Welcome, bienvenue, come in: this is the first installment of Mort de Lire, a review series aimed at getting readers up to speed with all the French classics they tell everyone they’ve read, even when they have decidedly not read them. Literary enabling? Perhaps. If used for their intended purposes, these articles will surely eat slowly away at your soul until you actually read the books in question.
First, the background: The Count Of Monte Cristo was written by Alexandre Dumas (Père, this edition says; his son also wrote books as Alexandre Dumas, fils) and released in 1844 as a serial, the same year Charles Dickens published Martin Chuzzlewit, Honoré de Balzac debuted Les Paysans, and Karl Marx came out with On The Jewish Question, in ascending order of make-believe. Paul Verlaine, Anatole France, and Friedrich Nietzsche were all born in that year, although most likely to different parents.
The book takes its name from an actual island in the Mediterranean between the island of Elba and the Italian coast. It is a rocky island with little on it. The book is also the namesake of a famous brand of Cuban (and Dominican) cigars: the Montecristo. As with Romeo e Julietas, the cigar gets its name, according to myth, from the men who used to roll the cigars in Cuba. To pass the time before earbuds and podcasts, books would be read to the rollers. When they heard The Count Of Monte Cristo, they listened intently all the way to the end. And then they asked to hear it again, on and on into history. That’s why the cigars bear the name of the book.
Second, why you should actually read this book: unlike Dickens, whose serialized works smack of a lack of planning and, to be honest, a writer who is being paid by the word, Dumas does not bandy about with unnecessary characters and plot lines. Far in advance of Anton Chekov’s birth, Dumas was already observing the rule of Chekov’s Gun: if you show a gun in the first act, it must be fired in the third. Nothing goes to waste in this book, not a description, not a word of dialogue. It is, like any good plan—whether it’s for revenge or escape—machined within a micron of its life; it is made entirely of literary Lego blocks.
And if you should doubt the capabilities of Monsieur Dumas, Monte Cristo wasn’t the only book he produced in 1884—he also released another serial that year: The Three Musketeers.
Here we are: your last chance to avoid a catastrophic mistake. You cannot know what evils will be visited upon you in the future for one single, seemingly insignificant sin now. The Count would warn you himself, if you would be good enough to listen.
Edmond Dantès is a young man, already first mate of the merchant ship Pharaon, based in Marseilles. He is “tall, slim, with fine dark eyes and ebony-black hair” and the “calm and resolve peculiar to men who have been accustomed from childhood to wrestle with danger.” His captain is dead, and Dantès is named his successor when the ship comes into port. His employee, Monsieur Morrel, is glad to have him back safely and even gladder to make him captain, even at so young an age. Not everyone is so happy at Dantès’ youthful good fortune, though—the ship’s supercargo (that is, the man charge with taking account of the goods going in and out of the ship) thinks Captain Dantès unlikely to keep him on. That supercargo, Danglars, our first villain, mentions to Morrel that upon the captain’s death, Dantès took possession of a letter, made an unscheduled stop at Elba, and returned to the ship carrying yet another letter.
The year, by the way, is 1815. Any French historians reading this can probably feel the hair on the nape of their necks prick up—but then, they’ve probably already read the book. Depending on your grasp of high school-level world history, you may, at the very least, have suspicions: Elba… wasn’t that the island where…
Yes, now that you mention it. Yes, it was.
Satisfied with Dantès’ answer regarding the captain’s death, Morrel releases him to return home to his aging father. Dantès discovers his père has been living in penury during his absence, having paid a debt his son owed to their downstairs neighbor out of what little money he was given to live on. The debtor, a tailor named Caderousse, visits the Dantès family, all goodwill and glee that his debt was repaid, but full of baleful, bad news: Edmond’s fiancée, the lovely Catalan Mercédès (equipped with a V8, for sure), is a beautiful girl, and her cousin has been doggedly at her side in his absence. That’s our second villain accounted for.
Edmond sets off to find Mercédès, who he has not seen for months, and discovers her still as true and faithful as when he left. Her cousin Fernand has mistaken his absence for something more like death, confessing his love for Mercédès while she rebuked him as her closest and best friend, her only brother in the world. When he runs from her house, all flight and no fight, Fernand comes upon Caderousse and Danglars, sitting at a public house and waiting to see if, at least in one way, Fate has dealt Edmond a bad hand with Mercédès.
