Lydy Nickerson (lydy) wrote,
Lydy Nickerson

Return of the Rants of Monte Cristo, aka This Book, This Fucking Book

Just to remind you: I love this book. I love it with a deep passion, and have for 40 years. So when I'm critical, it comes from a place of deep, abiding -- something. Not sure what. I couldn't even call it carefully considered. This book engages all my passions, and none of my objectivity.

Also, I am assuming you have read the book, and there are spoilers. If you haven't read the book, only seen one of the dramatic presentations, a) you should read the book, and b) there are spoilers.

Rant the Next: The Plot

Ok, so this is a plot that runs on the rails. From the moment that Danglars and Fernand sit down to plot Dantes destruction (with Caderousse a drunken witness) the plot runs with a terrifying inevitability to its very end. There are no deviations, no side tracks. (There is some discursion; the honor-killing has no particular purpose, but also doesn't derail the story in any way.) There is a huge amount of foreshadowing, if you know what to look for. de Villefort's failure to heed his new wife's pleading for mercy, (and her miserable fate but the rescue of her daughter), Caderousse's ignominious and cowardly fate, the the tribulation and ultimate rescue of Morrel, all these things are clearly foreshadowed based on how each reacts to the initial betrayal. This is a hugely self-involved book, and other character flaws and evil actions are entirely there to highlight the relationship between the secondary characters and Dantes.

One of the things I completely blipped over as a teenager was the continual references to Dantes as an agent of Providence. The theology that I was steeped in did not allow any such thing, and I assumed that Dumas was speaking metaphorically. This reading make me suspect that I was incorrect about that, and that Dumas really did intend Dantes to be an agent of fate. As a child, I really geeked out on the competence porn. Every carefully laid, complex plan of the Count comes to fruition. Where I knew enough to know that the psychology and science were, um, let's go with the kind adjective "inaccurate", I just assumed that no one knew better in 1840, and treated it as science fiction. (I was not, yet, a sf reader, that would happen the next year, but I already had the knack for it.) However, this reading really seems to support the theory that one of the reasons that Dantes is all that is because he has been chosen by god to wreak vengeance upon the wicked. Moreover, there is nothing in the text that suggests otherwise.

There are two places, and two only in more than a thousand pages, where Dantes plans don't completely pan out. The first is when he finds himself in a duel with Albert Morcerf. Dantes has no compunctions about killing the son of his adversary, but his long-lost lover, Mercedes, comes to him and begs her son's life. The Count agrees to delope, knowing that this will mean his death. Unbeknownst to him, Mercedes persuades her son to apologize, rather than duel, and the Count's life is saved. The other place where Dantes miscalculates is with Madame de Villefort. He carefully nurtures her as a poisoner, and has no pity for her various victims, but is genuinely shocked when she takes, not only her own life, but the life of her son. I think her son is eight? Young. Dantes is actually shocked by this, so shocked that he has to revisit the Chateau d'If to reassure himself of the justice of his cause, and the horror of Edward de Villefort's death causes him to be somewhat less vicious with Danglars. That, in itself, seems odd to me, since of all the guilty parties, Danglars is the least redeemable, and most guilty. I suspect that Dumas just couldn't let go of the marvelous vignette of charging Danglars fifty thousand francs per meal. Also, structurally, he needs to make a gesture of magnanimity towards the very end to make him worthy of Haydee's love, and the way the book is structured, that leaves him with Danglars.

I talk about loving this book, but don't talk about why. That is because, for the most part, I don't know why. But I think the intense inevitability of the plot, the watching the way it plays out with nary an error or failure, is intoxicating. It is a wish-fulfillment piece. Nothing in my life ever goes to plan. And I frequently wish that it would. Watching this complex vengeance, with so many moving parts, tick along like clock-work, is reassuring. It is, now that I think about it, reassuring in similar ways to the way a murder mystery is reassuring. One of the pleasures of murder mysteries is watching the detective unravel the plot, and the inevitability of the explanation. It is the restoration of order after a great wrong.

Self-Indulgence as a Virtue

I gather that there is actually a rather large amount of debate and frustration about the term "Mary Sue." The fanfic community is at the forefront of a lot of really, really interesting literary criticism, and the term "Mary Sue" seems to me to be damn useful. On the other hand, it has also been repurposed to suggest that any female character with agency and competency is, necessarily, a Mary Sue -- because girls, I guess. There is a term Gary Stu, to encompass the same phenomena for male characters. I am going to eschew that right here and now. Cause Girls!!!!

