tl;dr: This book, my god this fucking book!
These rants will contain spoilers.
Rant the First: Personal History
When I was thirteen, I attended a small, private religious school, called Wilkinsburg Christian School. Instead of an actual library, each school room had a book case at the back of the room with an odd assortment of books. As an adult, I believe I can correctly diagnose the selection as donations, otherwise known as, stuff adults didn't care to keep in their house anymore. It was pretty clearly not carefully curated, since the next year, I would find a copy of Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein on the shelf.
I was a frightened, lonely, unattractive teen with almost no friends, and few points of pride. One of them was that I was a reader. I read an enormous amount. This was before I became a serious science fiction fan, that would happen next year, when I read Starman Jones, by Robert Heinlein. Reading was also one of the few things that I was given positive feedback for by my parents, and they loved it when I read "the classics." Fundamentalist Christianity has baked into it a belief in a Golden Age, and assumes that older things are better, finer, purer, etc.
I remember taking down the book from the shelf. I was sitting so that my right ankle was resting on my left knee, and I balanced the tome on my right ankle. It was, memory insists, 1,365 pages long. (I am very sure it was more than 1,000 pages in that edition. The precise page count may have been rewritten by memory, since 365 is such an evocative number.) It was very, very thick. Finishing anything I started was, at that point in my life, a point of pride, so I was weighing the risk of starting something that long with the likelihood that I would hate it and either fail to finish, or suffer for an extremely long period of time. At the same time, I felt that I could be justly proud of myself if I managed to finish such a long book. I remember the weight of the book on my ankle, I remember flexing my foot up and down, feeling the weight. The cover was grey, there was no dust-jacket, and there were a few line drawing illustrations on the inside. I considered the illustrations to be a draw-back, since I wasn't a child anymore, and did not approve of picture books. (I was an arrogant child.) I remember that one of the illos had a man in a long cloak, and I secretly liked it, though I would not admit it. I
I raced through the book. The first chapter is a little slow, at first, with Dumas showing off his sailing vocabulary, and I was baffled by the idea that you would describe someone's age as "eighteen or twenty" rather than an actual age. There were all sorts of weird literary devices and conventions that I had never encountered before, and many of them I completely failed to decode during my first reading. And when I was done, I was stunned. I was enthralled, enchanted, delighted, and transformed. But I could not have explained why the book spoke to me so deeply, could not have described why it mattered to me. I could have described the plot in extremely fine detail, but I could not have explained the ways in which it resonated.
I went on to re-read the book about once a year for the next fifteen or twenty years, and then less frequently after that. As happens with many things that I encountered when young, re-reading would recapitulate my naieve initial experience. I was in my late twenties before I read a discussion of the book that mentioned it was one of the great revenge fantasies of all time. This was weirdly revelatory. In the first place, why had my conscious mind not known this? In the second place, it explained some of the ways in which the book had resonated for me as a teen ager. No one needs a good revenge fantasy more than a powerless thirteen year old girl.
Rant the Second: Enter the Suck Fairy
Actually, I wouldn't say that this book has been visited by the suck fairy, exactly, since I still love the book. There are still large swaths of it that speak to me, and the book does not suck. But there are also huge problematic areas which I just completely failed to notice. So, let's call it the Very Problematic Fairy.
Let's start with Ali, the Nubian slave. Oh, god. So very, very bad. He's a mute, having had his tongue cut out. The protagonist explains that he has always fancied having a mute slave, and so he found this poor wretch, who was to have his tongue cut out one day, his balls the next, and his head the third, and bought him after the first day. For which Ali is eternally grateful, and lavishes huge affection upon this monster for such mercy. It is repulsive. Ali has no voice, no agency, but does have Magical Negro powers over horses. He is an appallingly infantilized character.
There's some slightly more subtle racism against everyone else, too. Dumas is an essentialist, in all things, and frequently describes the national character of various Europeans. His description of the passionate Italians and phlegmatic English are hysterically stereotypical. The fact that Edmund Dantes can, at will, impersonate any nationality, is probably due to his superior nature as a Frenchman. I'm a little unclear, here. You would think that, since these are indelible signs of one's nationality, they couldn't be perfectly imitated, but along comes our protagonist and Bam! It's also really clear that Dumas considers the national character of the French to be all that.