And there sit our three villains: Caderousse, steeped in alcohol; Fernand, burning with jealousy; and Danglars, a man adept at running numbers.
This is your last warning. You have not yet sinned against The Count Of Monte Cristo. You have simply clicked “Free Sample” and read, at best, the first three chapters. You know less than if you watched the trailer for the 2002 adaptation—one of thirteen films based on this book, to say nothing of the seven television adaptations, including one starring famous Russian actor Gérard Depardieu.
Still there? You will be interested to know that, like yourself, the next chapter is concerned with “The Plot.”
Edmond and Mercédès pass the trio at their table, and Caderousse hails them. Mercédès rebuffs his calling her “Mrs. Dantès,” and Edmond does the same when Danglars hazards to call him Captain. The young couple are the better people, though, and Edmond invites them all to their engagement party the next night. That’s right, even Fernand, for Mercédès’ “brother is my brother,” according to Dantès, whose pureness of heart is almost villainous. He explains that he must away to Paris to complete one last task for his fallen commander, and the two excuse themselves.
The three remain as Danglars conjures airs about how to clear all their decks of the joker Dantès: certainly not murder, for Mercédès would kill herself; not prison, either, because people get out of prison, and she would wait until he did. Ah, but: with his recent trip to the isle of Elba and his unknown business in Paris, it would be a simple matter, the supercargo says, to write an anonymous letter denouncing him as a Bonapartist transporting treasonous letters to anti-Royalist conspirators. One simply has to mask their handwriting with their non-dominant hand, and voilà, you have a letter written in a script familiar to no one.
He demonstrates, writing the letter, explaining who it would go to and what would become of it and Dantès both. Then Danglars makes a great show of giving up the idea, inexpertly ridding the table of the letter, to Caderousse’s mild, drunken delight. That’s right, he says, “Dantès is my friend and I don’t want anyone to harm him.”
As Danglars and a very drunk Caderousse take their leave, the former—what’s so super about him, anyway?—clocks Fernand retrieving the crumpled-up denunciation. Oh well—as long as Dantès isn’t carry word from Bonaparte to Paris, what need he worry about?
The next day, on the same terrace of La Reserve, Danglars and Caderousse join the crew of the Pharaon and other revelers in welcoming M. Morrel, whose presence portends good fortune for Dantès, who must surely and finally be made captain of the vessel. D. & C. are dispatched to find the unarrived couple.
Find them they do, and in short order, just coming up the road, bridesmaids and Fernard at her side, only Mercédès and Old Man Dantès on his.
“Neither Mercédès nor Edmond could see the smile on Fernand’s face. The poor children were so happy that they saw nothing except one another and the pure clear sky that showered its blessing on them.”
Oh dear. Do be kind to them, Alexandre.
Caderousse falls in with the arriving party, troubled by only the slightest recollection of yesterday’s doings.
They sit down to dinner, Mercédès placing Fernand and Old Man Dantès at her left and right hands. The happiness of the couple turns Fernand pale for wholly different reasons now, it seems. Danglars takes account of it, and the Old Man remarks on the general quiet of the party over their meal.
Dantès is reserved and quieted by his joy, saying it is, in that respect, very much like sorrow. “I cannot think that man is meant to find happiness so easily!” he says “…in truth, I do not know what I have done to deserve the good fortune of becoming Mercédès’ husband.”
Perhaps by a payment you have not yet made?
No matter—Dantès says that they are to be married in an hour, instead of in a day.
Ah, but here: amid the celebration, heavy and numerous footsteps, the sound of weapons clanging. A dreadful series of knocks and an entreaty. Enter the scene four officers, a police commissioners, and a corporal.
Dantès is arrested, under what charges we do not yet know. Except we do, don’t we?
Caderousse notes that it’d be pretty fucked up if this was because of that piece of paper from yesterday.
Yes, but I tore it up.
No, you tossed it in a corner.
You were drunk
Dantès leaves with the police, peaceably.
It was Fernand, I bet.
Kind of dim, that kid.
He had excellent counsel yesterday, Danglars.