Edmond Dantes, the Count of Monte Cristo, is the ultimate Mary Sue. This is not an original observation, by the way. But it is so incredibly true.

Dantes is good at everything. By virtue of spending ten years in a dungeon with the Abbe Faria, he speaks six or eight languages like a native, and knows all there is to know of modern chemistry and philosophy and botany and psychology. (No, they hadn't invented psychology, yet, but the two clearly practice it when evaluating Dantes persecutors.) (Also, eye-roll at this educational program and its effectiveness.) He has great physical prowess. After spending fourteen years in a teeny-tiny dungeon, he is capable of swimming for hours in the Mediterranean. He is a terrifyingly accurate marksman with the pistol. He is, allegedly, a brilliant swordsman. (Not sure where he acquired that skill, moreover we never see it on display, but it is asserted with great certainty.) He is unmoved by horror, and rarely by pity. Every man admires him and wants to be him, every woman seeks his approval. His servants and slaves adore him. He has infinite wealth. Honestly, find me a Mary Sue who is more all that than Dantes.

Oh, and I forgot. One of the very typical aspects of the Mary Sue is her unusual eye color, often violet, but sometimes silver. Dantes has piercing eyes, and can change the dilation of the pupil at will. He's the ur-Mary Sue, a very model of the model Major Mary Sue...

I think that there is some historical evidence to suggest that Dantes is an authorial insert, which is the other piece of the "classic" Mary Sue. I read somewhere that Dumas attempted to live the life of the Count of Monte Cristo, and it bankrupted him. I do not care enough to double-check this. I think the book speaks for itself. (I also read somewhere that his wife divorced him on the grounds that it was unreasonable for her to provide sex five times a day. I rather hope that is so, since it's funny as hell, and also, I'm on her side. Especially since this would have been before high tech lube.)

Here's the thing about the Mary Sue that we often ignore: well done, it's emotionally very satisfying. Just as a plot that runs on the rails has an emotionally soothing effect, a character who really is All That has a similar effect. While we mostly know that we are not, and never will be, that competent, that loved, that in control, the fantasy is indelibly pleasant. Nor do I think that it is a damaging fantasy. It is not a fantasy that exists at the expense of anyone else. It is fantasy about not always and forever being the victim.

Punishment, Proportionality, and Honor

I am genuinely weirded out by Dumas' sense of justice and honor. While in broad strokes, I find the whole concept of retribution to be liberating, in detail, I find it weirder than fuck.

In some ways, The Count of Monte Cristo reminds me of Fred Clark's explanation of the books of prophecy. (Fred Clark writes the blog "Slacktivist" and has done a wonderful, on-going analysis of the "Left Behind" series. He is a Christian, a Baptist, a theology student, and really smart. Go read him.) Clark argues that the books of prophecy, such as Isaiah and Ecclesiastes, and most notably, Revelations, are not an attempt to describe the future. Rather, they are written to oppressed peoples as a promise. They are God telling people experiencing shocking horror and oppression that he sees, he knows, that their pain will not go unavenged. In the midst of their despair and agony, God is watching, and that the horrors visited upon them will be avenged in due time. The Count of Monte Cristo is the story of that actually happening, of God's angel of vengeance coming upon mortal man, and creating justice where there was none. It is the story of a poor, unimportant, forgotten sailor being avenged against all the powers and horrors of the day. And, again, this is one of the things I find so incredibly powerful. The promise of vengeance against the powerful on the part of the weak is something that, especially as a frightened, lonely, unattrative, and abused teenager, was entrancing.

The details of this vengeance, though, really weird me out, and the older I am, the weirder I find them.

I'm not sure where to start. Um, let's start with Danglars. So, Danglars is, by my modern estimation, the most culpable. The thing he doesn't like about Dantes is that Dantes is going to make more money than he is, as the Captain of the Pharoan. He is entirely venial, caring only about money. In a way, his ultimate fate is appropriate, in that he is stripped of family and fortune, and eventually, of the money that he steals from the orphans. (No, really! He steals 5 million francs from actual orphans, which the Count extracts from him 50,000 francs at a time. It's a marvelous vignette.) But from my perspective, he is the least sympathetic, and most repulsive of all the people marked for punishment, and his fate seems the least dire. Yes, yes, he is stripped of the only thing he cares about, but he is left with fifty thousand francs because the Count is feeling remorse for Madame de Villefort and her son, and one can life quite comfortably, if not well, on that amount. So how does that even make sense, Dumas?