Dumas also writes of "the East" by which he means Turks, Greeks, Egyptians, Persians, and I'm not sure who all else. He writes with longing of their despots, their customs, their harsh justice, their perfumes, their poisons, and their women. Oh, gods, the women...wait, that's another rant. Dumas appears to really like slavery, and regrets that it's not legal in France.
If you are sensitive to race issues, my god, this book is problematic. But it is problematic at its core. At the very center, Dumas appears to genuinely believe that people are born to be what they are, be it a benighted Nubian or an enlightened Frenchman. This plays out in many other ways in the book, not just in his portrayal of race.
I am actually a bit weirded out by the way in which Dumas writes about and handles class. I think it may be that I am very much lacking in good, historical context for this. Here's the thing. Dumas is writing in the 1840s, about the early part of that century. So, there was the whole revolution and restoration thing behind him. And I don't know too much about all that, but I assume it significant informs his attitudes about the aristocracy. It is absolutely notable that several of the characters who are considered to be clearly noble, and basically all that, were not born to the aristocracy. The fact that Danglars, who was made a baron, is very proud of this title, is a point of mockery by Dumas. But I was never sure whether he was mocking Danglars because of his pride in a recently formed title, or if he is mocking the entire idea of nobility. The Marquis and Marquise Saint-Meran are old-school nobility, fervent royalists, but are portrayed as somewhat decent human beings, and their grand-daughter is an angel. The Morcerf family, generally considered to be amongst the height of Parisian fashion and nobility, are actually a pair of Catalan fishermen from Marseilles, and of course the Count of Monte Cristo is a common sailor, with a purchased title, but is absolutely all that and then some.
Again, Dumas appears to strongly believe that these people were born with these virtues, or vices, that they are essentially who they are, not formed by circumstance. It must mean something that he thinks that two uneducated peasants can move in the highest circles of Parisian society, pretending to an ancient nobility, and do so successfully. But I don't know what it means.
I'm also entirely unsure what to make of his perspective on Napoleon. Indeed, I don't know that I know it. Possibly it was mostly a useful piece of plot-engine.
One of the very important characters is M. Nortier who, in the latter portion of the book, is a quadriplegic, and can only communicate by blinking his eyes. He is also an incredibly powerful personality, who continues to dominate the household, who scotches an unwanted marriage, and protects his beloved grandchild from poisoning. So why does Dumas, every time he brings Nortier on stage, spend paragraphs bemoaning the wretch who is all but a corpse, and spend endless words describing how powerless he is, and how useless a life he leads? Seriously, he's one of the heroes of the revolution (actually, he really was), and he does all these incredible things, and he's about about as far from an object of pity as a body can be, and yet Dumas cannot stop writing about how pitiable he is. I mean, I get it. It's a nice touch, having someone who looks to be powerless wield amazing power. That's cool. Dumas really, really values athletic prowess, but you'd think that at some point he'd notice that one of his most effective characters is the poor wretch in the wheelchair. Sigh. He's equally appalling about Ali, who has no tongue, but honestly, you get totally distracted by the racism whenever Ali is on stage, also it's kind of hard to forget that the reason Ali has no tongue was in part a choice on the part of the protagonist.
Rant the Third: Women, aka the Return of the Very Problematic Fairy
OMG, the women! Jesus fuck me. The women, the women, the women.
Ok, there are basically three types of women in this book: passive angels, murderous shrews, and a small handful of women of odd and ambiguous character.
Julie Morrel: She exists entirely to tell Dantes, over and over again, how wonderful he is, and how grateful she is. After she's done this eleventy times, or so, she allows as how possibly Dantes is the best person in the world, and that she cannot thank him enough. Then she does it some more. She has one very brief bit of action, early on, in that she bravely follows instructions which save her father's life. But it's ok, because she gets permission from her fiancé, first, and he comes along to guard her, just in case.
Valentine de Villefort: Honestly, couldn't be more passive if she were a stuffed animal, rather than a human girl. Beautiful, and utterly acted upon at all times. Caretaker for her "pitiable" grandfather, M. Nortier. She is a prize-object for Maximilian Morrell, and honestly, that's where her entire utility lies. She never does a single thing on her own, and that appears to be her chief virtue.
