Friday, October 10, 2008

The Count of Monte Cristo

Dumas, Alexandre. 1844/1846*. The Count of Monte Cristo.

On the 24th of February, 1815, the look-out at Notre-Dame de la Garde signalled the three-master, the Pharaon from Smyrna, Trieste, and Naples.

To say that The Count of Monte Cristo is complex would be an understatement. It is a novel worth reading for the most part. But it is one novel that doesn't suffer much in abridgment. [It hurts a little to admit that. To admit that this unabridged classic almost proved too much for me. But it's true.] In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is much improved by the abridgment.

Why did I choose to read The Count of Monte Cristo? I read and loved the book in college. (Read that loved.) It was not assigned reading. It was just something I picked up at my college bookstore and devoured. Several years later, I came across the novel again. In two volumes. I realized then that the book that I loved so very much had been abridged. Since I *loved* it so much, I thought the unabridged would give me more to love. More couldn't be a bad thing, right? So I bought both volumes. I tried soon after to read the book. But I only finished the first volume of the unabridged version. I blamed the start of a new semester for my inability to complete this one. So it sat. And sat. And sat. Until this past September.

Last spring, I created the Alexandre Dumas mini-challenge after reading a newer translation of The Three Musketeers. Another Alexandre Dumas book that I loved from my college days. [Perhaps if Richard Pevear had tackled this one as well, the book would have been better. Maybe it is the translation???] So I needed to read The Count of Monte Cristo by November 15, 2008, to finish the mini-challenge.

I loved the main story lines in The Count of Monte Cristo. I loved or loved to hate most of the characters in the novel. But the unabridged novel drags--almost comes to a complete stop in fact--for several hundred pages at least in the middle. And it was this lack of action, lack of adventure, lack of plot advancement, lack of entertainment made this one needlessly dull.

What is The Count of Monte Cristo about? It is about humanity. Humanity at its best and worst. The frailty and strength of the human mind, body, and soul. It is about life and death, love and loss, jealousy and revenge, hope and forgiveness, redemption and despair. It is about greed, anger, and hatred. It is about justice and injustice.

The star of the book is a man we first meet as the young Edmond Dantes. A man falsely accused and convicted of a crime. A man imprisoned for fourteen years. A man who isn't released from prison, but a man who escapes--narrowly escapes at that--from his cell and seeks to reclaim life. A man who through the help of his deceased friend is able to start again, to start completely from scratch, a man who is able to rewrite his history, his life, give himself a new name--or in this case several new names--(Sinbad the Sailor, Lord Wilmore, Abbe Busoni, etc.) But his primary identity is as the Count of Monte Cristo (or "the count"). But though extraordinarily wealthy--filthy rich at that--money can't buy happiness. Money can, however, help pave the way for the most complex and complete and as the count would say "providential" revenge or vengeance. Here is one man who is very angry and bitter still over those fourteen years, over the lost opportunities, over the death of his father (starvation) and the loss of his betrothed (she married another man). He thinks revenge is the only way to give his life meaning.

The Count of Monte Cristo is a multi-generational novel. Which is just one of the reasons the book is so complex. We're introduced to one set of characters in the first section of the novel, and then hundreds and hundreds of pages later, we're introduced to a second generation--the children (though mostly fully grown by this point) of those characters. We see how the Count uses the children to weave his way into the parents' society. We see the delicate and subtle traps being laid. We see glimpses here and there of what might be on the horizon. But we don't really begin to see the big picture until the last hundred (or two hundred) pages or so.

It starts well. Has a very very very dull middle. But then it begins to pick up. And by the beginning of the end, it's exciting. Very exciting. Unputdownable. It becomes great. And you begin to see why it's such a beloved book. You see why people recommend it. So the story? Definitely worth reading. But go with abridged.

Wikipedia help for the novel.
Spark Notes help for the novel.

*I believe the first English translation was in 1846. It was, of course, originally published in French in 1844. (At least according to wikipedia.)

© Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews


Kya said...

I have this on my list for the classics challenge so I'm forewarned about the abridged version. My 11 year old daughter read this and liked it.

Beth F said...

Interesting review. I know the story from (yikes, should I admit this?) the movies made from the book. I've thought about reading the book, because books are almost always better than the movies based on them. Before tackling it, I'll remember your advice.

ibeeeg said...

This book is on my To Read List. I have heard that one should only read the unabridged version. Your review has given something ponder as to which version I will go with.

To sum up: you do not feel that the abridge version hurts the storyline at all? Nothing major is left out?

Thanks for your review.

Anonymous said...

I remember flying through this book when I read it. I just checked and it was the unabridged version. I must admit that I LOVE the movie. Maybe even more than the book.

Laura said...

If you're willing to try a modern re-telling of the story, try Jeffrey Archer's book, A Prisoner of Birth. I loved The Count of Monte Cristo (unabridged!), but I think Archer's book might be just as good, if not - dare I say it? - better.

Anonymous said...

Becky, Thanks for a very thorough review. A good friend has recommended this book to me and I'll see if my library has a copy.

Anonymous said...

The Count is my mother's all time favorite book, she absolutely INSISTED that I read the unabridged version. Apparently, my sister read the abridged and found that there was a lot of detail left out.

So...I dove into the unabridged version and I absolutely LOVED it. In my humble opinion, a true work of art.

TheBlackSheep said...

Oh wow. Thanks for the warning. I just got my credits on audible and was wavering between the unabridged Count of Monte Cristo and a few others. In the end, I chickened out and got Nicholas Nickleby. As much as I hate to do it, I may have to check and see if they have an unabridges version of The Count. It almost makes my sould bleed, but then so do long, drawn out, boring book killers.

Thanks again!

Anonymous said...

I didn't read the abridged, so I wonder what was left out. I thought the historical notes were a drag and a chore, but I read it to gain a different perspective. Much of the suspenseful drama was waiting for what you thought you knew was going to happen. Alexandre Dumas forced me to use my poor mental capacity and I appreciate that. If you have the time the unabridged is great.