Then there is Caderousse. His primary action during the terrible betrayal is that of being drunk. He does not do anything later, when he sobers up, which proves that he is a terrible coward. Possibly, the intensity of his punishment is also linked to the fact that he lets Dantes father die of starvation, but if so, why is Morrel, who visits the elder Dantes regularly and fails to notice that the old man is wasting away, not also culpable. He also permits his crazy-assed wife murder the jeweler in their inn in order to recover the diamond that they sold him. His character note is that of cowardice. However, the Count permits him to leave his house on the Champs Elysee, knowing that Benedetto will murder him, and when that happens, claims that it is a judgment from God. Since everything in this book is about how the characters treated Edmond Dantes, this seems a bit harsh.

Let us now consider the paired fates of Benedetto and de Villefort. de Villefort is an up and coming prosecuting attorney, who is allied with the monarchy. At the opening or our story, he is about to marry Renee Saint-Meran, who is the daughter of the Marquis and Marquise Saint-Meran. He incarcerates Dantes primarily because Dantes is charged with a letter to M. Nortier from Bonaprte. Nurture is de Villefort's father, and de Villefort wishes to protect his father, an influential and powerful Jacobin. Sometime after the death of his sainted wife, Renee, he has an affair with Hermine de Servieux, a baroness. They have son, who de Villefort represents to Hermine as still-born, and buries in a garden. I have always believed de Villefort when he claims that he belived that the child was still-born. Said child is Benedetto, rescued by the Corsican, Bertuccio, who believes that he has killed de Villefort for (probably correctly) condemning his brother to death. de Villefort has one child by his marriage to Renee, the stuffed-animal angel Valentine. He remarries, and his wife proceeds to poison his father and mother-in-law, the Saint-Merans, attempts to poison de Villefort's father, M. Nortier, (and accidentally kills Barrios, M. Nortier's servant" and apparently successfully poisons Valentine.

This whole sequence of poisonings is pretty dramatic, and is instigated by the Count, who finds a willing student in Madame de Villefort, who is attempting to secure an inheritance for her son. At the point that Valentine is believed to be dead, de Villefort finally figures out that his wife is doing this, and gives her an ultimatum: use your favorite and least painful poison upon yourself, or I will send you to the gallows. Given time and place, this doesn't seem to be out of the norm, to me, but what happens next is truly odd.

So, de Villefort leaves for court. He is prosecuting Benedetto, who was styling himself (with the Count's help) as the Count Andrea Calvalcanti, of murdering Caderousse. He did, in fact, do this. He is also guilty, in his past, of having tortured and murdered his adoptive mother, and is generally not a good person. Upon being asked his name at trial, he asks to answer it last. There's some drama, and then he reveals that he is the son of the Procureur du Roi, M. de Villefort, and an unknown woman. At which point Hermine Danglars faints, removing all doubt as to who his mother is.

de Villefort is utterly undone by this revelation. He has no defense to make, and flees the court. The general sense of the observers is that Benedetto will not, in fact, be executed for his cold-blooded murder of Caderousse because of the extenuating circumstances of his bastardy, and de Villefort is flying home with the thought that he will tell his four-times murderous wife that he, too, has sinned, and that they should flee to someplace where no one knows their name, and each day he will reassure her that he, too, is a sinner, and so they will forgive each other. He arrives too late, she has poisoned herself and their only son, and de Villefort descends into madness.

WTF??? What the everloving fuck? Even if one, briefly, decides to believe that de Villefort, despite all evidence, actually knew his illegitimate son was alive and chose to bury it alive rather than face the dishonor of having such an offspring, WTF? How is that even remotely similar to Heloise de Villefort's deliberate murder of the Marquis and Marquise Saint-Meran, the accidental poisoning of the utterly innocent Barrois, and the extremely deliberate poisoning of her step-daughter Valentine? How are these actions even remotely morally equivalent? Admittedly, Edward was a thoroughly unpleasant child, but probably didn't deserve to die by poison. Moreover, how is Benedetto's life of crime, including the casual murder of his adopoted mother and his old friend Caderousse, in any way ameliorated by the fact that he happens to have been a bastard. The mind croggles. (And yes, auto-correct, I meant croggle and not cordless, thank you very much.)

And while we're on the topic, why is de Villefort's punishment so severe, and Hermine's so light? Oh, wait, I know the answer to that one. She never did anything to Edmond Dantes. I did mention that this was a thoroughly self-indulgent book, right?

