A review by sherbertwells
The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas

adventurous dark emotional hopeful slow-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? Plot
  • Strong character development? Yes
  • Loveable characters? No
  • Diverse cast of characters? No
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? Yes


“‘Do you, then, believe in God” said Caderousse.
‘Had I been so unhappy as not to believe in him until now,’ said the abbé, ‘I must believe on seeing you’” (811)

Hot Take: this book is an inversion of Les Miserables.

Both Hugo’s classic and The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, published in 1862 and 1844 respectively, follow unjustly-imprisoned men who, with the assistance of kindly clergymen, reinvent themselves, adopt abused young women and strive to do good according to their specific moral codes in the cutthroat society of post-Napoleonic France. But while Jean Valjean’s escape from hell transforms him into a benevolent angel, Edmond Dantès is not always so merciful.

And the main character is just the beginning. The Count of Monte Cristo’s tone mirrors the mindset of its protagonist: initially cheerful and adventurous before descending into the cynical world of upper-class intrigue and revenge. Unlike Hugo, Dumas’ narrative voice is cool and objective, and lets its characters speak for themselves.

But the characters are my problem with the story. With the exception of Dantès/Monte Cristo himself, the novel’s cast of young lovers, foolish patriarchs and noble adulterers seems more suited to a pantomime than a revenge tragedy. They just aren’t that deep! They aren’t good people, but more importantly, they aren’t even that interesting. They don’t demonstrate the breadth of the human soul; they just gossip! The whole plot of The Count of Monte Cristo is founded on these characters’ gossip: they gossip about marriage, compare finances and the mysterious aristocrat making waves in their nouveau riche milieu.

“Out of the 5,000,000 or 6,000,000 francs which form your real capital, you have just lost nearly 2,000,000 francs, which must, of course, in the same degree, diminish your credit and fictitious fortune; to follow out my simile, your skin has been opened by bleeding, which, repeated three or for times, will cause death—so pay attention to it, M. Danglars. Do you want money? Do you wish me to lend you some?” (636)

In fact, the society of post-Napoleonic France is much more interesting than the characters that inhabit it. Dantès’ enemies owe their fortunes at least in part to the fruits of slavery. For Alexandre Dumas, whose grandmother was enslaved in Saint-Domingue, they are despicable as individuals as well as participants in an exploitative system. But despite his monstrous wealth—or perhaps because of it—Dantès cannot destroy that system. Perhaps it’s hard for me to take an interest in the book because, despite having 1000-odd pages to fill, Dumas is interested only in its most anxious and despicable agents.

In short: reading The Count of Monte Cristo has made me realize how much I appreciate Les Miserables.

Of course there are people who will prefer the personal drama with all its poisons and inheritances. Through trial and error, I have learned that I do not particularly care for this lens, but the centuries of popularity Dumas has enjoyed indicates that I am an outlier in that regard. The Count of Monte Cristo is perfect for people who like their classics long and stabby. And for me, it’s an unexpectedly useful diagnostic for discovering my taste in literature.

You live, you learn.

“God may seem sometimes to forget for a time, while His justice reposes, but there always comes a moment when He remembers” (222) 

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