Have you ever given thought to how many different elements there are in a really good novel? Not the kind of novel that you take to mindlessly read–yes you know the ones I mean. The kind of novel that has so much detail, suspense, and subplot in it that you automatically want to read it again.
For any novel, we know the usual thing: setting, characters, basic plot, scenes (however you interpret that). It sounds simple enough, right?
Well, if you’re writing a children’s story that may be true enough.
The Count of Monte Cristo, however, is far from a children’s story.
Oh, the abridged version, which focuses specifically on the basic premise that Edmond Dantes seeks revenge against Caderousse, Villefort, Danglars, the Mondego, and the Chief Prosecutor is simple enough and that is indeed the story we all hear growing up. Well, the Wishbone generation certainly did.
The reality is something quite different.
Think of one of those complicated cakes you see on the Food Network. What all goes into it? It’s more than cake and icing. There’s filling, syrups, engineering, decorations, design, flavors, and sometimes even more. Not to mention there could be thousands of variations within each of those components.
In many ways, a good novel is like a fancy layer cake. The basics may stay the same, but it’s what goes into them that’s slightly different.
A great novel takes the familiar chocolate cake and chocolate icing combo and turns it into an exotic creation with espresso cream, chocolate ganache, a strawberry compote, and a mirror glaze.
Now that you are obsessed with cake, I’ll get on with some of the layers you can expect in The Count of Monte Cristo.
Over the next three posts, I’m going to cover at least 10 different layers in Monte Cristo. I felt 10 was too much for one post, and I wanted to savor these elements along with you.
1. Current Events
The novel is honeycombed with references to France’s history from the time of the Revolution to the tumultuous years following the attempt to establish a constitutional monarchy in France. To know this, however, requires a closer look at Europe in the early 1800s.
In particular, reading a general history of France during the Revolution and the Napoleonic years would give you a pretty good idea of just how involved some of the intrigue in Monte Cristo is.
Prior to the recent research which shows the connection between Alexandre Dumas’ novels and the life of his father, Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, the plot of Monte Cristo was assumed to be solely inspired the the real story of Francois (also sometimes called Pierre) Picaud who had been falsely accused and imprisoned in 1807. The story had been published in 1838 from a collection of anecdote in the Parisian police archives.
Remarkably, Picaud’s story has a lot of similarity to Edmond Dantes’. He’s falsely accused and sent to prison. When Picaud is released, however, he goes on to actually commit real crimes.
More details are in Robin Buss’ introduction to his 1996 translation of Monte Cristo, and it bears reading because while the true story of General Dumas certainly has a bearing on the events in Monte Cristo, so does the story of Picaud. The twin stories of men who were victimized by French society in the 1800s does put Monte Cristo in a very different light than a mere revenge story.
Revenge is straightforward. Seeking to avenge–to incur justice upon another’s head–is something entirely different.
The subplot with Haydee was almost certainly inspired by the wars on the Balkan Peninsula between the Ottoman Turks and the Greek states. These wars, for all of you lit buffs out there, were inspirational to several major writers of the time–the most famous being Lord Byron who actually traveled to Greece to help in the fight against the Ottomans. He’s still considered a Greek national hero to this day.
So, when you come across Ali Pasha in Monte Cristo, Dumas’ contemporaries–at least the better informed–would have known Ali Pasha was a real historical figure and one greatly respected at that.
It highlights just how grievous Mondego’s betrayal of him would have been perceived in Parisian society and it brings to full circle, the nature of Mondego’s character from when we first meet him in Marseilles.
More parallels between Monte Cristo and Dumas’ on times can undoubtedly be made, but that is beyond the scope of one blog post!
2. International Travel
The French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars of the beginning decade of the nineteenth century stymied a lot of travel. It’s largely why writers like Ann Radcliffe couldn’t travel to experience the scenery they wrote about.
Particularly since the only way you could afford to travel in those days was to be part of the ruling class Robspierre and his fellow councillors were trying to eliminate.
You can probably identify with this state of affairs very strongly after the past two (going on three) years of the COVID pandemic.
Dumas himself was a great lover of travel and his “factory” of novels and their best-selling status allowed him to do so very frequently. It shows in his writing because the amount of detail he includes truly is astonishing.
Monte Cristo gave a more contemporary, realistic account of real-life places. The isle of Monte Cristo actually exists and it still uninhabited. The layout of the port of Marseilles is as Dumas described it. The Chateau D’If which stands at the entrance of the Marseille harbor stands as starkly imposing as it did in the 1830s and today, you can even visit the cell which was most like the one which enclosed Dantes’.
The descriptions of Rome’s streets during a great holiday are still very similar to what they would be today–except in this post 9/11 age we have a lot more security in place and there aren’t carriages cluttering the streets.
But the bustle and the crowd of people are very familiar to anyone who has been to Rome.
3. Social Conventions
What if I were to tell you Jane Austen and Alexandre Dumas wrote similar novels? Would you be shocked?
Yes, Monte Cristo is partially a novel of manners. Think of it as an early form of Bridgerton.
Most readers who delve into Monte Cristo get caught up in the intrigue and the web Cristo weaves to catch his accusers in their own crimes. You can’t exactly blame them. There’s enough intrigue and subplot to keep anyone occupied for a long, long time.
But this would ignore other aspects which make Monte Cristo the great classic that it is. And one of the most important is the window it provides into live in the nineteenth century ideas of social convention as they played out in France.
Post-Napoleonic France proves every bit as interesting as anything on Victorian England primarily because of the turmoil of the Revolution, followed hard by Napoleon’s own ideas concerning society.
In fact, the second half of the book is almost entirely absorbed in the complicated social conventions of the day–from marriage to how visits are paid, to whom to invite to dinner when.
Marriage in those days, for example, involved contracts and settlements–it was even expected of the peasantry, as evinced in the first few chapters of the novel when Edmond and Mercedes talk about their own marriage contract. Neither have anything so it was a very simply affair.
Normally, there was a period of negotiation as sums were discussed, living arrangements were made, and so forth. It seems strange to us today, but these were necessary so the couple wouldn’t live in poverty. Marriage and children were even more expensive in the early 1800’s than they are in the 2020s.
The fact there was no period of negotiation was scandalous to Mondego, Dante’s rival, but as we can see from how his character plays out in the rest of the novel, the contract wasn’t to him a mere formality–it was a way of asserting his control and maintaining his own status. Dantes’ and Mercedes, by contrast, view such things as just something getting in the way of them living the life they want.
Social customs were slightly different too. Without the benefit of social media, socializing was done en masse and kept within closed circles as much as possible unless specific “introductions” were made.
Under Napoleon, just as under the monarchy, wealth could be accumulated not just from business but from patronage. So, maintaining the status quo for whatever political power was in government was part of a complicated societal game.
People were expected, as a matter of manners, to host dinners, pay visits, and generally provide hospitality to their friends, acquaintances, business associates, and so forth. Admission was only by who you knew and everyone had to have references and letters of introduction.
It’s not so very different to how high society works now–you still need a good network but back then, it was only admissible if you also had the luxury to show for it while today, everything is much more understated.
The three elements today are a mere scratch on the surface. As with all truly great works of literature, you’re spoiled for choice as to topics to discuss–it’s part of what makes them enduring.
My own hope is that one of these elements will encourage you to read Monte Cristo and will help you enjoy one of world literatures greatest novels.
Next time, we’ll look at some of the other layers–some of the more difficult ones too such as the use of nested narratives, the themes of law, and the use of drugs.