The two previous posts in this series covered various themes or elements within the overall narrative of The Count of Monte Cristo. Hopefully, you’ve become inspired in your own writing to think about ways of incorporating more layers to your narratives.
Not to mention, they make the length of the novel much less of a hindrance than you might expect.
Well, and let’s face it: who doesn’t like a good revenge story? Who hasn’t wanted to strike back when we’ve been wronged?
The subplots and the extra narrative details are what give the novel not only substance, and flesh out the main revenge plot, but they really make Edmond Dantes/The Count likable. He’s simultaneously superhuman and down to earth, personable and formidable, indescribable and yet stunningly relatable.
And they bring to light questions about the world we in which we live and our own place in it.
Today, we’ll finish up our list of ten elements. If you haven’t already, check out Part 1 and Part 2 as well as a very special post for Valentine’s Day which covers the two loves of Edmond/The Count and hits at the importance of choice which will come up again both in this post and in one more afterwards.
7. Nested Narratives
A nested narrative is a smaller story which appeared within the context of a novel.
In other words, it’s a story within a story. Exactly like Shakespeare’s play within a play.
This is a device which is used quite liberally within early novels, particularly if they were serialized. Since the author was paid by the word or sentence, then it was a useful way of making more money out of a book.
Today, we see these as mere filler and tend to skip over them, or, in the case of abridgments, cut them out of editions entirely. Never mind that the device is actually in widespread use not only in high fantasy, but in the movie industry.
While abridging a book which has a nested narrative can be useful to keep a reader focused on the main narrative, such abridgments can leave out very specific details about a character which come into play later in the novel.
For instance, a story is told of an Italian shepherd turned thief called Luigi Vampa–a story which oddly mirrors that of the unfortunate Edmond Dantes in many ways. The entire narrative is in the chapter “Roman Bandits” and it’s worth reading through a few times to really appreciate.
Because, it has revenge in it too. And it’s precisely the type of revenge which the Count himself ends up engineering for his own enemies.
Except Vampa doesn’t take revenge for himself. He ends up avenging the rape, murder, and suicide of a young couple whose happiness was destroyed through jealousy. Much like how Edmond and Mercedes’ happiness was destroyed through jealousy.
He has a childhood sweetheart too–one with a very flirtatious nature and a love of riches. Only instead of being separated from her, he gets to live out the rest of his life with her. She is faithful to him because he has the will and the strength to do what is necessary to keep her affections.
Something which the unfortunate Edmond Dantes with his naive optimism of life was not able to do until he met the Abbe Faria.
And yet now you are taking pity on a man who was bitten by no other man, but who killed his benefactor and who now, unable to kill anyone else because his hands are tied, wants more than anything to see his companion in captivity, his comrade in misfortune, die with him!The Count of Monte Cristo
The entire novel is honeycombed with references to crime–and a wide variety of crimes at that. In Part 2, we looked at the subplot involving serial poisoner. But there’s more. There’s the whole Andrea Cavalcanti subplot, Mondego’s war crimes, Danglars fraud, de Villefort’s deceptions, Caderousse’s theft, Mercedes’ neglect and abandonment, and the list goes on. Most of these crimes went unpunished until the Count’s machinations brought them to light.
Most interesting ins the nature of crime, however, is the idea that some crimes are worse than others. Luigi Vampa, for instance, is a bandit and a thief, but he is not nearly as horrible a bandit or theif as Danglars. Vampa at least has a sense of honor–such as when he negotiated with the Count to get the shepherd Peppino released from prison.
If we were to ask the Count, we would do well to take into account the chapter “La Mozzolata” where the nature of punishment and wrongdoing is discussed between Franz D’Epany and the Count at some length.
Two men are set to be put to death. One murdered a priest who was like. father to him. The other was a shepherd who happened to feed hungry travelers who happened to bandits. Who was the true criminal here?
The murderer, we would say. The Count would agree. Moreover, the murderer’s nature is revealed when the shepherd is pardoned. He raves, and rants because, as the Count points out, the only thing comforting him was that he was not going to be the sole sufferer. Someone else was going to be in pain too.
What is the nature of crime then? Is it relative to the pain it causes another human being? That is something which we would do well to consider.
The nature of justice is a theme we often either thing about in terms of politics, philosophy, morality, or religion. In the 21st century in particular, we think of justice in terms of social standing, accessibility to resources, and human interactions on a daily basis.