Fernand, styling himself the Count Morcerf, has a punishment that seems to fit the crime. When his betrayal of the Ali Pasha Tepelini is revealed, and his wife and son flee his dishonor, he blows his brains out. So far, so good. But what happens before that is, again deeply weird. I don't know if this is because I am too modern, or if it is actually weird in its context.

In brief, while a soldier in the French Army, Fernand the Catalan fisherman, acquired a post with an insanely rich Greek potentate, the Ali Pasha. (He also, we find out later, deserted at Waterloo, but never mind that, now.) As a trusted lieutenant of the Ali Pasha, he is sent to the Emperor (I think this means Napoleon) to negotiate for the fate of the Pasha. He commits a betrayal of the first water, killing Salim of the lance (who was charged with blowing up the whole demesne rather than let the Pasha and his harem be captured) by presenting a false token, then participating in killing the Ali Pasha, and lastly, taking possession of the favored concubine and favored daughter, and selling them into slavery in Constantinople. Whatever you may think about Fernand mailing a letter which Danglars had written in order to get his rival incarcerated so that he could marry the incomparable Mercedes, the betrayal of Ali Pasha Tepelini is far worse. Murder of a faithful servant, murder of one's patron, slavery and prostitution for one's patron's favored women, this really doesn't seem even in the same league as what he did to Edmond Dantes.

So, then he goes and pretends to be of ancient Spanish nobility, and generally successfully apes being an aristocrat, along with his uneducated but spectacularly beautiful wife, Mercedes. Um. Presumably Dumas is making some sort of comment about nobility, here. Possibly of a very sardonic nature. Moving right along.

The Count manages to make this betrayal known in Paris, by planting stories in the newspaper. Haydee, who is the Count's slave, and the daughter of Ali Pasha, goes to the assembly to testify against Morcerf, and it's all up. Yay for revenge, and all that. Fernand Morcerf's son, Albert, is understandably upset, and challenges the Count of Monte Cristo to a duel for dishonoring his father, and I am back in WTF land.

Actually, it gets worse. On the eve of the duel, Mercedes shows up on the Count's doorstep. She tells him that she recognized him as Edmond Dantes the first moment that she saw him. And then she demands to know why the hell the Count feels that it is appropriate to dishonor her husband so. I mean, the man only killed a loyal servant, arranged for the murder of his patron, prostituted the favorite concubine and child of his patron, and profited to the tune of two millions, but what is Ali Tepelini to you, demands Mercedes. As if the dishonor is the knowledge of this horror, rather than the commission of the horror. When Dantes explains to Mercedes that his fourteen years in the Chateau d'If was all Fernand's fault, she withdraws her objections, and thanks him for his promise to save her son (without telling him that she will assure his survival, a weird but understandable bit of cruelty on her part). Seriously, though, what's the thought process here? "My husband is a traitor on the order of Brutus or Judas, but it's ok as long as nobody knows about it, how dare you?" Or, perhaps, more likely, "My husband only betrayed a fucking Greek, oops, you are a Frenchman, I guess that matters."

Serious WTF land, people. Serious WTF land.

While we're on the topic of honor and Lydy really not understanding how that works in nineteenth century France, allow me to briefly talk about Franz d'Epinee and M. Nortier. So, Franz's dad was a devout Royalist, who for reasons I don't quite understand, Napoleon Bonaparte thought would be on their side. He is murderered right before the 100 days, and everyone assumes that he was assassinated by the Jacobins. In order to save Valentine de Villefort from an unwanated marriage to the Baron Franz D'Epinee, it is revealed (in spectacularly dramatic fashion, and it is one of my favorite bits of the book) that M. Nortier had fought a duel with Franz' father, and killed him in honorable combat. (M. Nortier, before he acquired paralysis, was definitely all that and then some. The description of the duel is swooningly descriptive of Nortier as all that.) Franz, hugely upset, allows as how it is impossible for him to marry the granddaughter of the man who killed his father. And this would make sense to me, if it had been an assassination. But I don't really understand why this also pertains in the case of an honorable duel. Which, I guess, proves that I am not French, and do not live in the nineteenth century. I must assume this made sense to the characters and readers of the time.

Ok, end of today's rants. I probably have more, but you have not been subjected to the most important ones. I have a minor rant about how filial love is the primary theme in the book, and how this is often over looked, but possibly it's not actually interesting enough to warrant a rant. There's another rant about the casual cruelty of various characters, but again, I'm not sure how interesting that would be.

Thank you for bearing with me, those of you who have. And for those of you who have wisely avoided my rants, well, it's still a great work of literature. Honestly.
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