nightly returns home of its own accord to its master's table. Pierced by Ascanius' arrow "perque uterum … perque ilia," the wounded pet staggers home to die:
saucius at quadripes nota intra tecta refugit successitque gemens stabulis, questuque cruentus atque imploranti similis tectum omne replebat.
Both the deer's attempt to solace itself by retreat to its own home and the human-like sobs and laments with which it fills the house ("gemens," "questu," "imploranti similis") are forerunners of Villefort's sighing and sobbing as he sinks into his chair.
These two Vergilian loci are elaborately worked out in Vergil's opus and significantly connected. The female Dido compromises her role as leader of Carthage by capitulating to her more "natural" feminine subjugation to emotion and masculine domination; the tame deer represents a Golden Age harmony between man and nature which obtains in Italy before the arrival of the Trojans. Both fall victim to Aeneas in his march toward the destiny whereby he will found a nation whose summum opus will be to "regere imperio populos" (Aen. 6.851). The clear significance of the arrow-in-a-wound motif in these passages ensures that Dumas's mention of that motif in Vergil will bring them, willy-nilly, to the reader's mind, despite the initial incongruity of coupling the referent "l'homme blessé" with allusion to an animal and a woman. Villefort's mental suffering is thus likened—through evocation of a broad Vergilian context in which suffering victims carry arrows in their wounds—not only to Aeneas' physical pain in book 12, but also to the suffering of Dido and a deer. The effects of this comparison are complex. Let us look first at the Dido parallel.
The implied identification of Villefort with a woman pierced by love and destined to be forever abandoned by her lover constitutes, along the lines of a transferred epithet, a metaphor transferred to Villefort's guilt from a seemingly more appropriate object, Mercédès's wound of love. This transferral underscores the topsy-turvydom of Villefort's stated emotions at this moment: "il lui sembla que c'était lui l'accusé, et que c'était elle le juge." Villefort's encounter with Mercédès has temporarily deposed him from his lofty, stern and essentially extra-human role as judge. He submits instead to the emotions of the judged; he becomes vulnerable; and for a brief moment he feels his true mortal helplessness in the face of the universe:
si la belle Mercédès fût entrée et lui eût dit: "Au nom du Dieu qui nous regarde et qui nous juge, rendezmoi mon fiancé," oui, ce front à moitié plié sous la nécessité s'y fût courbé tout à fait.
Concomitant to the reversal of Villefort's and Mercédès's role as judge and judged is a distinct gender-reversal. A long-traditional antinomy of male and female asserts that allegiances to abstractions, like Villefort's to Justice or Aeneas' to pietas, are "masculine," while by contrast emotionalism such as Mercédès's or Dido's subjection to human love is "feminine." Likewise, strength and domination over others are traditionally viewed as masculine; passivity and victimization as feminine. Thus, Villefort's reduction in this passage from Judge/decapitator to a victim prone to Clarissa-like sighs, sobs and sinkings betokens as well his assumption of a female/passive victim's role. The completion of the transferral to Villefort of a role which is more naturally Mercédès's is glossed by the fact that her involuntary "sob" upon hearing his callous words concerning her lover's fate is picked up and outdone by his own emotional breakdown behind closed doors.
The evocation of the Vergilian episode of Ascanius' deer-slaying compounds the same effects and adds a further dimension. The deer falls victim to Ascanius' ambition to achieve honor in the masculine world ("laudis succensus amore" [7.496]). In Ascanius' world the joint means to this end were war and the hunt; in Villefort's society such honor was won more often by wealth and power—the sort of wealth and power for which Villefort compromises his judge's soul in condemning Dantès, "cet homme qu'il sacrifiait à son ambition." The predictable equation, then, would be of Ascanius with Villefort as hunter and of the deer with Mercédès/Dantès as the hunted. As with the Dido parallel, however, the reference is transferred so that Villefort is likened instead to the hunted and wounded animal.
Thus, an apparently casual reference to Vergil's Aeneid in the scene in which Mercédès confronts Villefort seeking news of her imprisoned lover brings a broader Vergilian context to bear on itself. Through these allusions, the reversal of Mercédès and Villefort's roles as culprit and judge, which is stated by Dumas explicitly but briefly, is accentuated to such a point that Villefort's temporary failure of nerve provides a true prefiguring of his final peripeteia at the end of the novel—for in the end it will be readily apparent that Villefort will be the victim, the hunted one, while Dantès/the Count will have become the hunter.
In summary, then, it may be said that, although the majority of classical allusions in The Count of Monte Cristo are casual, aimed at display of authorial learning and replication of the kind of wittily erudite conversation which, one must assume, was de rigueur among the French upper class of Dumas's time, others are used in subtler and more thematically significant ways. The comparison of Villefort's executionary ruminations to those of Tarquinius Superbus colors the chapter in which several protagonists' doom is prepared, heightening the reader's sense of the disaster to come. Two early allusions (the first Brutus analogy and the reference to the Aeneid) prefigure Villefort's peripeteia from the heights of control and success to the nadir of defeated insanity. Conversely, the apparent prefiguring contained within the Pyramus/Thisbe analogy—which proves to be false, in that the foreshadowed doom does not actually befall Maximilien and Valentine—serves not only to heighten the suspense felt by the reader in anticipation of the outcome of events, but also subtly to call into question the moral premise upon which the Count's course of vengeance is based. All in all, Dumas's use of classical allusion suggests that, beyond being no mean reader of the classics, he exhibits in his writing an artful knack for turning the old to new and interesting use.
Emily A. McDermott, "Classical Allusion in The Count of Monte Cristo," in Classical and Modern Literature: A Quarterly, Vol. 8, No. 2, Winter 1988, pp. 93–103.
Dumas, Alexandre, The Count of Monte Cristo, Grosset & Dunlap, 1946.
Goldberger, Avriel H., "Alexandre Dumas," in Writers for Children, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1988, pp. 209–13.
Grosskurth, Phyliss, Byron: The Flawed Angel, Houghton Mifflin, 1997, p. 311.
Hemmings, F. W. J., The King of Romance: A Portrait of Alexandre Dumas, Hamish Hamilton, 1979, p. 125.
McCrum, Robert, "The 100 Greatest Novels of All Time," in the Observer, October 12, 2003, located online at http://observer.guardian.co.uk/review/story/0,6903,1061037,00.html (2003).
Shakespeare, William, Hamlet, Cambridge University Press, 1980, p. 88.
Spurr, H. A., The Life and Writings of Alexandre Dumas, new ed., Haskell House, 1973, p. 183.
Maurois, André, Alexandre Dumas: A Great Life in Brief, Knopf, 1966.
This concise biography presents a Dumas who resembles a hero out of one of his own novels.
Ross, Michael, Alexandre Dumas, David & Charles, 1981.
This is an engaging and sympathetic biography that presents Dumas as a man of great charm and good nature, not as the charlatan that his detractors accused him of being. Ross places more emphasis on Dumas's life than on his works.
Schopp, Claude, Alexandre Dumas: Genius of Life, translated by A. J. Koch, Franklin Watts, 1988.
This was first published in France in 1986 and is the most recent biography of Dumas to appear in English. It presents a panoramic view of Dumas's life in all its colorful detail.
Stowe, Richard S., Alexandre Dumas (père), Twayne World Authors Series, No. 388, Twayne, 1976.
This is the best and most concise guide to Dumas's work in English. It includes an analysis of Dumas's major works, a chronological table, and an annotated bibliography.