Writing In Layers: 10 Elements in The Count of Monte Cristo, Part 2

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Drugs, sex, and rock ‘n’ roll. It wasn’t anything new in the 1960s. The 1840s had their own excess of all three. And it was memorialized particularly in French literature of the day. At least, it was in the grand romantic type Alexandre Dumas was so fond of.

In the previous post, we started looking at some of the many different layers which go into the narrative of Edmond Dantes’ quest for justice.

So, let’s get to some of the lesser-known good stuff in Monte Cristo….

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4. Drugs

While the abridged versions of Monte Cristo leave out the drugs use, the original unabridged version has a very vivid depiction of Franz, who turns out to be a fairly minor character, getting high on hashish in the presence of someone calling himself “Sinbad the Sailor.”

He then proceeds to have some very suggestive and lascivious dreams.

Recreational drugs use has long been under scrutiny–not just in our own time, but in previous eras as well. It’s vaguely suggested in The Picture of Dorian Gray and outrightly showing in Sherlock Holmes. The difference? Dr. Watson directly disapproves of Holmes’ drug use. It was a sanctimonious public which disapproved of Dorian Gray.

Dumas’ inclusion of drugs in Monte Cristo, however, is closely related to his use of current events within the narrative.

The use of recreational drugs in France is largely traced back to Napoleon’s campaigns in Egypt–where hashish had been in use since the ancient days. Napoleon, of course, forbad their use. Predictably without success.

A lack of success which survived well into the nineteenth century.

Le Club des Hachichins, of which Dumas and Hugo were members, was an active club in Paris where members experimented with drug use–and not just hashish. Cocaine was also one of the drugs in use. And the club was full of the leading lights of French art and literature.

Why is hashish used in Monte Cristo? Well, that is something which the Count himself reveals. And it’s to alleviate his mental “obsession.” Or so he claims.

He uses it to sleep, in particular, being afflicted by some malady which isn’t exactly defined, but which I think most of us today would recognize as a form of PTSD. Considering his long, wrongful imprisonment, the loss of both the Abbe Faria, his father, and his fiancé, and the realization that the people he called friends were the ones who set him up in the first place no doubt had their effects.

The irony of it all, is that hallucinogens have been used in recent years to treat PTSD. With some limited success.

While their actual effectiveness is still under debate, the parallels with the literary world, particularly with the events of Monte Cristo are intriguing.

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5. Sex

While not exactly Fifty Shades of Gray, The Count of Monte Cristo has its fair share of suggestiveness. Obviously, something as–ahem–obvious as Fifty Shades would have been labeled as pornography in the 1840s.

But there’s plenty of salacious detail if you look a little more closely at the text itself. More salacious than even Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.

From the hallucinations Franz D’Epany has from hashish, to the many affairs of Madam Hermine Danglars, to the “elopement” of Eugenie Danglar and her best friend Louise d’Armilly, there is plenty of suggestion to scandalize.

As with the drugs, however, each interlude says more about the character of the person themselves than it does about the actual subject of sex.

Let’s take, for instance, the “romance” between Eugenie Danglars and Louis D’Armilly.

Eugenie and Louise to us sound no more than like any pair of ambitious teenaged girls would have at their age. They discuss what they want to do with their lives, how they would live if they had the freedom to choose, etc. No where does sex come into it–on the surface.

This is the 1840s, after all. Post Napoleon, all the rights that women has won under the Revolution were swept away. Women were once again only as valuable as the men to whom they were either born or married. Or the children they bore. Even the money they had was not their own but was transferred to whatever man had her keeping.

Eugenie, we discover, is very resentful of the fact. She’s even more resentful that her parents care more for their own schemes than they do for her. Her father, Baron Danglars is only interested in making more money. Her mother, Baroness Danglars is only interested in showing up her husband on the markets and maintaining her love affair with Lucien Debray.

She tells her father that she doesn’t love anyone and only wants to live a free and independent life–one which doesn’t involve money since that would mean the involvement of either a husband or a father.

I love absolutely no one, Monsieur: you know that, don’t you? So I cannot see why, unless forced to do so, I should wish to encumber my life with an eternal companion.

Eugenie Danglars, The Count of Monte Cristo

Louise D’Armilly, by Eugenie’s standards has a happy life. She is poor, but she is an artist who lives by her own work and in her own name. No unhappy marriage contract lies on the horizon for her. So, there is an attraction there–an attraction for what Louise represents to Eugenie.

And it’s something which Eugenie wants very passionately–as passionately as sex.

Now, there is still some debate as to whether this constitutes a lesbian relationship or not. Any number of speculations on Goodreads will say “yea” or “nay” depending on the reviewer’s viewpoint. There are plenty of other opinion pieces which defend Eugenie as a lesbian figure.

Given Robin Buss’ own notes not the subject in both his Introduction and Note on the Text, while we in the 21st century may not see this relationship as anything but platonic, polite French society of 1840 definitely would have.

And it would have completely confounded them as to the true nature of Eugenie herself.

Eugenie is just like her parents–focused on the position she holds in society–not on any actual love she bears her friend. She is vehement to everyone to whom she speaks that she loves no one.

Oh, there’s no doubt she cares for Louise very greatly, but she cares more for Louise’s lifestyle than she does for Louise herself. Louise’s companionship is an unexpected bonus. Eugenie is willing to live all alone if it gives her the freedom and independence she wants.

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6. A Serial Poisoner

Well, it’s not quite rock-n-roll, but I think a serial killer in the midst of the novel gives the narrative a nice kick. There is, in fact, an entire chapter where Madam de Villefort and the Count discuss poisons at length.

This is perhaps the most overlooked part of Monte Cristo. In the course of bringing his false accusers to justice, the count uncovers and forces the hand of a woman who has systematically poisoned people for many years–and even tried to poison her own step-daughter. She does, in fact, poison several people in the course of the novel itself.

When she’s discovered, she takes her own life and the life of her son. Her husband goes mad as a result.

The kicker? She’s the second wife of de Villefort–the prosecutor who could have saved Edmond Dantes’ from being imprisoned, but didn’t because the evidence against Dantes would have let de Villefort (and therefore anyone else) to his own estranged father.

Which he couldn’t afford since his father was a Bonapartist and de Villefort had just married into a very old and prominent aristocratic family.

Poison itself has something of a symbolic status. From the beginning chapters, we see poison at work in the the drunken ramblings of Caderousse, the suggestions of Danglars, and the barely contained jealousy of Mondego. Like Hamlet, there are various types of poison. Poisonous words, poisonous assumptions, poisonous intentions, and the list goes on.

The fact a literal poisoner is on the loose in the novel merely highlights all the many ways poison in used in the book. In many ways, it reflects the poisonous accusations made against Alexandre Dumas’ father, General Alex Dumas.

His daughter by that marriage is nearly poisoned because she is the one who inherits all the money in the family upon her marriage. Which means her father’s income and her step-brother’s inheritance would be next to nothing. This, the second Madame de Villefort cannot allow.

Talk about the wicked stepmother trope! The second Madam de Villefort turns out to be every bit as wicked as any Grimm’s fairy tale. And she, like her husband, contemplates the unthinkable just to maintain her own status in society. A stratagem which ends in her death and his consignment to the insane asylum.

But this is a subplot which, like many others, is often overlooked.

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Next time, we’ll look into one more set of layers in The Count of Monte Cristo. Hopefully any one or multiple layers will encourage you to tackle this mammoth, but rewarding piece of classic literature!


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