Danglars distracts himself with a game of feints, the subject of which is some contraband Dantès must have been caught with. The Old Man remembers the coffee and tobacco his son brought home, some damn thing like that.
The party disperses, and D. & C catch up with M. Morrel. Oh, might as well put it into the shipowner’s head that the Pharaon’s unscheduled stop in Elba was suspicious, eh, Danglars? Might just as well remind Morrel that his uncle was a known Bonapartist, too. Certainly wouldn’t be good to be found with a Bonapartist in his employ to boot.
Dantès didn’t think much of you, Morrel offers, but he never said why and took my confidence as bond.
Well, shit, Danglars returns, if you need a captain in the meantime, I am an unassailably ambitious prick of a man. If you can call me a man.
Danglars in place as princeps pro tem, Morrel rushes off to see the crown prosecutor, a man named Monsieur de Villefort. Mr. Strongtown? Seriously?
That went smashingly, Danglars says. Still want to see Dantès, you piece of shit alcoholic?
Indeed, no. Dreadful thing we’ve done, though.
What trick? Sure, I didn’t tear up the paper, but as you said, I tossed it in that corner. And corners are a prison from which no paper escapes.
Dude, it’s a corner. Fernand must’ve picked it up, uncrumpled it. Crumpling isn’t permanent. Not like tearing it up would’ve been.
Oh shit, you think so? But it was a joke, you know. Must’ve accidentally told the truth.
Doesn’t much matter, does it? It’s done, and we are going to be fucked for it.
Nah, only the guilty get fucked. If Dantès is guilty, no big deal. If he’s innocent, it’s still Fernand’s fault and not ours.
Fuck you, Danglars. Niques ta mère et meurs, tous les deux.
Good god, a little backstory on the crown prosecutor: he, too, is engaged to be married, and is at home, entertaining his guests, la belle mère et beaux père, his betrothed’s parents—the Marquis and Marquise de Saint-Méran. The perfectly capitated in-laws are discussing Bonapartist sentiment in France, the relative and dangerous proximity of the Isle of Elba to the mainland, and the fact that, as a Marquis and Marquise, one ought probably to side with the Royals, who aren’t as guillotine-happy as the old revolutionaries.
Villefort offers: look, my dad was a piece of shit Bonapartist named Noirtier, which will certainly have no bearing later in the story, and here I am, such an upstanding Royalist that my job title contains the word “crown.” A crown prosecutor who’s going to wed the future Marquise de Saint-Méran! To be fair, it sounds like my job is to prosecute crowns, possibly for the treasonous crime of not fitting properly or sorting Royals into the wrong house at Hogwarts. Crowns are capable of so few crimes!
The aristocracy and bureaucracy continue to stroke each other off until a valet enters, and Villefort informed of the uncovering of a Bonapartist conspiracy. He reads the letter of denunciation—word-for-word Danglars’ invention—and all but Renée de Saint-Méran seems certain of the accused’s guilt. The Marquise calls for the man’s head. Villefort promises to be pitiless. Renée begs him to be merciful, and his eyes tell her that, yes, for her sake, in honor of their engagement, he will be merciful to the accused wretch, whoever he may be.
With Villefort’s promise to Renée, the intersession of M. Morrel on behalf of the accused, and the charm of the man and the coincidence that, he too, was on the edge of marriage, it seems impossible that Dantès would not be exposed as an innocent man, unduly put upon by malicious forces on the verge of his most exultant victories. Villefort is convinced by the comport of his prisoner, even if Dantès had been carrying word from Napoleon to his conspirators in France, surely he would be set free as an unwitting accomplice doing a last, honorable duty for his fallen captain.
And indeed he had been carrying word from Napoleon.
To a Bonapartist conspirator in France.
Paris, to be exact.
A man named Noirtier.
Villefort, the blood in his veins replaced with adrenaline, the air in his lungs poisoned with fear, assures Dantès that this is all a terrible mistake, and that it will all be worked out.
He burns the letter and takes his leave.
Eventually, Dantès is released from the crown prosecutor’s chambers and taken on a lovely, night time boat tour of Marseille. They are far out from shore before Dantès sorts out that they are bearing towards the Château d’If, the island prison, where he has been sentenced to live out the rest of his life.
Join us next week for the second installment of <