Edmond Dantès is a promising young sailor growing up in the French fishing village of Marseilles. Just as he is preparing to accept the captainship of his vessel and to marry the love of his life, Dantès is framed as a Bonapartist, a heinous crime in the eyes of the Royalist regime of early 19th century France. The Count of Monte Cristo tells the epic tale of Dantès’s imprisonment within the grim Chateau D’If, his eventual escape, and his protracted revenge against the three men who plotted his downfall. We hear the stories of bandits, smugglers, and aristocrats; we’re taken from the southern coast of France to the mountain villages of the Orient to the raucous Roman Carnival. In the process, we’re faced with a challenge to our previously-held notions of good and evil, which are twisted and bent by the story of the Count.
I certainly won’t be the first to comment on the religious themes in The Count, which abound. Dantès is buried in the tomb that that is the Chateau D’If, only to be reborn 14 years later to carry out the will of God. His coat of arms depicts a mountain on a field of azure, with a red cross atop it. This mountain is probably Monte Cristo, which is all at once a heap of rock in the Mediterranean; a smuggler’s hideout; the home to the Count’s massive trove of buried treasure; and the Count’s namesake. But this coat of arms may also allude to Calvary, the mountain upon which Christ was crucified. The Count of Mount Christ invites comparison to Jesus himself.
More interesting to me than the similarities, though, were the differences between the Count and Christ. Far from a picture of forgiveness, the Count is hatred incarnate. Caged by stone and iron, Dantès touches the brink of insanity as he comes to terms with the death of his father and infidelity of his lover, inevitable given the passing of years so numerous that Dantès no longer scrawls them onto his dungeon’s pitiless walls. The man who escapes is no longer Edmond Dantès—and how could he be? Still, this reader mourns the loss of the charming, likable boy from Marseilles. In his place, we have the Count of Monte Cristo. This is a man who smirks at the idea of duels, because, though easy to win (the Count was an unrivaled marksman) they deliver a mere bullet to the head, a punishment far too lenient for someone who bears deep, essential suffering. This is a man who exhibits the finest manners in Paris’s elite drawing rooms, but also owns slaves and speaks crassly of them. Monte Cristo compares Ali, his obedient Nubian slave who had had his tongue cut out by a previous captor, to a dog. Haydée, the daughter of a legendary Ottoman Pasha, is likened by the Count at various times in the book, or all at once, to a slave, a daughter, a sister, and a wife. Finally, this is a man who exacts a revenge so crushing, upon guilty and innocent alike, that Monte Cristo has to re-visit the Chateau D’If to steel his resolve so that he won’t succumb to mercy.
Monte Cristo is a self-proclaimed agent of Providence, submitting to and carrying out the will of God. Yet he admits that, at times, he considered himself, like Satan did, to be an equal of God, rather than a subordinate. And throughout much of the text, at least the people around Monte Cristo view him as a God-like figure. He seems to possess infinite wealth and infinite power; he has a mysterious ability to deliver both life and death. Indeed, he often appears to be less an agent of God and more a rival. Perhaps most interesting of all is that these two are difficult to distinguish.
On further reflection, both possibilities seem to be at odds with Christian thought. If Monte Cristo were an agent of God, then that God would have to be perfectly just, and exacting, and, by consequence, merciless. However, the Christian God seems to embody love, but not necessarily justice. We’ve seen in Christian literature, for instance, that wrongs are often not righted. It requires some suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader to grant that the Count is acting only according to the will of God, and not according to his own wishes.
The second possibility is also difficult to reconcile. The idea that the Count could rise up to equal God, and succeed, seems decidedly at odds with Christianity. In fact, it resembles Raskolnikov’s private musings in Crime and Punishment. The difference between these two texts, of course, is that the Count is successful. Perhaps The Count of Monte Cristo, though on its face a Christian-leaning work, should be re-evaluated as such.
We should entertain a third possibility. Both of the first two possibilities—that either God, or a man, could exact pure, perfect revenge—seem fantastical. And perhaps fantasy is exactly what they are. Dumas may have written The Count to illustrate the implausibility of perfect revenge. Perhaps Dantès’s visions of greatness were as illusory as Raskolnikov’s. To take this even further: what if if Edmond Dantès never left the Chateau D’If? What if the entirety of The Count was a dream, carried out in the mind of Dantès as he lay dying on his dungeon floor? What if, after the Count sailed off into the sunset in the book’s happy ending, Dumas omitted, but nonetheless imagined, the words “…and then he woke up?” But this is a possibility too horrible to even imagine.