Benedetto's adopted mom, Assunta: She adopts the bastard child of the man her brother-in-law very reasonably attempts to murder (for values of "very reasonably" which include "brother-in-law is a Corsican, so it really all makes sense"), and loves the child immoderately. Because the child is a bastard, I guess, he is also a terrible person who eventually tortures and murders her. This all happens off-stage. However, again, she exists solely and only to serve the men in her life, and is unable to say no.
La Carconte: Not sure if I'm spelling that right. She marries Caderousse, which in this book automatically makes her a bad person since she is associated with Caderousse, who is one of the original betrayers of Dantes. Though, honestly, he mostly was just really drunk at the time, and there's no particular reason to believe that if he had tried to be brave after he sobered up, it would have done any good. Whoops, that belongs in another rant. Sorry. Any gate, she is a bad person who marries a bad person, and she murders a blameless Jew in order to get back the diamond that they sold to him. No good comes of this, of course.
Madame de Villefort: de Villefort's second wife. She poisons four people, three successfully (although Barrois was an accident), and then eventually, herself and her beloved son, Edward. One of the very few women in this book with any agency, and look what it gets her. OMG, the women.
Weirdly Mixed Bag
The weirdly mixed bag character award goes to Hermine Danglars, who actually is of ancient nobility. She has a torrid affair with de Villefort, marries Danglars, one of the architects of Dantes misfortune, and ends up rich but with a bad reputation. She does have agency. She mostly uses it to sleep with DeBray, who gives her inside information with which she can speculate on the market. She also has an illegitimate child, who she mostly thinks is dead. Dumas never comments on the fact that this child very nearly marries his half-sister, Eugenie. de Villefort is entirely undone when the information about his affair and illegitimate child come out. Hermine is mildly inconvenienced, and goes on to enjoy her million francs, sans husband and child. Nor does she come in for any sort of severe scolding from Dumas, and I wonder at his reticence in this case.
OMG, how did I fail to notice the lesbians the first eight or ten times I read this book! Baron Danglars and his noble wife, Hermine, have a daughter, Eugenie, whose music teacher is a seventeen year old, Louise d'Armilly. Dumas is not subtle, here, so how I missed it is a matter of great mystery, to me. Eugenie is regularly described as forceful, cold, and compared to the goddess Diana over and over again. At one point, something is mentioned as also having been considered Sappho's shield. I don't remember what the object was, but I was stunned to notice that I had, in all previous readings, failed to notice the reference to Sappho. Eugenie and Louise run away together, with Eugenie dressed as a man. Dumas makes this wonderfully snide reference to the fact that when she dresses for their travels, it is clear that this is not the first time she has donned the dress of a man. When Eugenie chops off her hair, Louise says, "Oh! You are so manly!" or something much the like. And when Benedetto discovers them in the inn, after they have both fled the abortive marriage contract ceremony, Dumas makes a point of the fact that they had retained a room with two beds, but Benedetto discovers them in the same bed.
Honestly, Dumas couldn't have been more obvious if he'd tried. But, yes, I missed it. Utterly, and totally. I was, the first time I read it, thirteen, and was pretty vague on the entire topic of sex, and while I think I may have been very, very vaguely aware of the fact that homosexuals exist (I believe there were some sermons in which they figured) I was completely unaware that girls ever, you know, um. And in many subsequent readings, I was really reading the book I had read at thirteen. But still!!!
I wouldn't call it a positive representation. It is clear that Eugenie being a lesbian is part of the punishment visited upon Danglars for having persecuted Dantes. But she doesn't come to a bad end, either. She and Louise are off, traveling Europe and being artists, having cashed in Eugenie's jewelry and one hopes they had a really wonderful time.
The Love Interests
Ok, so if you thought the women were problematic, wait'll you get to Dantes' love interests. Problematic doesn't cover it, even if spread quite thin. OMG.
