How I’ll Make You Pay
The Count of Monte Cristo
By Alexandre Dumas
1844’s The Count of Monte Cristo is a standalone novel of revenge written by Alexandre Dumas. While it is not my usual SF, it has certainly influenced SF. As well, there were (to my surprise) not one but two SFnal moments in the book.
Young Edmond Dantès has it all, from a solid career to a loving fiancée. Alas for Dantès, success engenders jealousy. In short order he is framed for Bonapartist subversion and secretly consigned to life imprisonment in the forbidding Château d’If. His friends and loved ones will never know why he vanished.
At least, that’s the plan.
Although it will take years before an opportunity to escape presents itself, Dantès’ time is not wasted. A slight miscalculation in direction sends fellow prisoner Abbé Faria’s escape tunnel not through the outer walls of the Château d’If, but into Dantès cell. Faria elects to mentor the younger man. More, he provides his student with a map to untold riches should Dantès escape. Finally, Faria’s death provides Dantès with the chance to escape, by taking Faria’s place in the burial shroud.
Of course, Dantès has no idea that prison custom is to weigh down corpses before casting them into the sea. The officials only discover what has happened after their package and its living contents have been consigned to the waters. Escape from the weighted, sealed sack is unthinkable. Dantès must be dead.
Some time later, French society is intrigued by the appearance of the mysterious but charming Count of Monte Cristo, whose title comes from the small island he purchased using money whose origin is a matter of speculation. As charming and wealthy as Lord Ruthven himself, the count insinuates himself into the lives of the men who by what must be the greatest of coincidence are the very men who framed the unfortunate Dantès.
And yet, despite the Count’s solicitous friendliness, misfortune stalks Dantès’ enemies and those unfortunate to be too close to them. Their powerful ally seems unable to protect the miscreants from financial disaster and worse. It seems fate itself has turned against them. How lamentable.
Towards the end of the novel, the collateral damage inflicted by his schemes appears to cause Dantès distress. All I can say is any project worth doing is worth doing completely. In a sense, nobody standing too close to his enemies was truly innocent. In the end, he can take comfort in the knowledge that God will know Their own.
Unsurprisingly in a book written 174 years ago, there is a considerable amount of values dissonance in this book, not least of which is the idea the best way to rescue someone from rapist brigands is by murdering the victim. The French of the mid-19th century did not think as we do, particularly the French blinded by righteous fury.
Although now diminished in popularity, Lord Ruthven was at the time this novel was published a well known figure, rather less sparkly than Edward but every bit as popular. It’s not surprising that Dumas goes out of his way to draw the reader’s attention to parallels between Ruthven and the Count. Of course, the Count is no vampire. He is merely an angry, cunning man to whom fate has given the means to punish his enemies.
On the one hand, Dumas succeeds in making the reader sympathize with his protagonist. On the other, Dumas makes clear the cost of this particular course of action. Dantès is victimized but the means he chooses to seek redress range from simply offering the opportunity for his foes to sabotage themselves — acceptable — to alliances with armed bandits and outright financial fraud. One might argue he doesn’t begin to build a better life until he relinquishes his claim on the old one. It’s an appealing point of view … but do note that it’s the grand vengeance everyone remembers and not the romance at the end.
Science fiction readers may be interested in the Count’s stock manipulations, which take advantage of the opportunity that new technology offers the ruthless1. Chappe’s semaphore and similar systems allowed information to cross France at unprecedented speed. They also allowed false information to be disseminated at unprecedented speed. Dumas may have been inspired in part by the Blanc’ twins’ stock manipulation scheme, which was so cutting edge that there were no applicable laws by which the twins could be convicted.
As I recall, Dumas was paid by the line. There are a great many lines in The Count of Monte Cristo. As well, Dumas was in no way timorous about lengthy digressions. So many lengthy digressions. I don’t know if the particular edition I read (which I downloaded from Project Gutenberg) is the complete, unabridged story but I do know it was 2700 pages long.
And yet… it’s a quick, enthralling read despite the length, despite the meandering plot. The novel has stayed in print for almost two centuries for a reason, has become part of our common cultural vernacular for a reason. I cannot say which translation is best, but I did find it worth my time to revisit this particular version.
The Count of Monte Cristo is available here (Amazon) and here (Chapters-Indigo).
1: The plan also takes advantage of the wealthy’s custom of treating badly those on whose services their comfort depends. The Count is happy to bribe those badly paid, strategically placed workers and they, after some thought, are willing to accept. In general, the Count is a generous man. It’s just that some of his generosity is motivated by malice.
I would also regard the now obscure Western/forensic procedural TV show Hec Ramsey as a sort of science fiction, in that its plots often depended on details that are familiar to us, but were new and marvellous to the characters.