So, it may seem odd to us that The Count of Monte Cristo does not deal with justice in quite the same way. It has nothing to do with making everyone socially equal. It’s not particularly concerned with slavery, class disparity, or racism. Ali, the Count’s servant in Paris, is a black man–a Nubian. The Count refers to him as a “slave.” Haydee is also referred to as a “slave.”
Why? Why would Dumas, whose own life was marked by the legacy of slavery–his own father had been a slave to pay for his grandfather’s passage back to France to claim a family inheritance.
Perhaps it’s because “justice” as an idea is completely dependent on the people practicing it. Society changes. Government changes. Collective ideas change. Which means that unless Justice itself is something which each individual practices and takes seriously as a matter of personal integrity, honor, and practice, then, theoretically, it doesn’t exist.
Consider, for instance, the chapter “An Apparition.” In this chapter, Albert and Franz take a carriage ride through Rome to see the Colosseum and the walls of the ancient city. They overhead a conversation between two men–Luigi Vampa (the celebrated bandit) one of whom is the Count himself.
In it, they discuss the plight of a poor shepherd named Peppino. Peppino fed some travelers who were hungry. Except the travelers were bandits. Whether he knew who they were or not isn’t stated, but for his good dead of feeding the hungry, the Papal authorities put him in prison “as an accessory” and decided to execute him for his “crime.”
Except that the poor shepherd really committed no crime. He fed hungry travelers. That was it. Where is the justice in punishing someone who helped someone in need?
10. Free Will
That is not how God should be worshipped. He wants us to understand and debate His power: that is why He gave us free will.The Count of Monte Cristo
Whenever anything tragic happens, the common thread of everyone whether on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Reddit, etc is “how can bad things happen to good people.”
We are very quick to comfort ourselves that we are powerless. Except that we are not.
The Count of Monte Cristo is full of victims. Edmond Dantes, Abbe Faria, Haydee, Mercedes, Valentine de Villefort, Ali Pasha, and the list goes on.
To what extent to any of these play the victim?
That is, how many of these characters actually do something about their unfortunate situations and how many just allow whatever happens to happen.
Mercedes, for example, gives up. Twice. She gives up on Edmond after he disappears and deserts her would-be father-in-law to a live of starvation. Then, she gives up on her own life after her wealth is stripped from her and her son leaves to try and redeem the family honor and name.
I have no further resolve except that of never again being resolved about anything. God has so shaken me with storm that I have lost all willpower.Mercedes
There’s something to be said for allowing events to unfold. For those of us who are control freaks or are impatient to have things happen, it can be very difficult to let go of things and allow events to unfold naturally.
But there is also something to be said for making things happen in your favor.
This is what the Count does when he ceases to be Dantes and becomes the Count. Edmond Dantes allowed things to happen to him. He did things without a second thought, or without a care to who was actually his friend and who was his foe. He was innocent as a newborn babe in many ways.
The Count knows better what men are capable of doing. He holds his cards closer to his chest, and he doesn’t allow everyone into his confidence. He trusts few, befriends few, and while he’s outwardly polite to everyone, he has no compunction with orchestrating certain events to happen in a certain way for his own benefit.
Or for those whose kindness he repays.
The difference is between the all-too-common “how can God let this happen” and the “this has happened: I will do something about it.”
It’s a question Dumas himself had to face in his own lifetime. His father was a war hero–one whose rank was unmatched until Colin Powell became Secretary of State in 2000. So how could General Dumas die in poverty, disease, and misery? What had he done to deserve such a fate?
We can hear that question echo in Edmond’s own grief for his father’s death–both of his fathers. Old Dantes and Abbe Faria.
And Dumas’s reply in the words quoted at the beginning of this section: God made us to have a will. We are supposed to do something with it.
If Monte Cristo teaches us anything, it is that men make things happen–God wants humankind to make things happen. He does not want a bunch of sycophantic creatures who blindly follow and bleat and whine at their fate and their own fallenness.
There is a time to mourn and contemplate our failings. And there is a time to act.
If we are to have good things, we must make them happen. When we are hurt, it is up to us to make something of those hurts. If we are wronged, it is up to use to correct those wrongs whether that is by helping other victims or by using it to strengthen our own resolve and character.
Whatever you take away from this series, I hope you take away a passion for incorporating as much detail and variety into your writing as Dumas did and that you incorporate Monte Cristo into your reading routine.
There are a lot of themes, lessons, and observations which anyone can find inspiring and healing. I know, it’s made a difference to me–in fact if I hadn’t read Monte Cristo, I doubt this blog would have ever been started.
Nor would some of my own characters have ever taken form.
Until next week!