Let's start with Mercedes. She is an impoverished Catalan, living in Marseilles. Which can't be a comfortable position. She is highly dependent upon charity, including charity from Fernand, who is Dantes chief rival for her affections. She is, I believe, seventeen at the beginning of our story. She's been in love with Dantes for three years, I think, so since he was sixteen and she was fourteen? Um, ok. She is pure and faithful and beautiful and all that. Also, pretty much a prize object without agency. She exists to love Dantes. On the day of her wedding, her lover is taken without explanation, to an unknown place, where she cannot find him. All attempts by his employer, Morrell, to free him are unsuccessful. Mercedes, with much less position and power, cannot hope to do better. Eventually, she marries Fernand, utterly unaware that Fernand has been one of the people who arranged to have Dantes incarcerated. She has one son, Albert, with Fernand. Then Dantes comes back and wreaks havoc on her life. At the very end of the book, she gives an impassioned speech about how of all the people who have mistreated Dantes, she is the most guilty, the most culpable. She pushes back her veil to reveal that her hair has gone grey, while Dantes hair is still black, proving without a doubt that she is utterly unworthy of his love, and must retire from the world. Her only remaining virtue is the love of her son.
I think that when I was thirteen, that seemed very romantic. But right now, it's eye-rollingly bad, with a side order of WTF. Seriously, this is a woman who has almost no social or economic power, alone and dependent upon a man who has been pressuring her to marry him for years. He is someone her parents previously thought she should marry, and he's thought of her as his since she was nine. (Which is also pretty gross, but moving right along.) I find myself asking, what other choices did she have? Even assuming she was comfortable with a celibate lifestyle, how on earth was she going to support herself? It's pretty clear that the only reason Fernand is sharing the proceeds of his catch with her is because he thinks he can force her to marry him. Turns out he's right, but you really have to ask yourself, what were her other options. If women exist to be acted upon, and protected, then how can Dantes be so upset with her for accepting protection. He spends 14 years in the Chateau d'If. That's plenty long enough to die of starvation, as, indeed, his own father did. But it's somehow the height of faithless betrayal to marry elsewhere?
So, let's move on to the skeeviness that is Haydee. She's the only woman in the entire book who is both good and has agency. She is also a slave. Of the Count of Monte Cristo. He buys her when she is eleven or fourteen or something like that. Not sure. She is utterly grateful, and falls passionately in love with him, a fact which he refuses to notice for large portions of the book. He buys her as a weapon against Fernand, as she is living proof of Fernand's betrayal of Ali Pasha Tepelini (said betrayal resulting in many deaths but being much less consequential than his betrayal of Edmund Dantes, what with Dantes being both a Frenchman and the protagonist, but moving right along). She is beautiful, a princess, less than twenty, and uses her position to destroy Fernand for having betrayed and killed her beloved father. Which is a grand and glorious scene, and I love it utterly. But she always talks about her relationship to the count in terms of her slavery, and her utter submission to him in all things. In the end, he goes off and marries her, because her secondary function, after being a weapon, is that of prize.
There's a particularly skeevy scene where the Count is talking with several young gentleman of Paris about his captive princess. She has been seen at the opera, and is indisputably beautiful. The count brags about having purchased her. One of the fashionable young men points out that now that she is on French soil, she is free. The count asks, "Who will tell her?" and the assembly are all terribly impressed by this demonstration of his power. It is clear that they, too, would like a submissive slave princess of their very own. Now, the Count is dissembling. Haydee speaks a half-dozen languages, including French, and is very well educated, and takes all the papers. It is certain that Haydee knows that she is free on French soil. But the lascivious delight of the fashionable gentleman, and indeed, of the Count himself, are on full display. Oh, ick ick ick ick. I mean, ok, TPE relationships are a thing, and you do you, fetishwise, I guess, but the girl is still a damn teenager.
Enough with the women. No, wait. I completely forgot the honor-killing, which is just a side-story in the middle of the book. An bandit's beloved is raped by the bandit gang, as is custom, and so the man murders his beloved, and takes the body to her father, and the father and the bandit weep over the murdered girl, and the father calls the bandit his true son for having murdered his only daughter. And, when I was thirteen, I remember thinking this was the most romantic thing, ever. Also, one of the two of them hangs themselves on the tree over the grave of the dead girl, if I recall correctly. Of all the horrible things in this novel, that is the one I would actually excise if I could. It serves no narrative purpose at all.
Now I'm done with the women. Honest.
I have more rants about plot and structure and stuff, but Imma gonna post this, now.
There are things I love about this book, and I'll write about them later.