Book Review – The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

First published, 1844

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

“He who has felt the deepest grief is best able to experience supreme happiness.”
Chapter 117, The Fifth of October, The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

As you may remember, I made a decision a little while ago to fill in the gaps in my knowledge of classical literature by actually reading some. I know. Such a rebel. This was, as ever, in the hopes that I would recognise obscure quotes and oblique references in the course of the sorts of run-of-the-mill, intellectual conversations I plan to have as I approach my middle years. I am not entirely without understanding. Thanks to a childhood in the nineteen-eighties, I am an aficionado of film, television and pop culture. All of which have, in their way, exposed my brain to all manner of literary giants with sneaky jokes and asides. So as much as I might recognise a quote and even know where it’s from, that doesn’t necessarily mean I’ve read the book. Hence this quest.

All of this is really just to introduce myself. Apologies for that.

I remembered a film I’d watched years ago and felt certain it was based on something literarily magnificent but I couldn’t remember the title, the author or anyone who’d appeared in the adaptation I barely recalled. So far, so good. I had a vague recollection of the plot, so I headed on over to Google.

“Book Frenchman convicted of a crime he didn’t commit, escapes from prison and claims vengeance.”

And good old Google came back with: “The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas.”

Pretty certain I already knew that, at least deep down where I need not produce proof, I went straight to Amazon.

I found the ebook advertised with a price of practically nothing and a page count of 486. I know how fast I read. Although, no doubt, a sophisticated story, translated from the original French (I would struggle to read a menu in the original French – it’s something I plan to work on next year), with possibly loftier language than might be found in the more modern novel, I reckoned I could finish it in four or five days. A promising start to 2022 and a thundering classic to tick off my list – I was well pleased.

As an ebook, of course, the number of times you tap to turn that page doesn’t necessarily correlate with the number of pages in the physical book. This is due to print size, screen size and technological whatnot I can’t begin to understand. But I was surprised, after twelve or so taps of the screen, to find myself still at 0%.

Back to Google: How many pages in The Count of Monte Cristo (Unabridged)?

Oh, Amazon. How my heart shook. Even at 0%, I was loving the story – vast and operatic and sitting-in-the-firelight as it is – but 486 pages it is not. Not even close, actually.

Of course, there are probably a good number of English translations out there, but I suspect they’re all in ballpark of each other for length and according to Google, that’s 1297 pages long. My 4-5 day read had suddenly swelled into two weeks, without interruption, which is asking a lot in a house full of dogs.

It’s lucky I’m not the only person in the house because I’ve barely looked up from my phone in the past fortnight. My eyes have become bloodshot and watery, caused solely (I suspect) by the hours spent staring at the screen. I have thought of little else.

So, the story follows Edmond Dantes, a successful young sailor and the beloved of the beautiful and adored Mercedes. When popular Edmond returns home from the sea with the promise of promotion and engagement, he cannot know that three villains are plotting against him, planning to rob him of his destiny and throw him in a dungeon, alone, forsaken and forgotten.

And so, when, many years later, two of the baddies are wildly successful, living the high life in the upper echelons of society, and their co-conspirator, encouraging manipulator, is still a small rather pitiful figure, the villains are falling over themselves to meet the deathly pale but fabulously wealthy and mysterious Count of Monte Cristo.

But after fourteen years imprisonment, and another ten seeking answers, treasure and himself, has Edmond left it too late to claim his revenge? And, if he gets it, will it really balance the scales?

For the most part, I felt like I was sitting in a wingback chair, by the fireside, being told the story by an avuncular (as we can see from the cover) high-cheekboned Frenchman with a bottle of brandy catching the light from the flames. The command over story and character exhibited by the author was powerful and assured.

There were some irritating moments. Spectacles, such as Paris at night, and various other majestic sights, were alluded to with expressions like – ‘those who have seen [whatever it might be] will already know how glorious a sight it is’ – but those of us who haven’t are left waiting for a description that doesn’t come. There were a fair number of instances of feelings and impressions which were “impossible to describe” – which felt a little bit like a cop out.

People who don’t care for the opera often complain that there’ll be a bad guy on some nefarious rampage and it’ll turn out that it’s the town mayor, wearing a hat. The audience knows exactly who he is but his wife doesn’t, and that makes the suspension of disbelief more than a little tricky. Although I got a sense of that from time to time, the sub-plots and characterisations were so rich as to distract me from it almost immediately.

Although I found the character of Valentine just a little but too sweet for my tastes, I’m pretty sure Eugenie Danglars is my kind of girl. Avoiding marriage to run off with a lady musician sounds about right to me.

Unfortunately, this translation uses the word ‘his’ in place of ‘has’ a fair number of times, a couple of instances of ‘be’ that should have been ‘he’ – but I think I’ve found the origin of the phrase “folded his arms over his chest”, a phrase that seems favoured by USA Today Bestselling, and other American, authors (8% in, Chapter 11, The Corsican Ogre, The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas).

An incredible story, beautifully told, but make sure you have a couple of weeks free from drama to read it.