Sunday, 20 January 2013
Time, Death, and Identity in Dumas' Count of Monte Christo
The story is well known, at least in its outlines: on the day when he is supposed to marry his beloved Mercedes, the young sailor Edmond Dantes is arrested on bogus charges and imprisoned in the Chateau d'If on a small island near Marseille. He spends 14 years there before he can escape. He gets hold of an enormous treasure and reincarnates as the Count of Monte Christo to meticulously plan and execute his revenge on those who were responsible for his unjust imprisonment.
It's a great novel that I found hard to put down once I had started with it. As far as adventure stories go, it is far better, that is, far better written, far more compelling, and far more believable, than any of the stuff that floods the book market today. Not that it is particularly realistic. Monte Christo is clearly a character designed to be larger than life, and parts of the plot and the whole atmosphere are strongly and deliberately reminiscent of A Thousand and One Nights. And unlike Victor Hugo, he is not a poet. His use of language is more economical. Neither does he engage in philosophical discussions. He doesn't seem to be interested in the nature of things. He doesn't attempt to understand the world or even human society (as for instance Balzac did). But there's a tragic note in the whole story, an all-pervading sadness that hints at something deeper, some essential feature of this world. Edmond gets his revenge, but seeing his enemies destroyed doesn't give him the satisfaction that he had hoped for. It doesn't restore the order of things, as it should. In a more conventional novel the hero would punish those who wronged him and get back the woman he loves. But although Mercedes is still alive and they could now reunite if they still wished to, they both agree that it's too late for them. Mercedes still loves Edmond, and Edmond still loves Mercedes, but Edmond is dead. He has changed so much that he is now someone else. Monte Christo has grown from Edmond, but he isn't him. He has replaced him. And Mercedes loves Edmond, but not Monte Christo.
Over the years we lose each other, unless we change together, and we may even lose ourselves. We look back to who we were when we were young and hardly recognise ourselves. Time sweeps us away and separates us from ourselves. You cannot step into the same river twice. What's done cannot be undone. The Count of Monte Christo is not so much about revenge as about the irreversibility of events, the impossibility to go back in time and retrieve what has been lost, and the death that we die at every single moment in our lives when the present drifts into the past.