The Count of Monte Cristo is basically the Cadillac of prison books — or maybe I should say it’s a super-stretch limo, given its length. Either way, given both its status and length I’ve opted to make this a rather terse review because most of what I say about it just won’t do justice. And if there’s one thing the Count hates, it’s injustice.
Title: The Count of Monte Cristo
Author: Alexandre Dumas
Rating (of 5): ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Year published: 1845
First sentence: “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.”
Basically, the title character is wrongly imprisoned and, after many years, he escapes and exacts detailed and convoluted revenge on the men who had him sent to prison in the first place.
Of course I loved it. Even though I won’t begin to claim I was innocent when I went to jail and then prison, I connected deeply with the text. Although there are obviously broader literary themes at play here, I read this through the lens of someone who has done time. In that light, it brought to mind a Nelson Mandela quote: “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” As satisfying as it is to watch Edmund Dantes/Monte Cristo get his revenge, ultimately he ends up regretting his vengeance — or at least the unintentional side effects of it. In that respect, the book seems like a lengthy demonstration of the dangers of succumbing to the bitterness and hatred of which Mandela speaks. Of course, in the case of Monte Cristo it is still deeply (and, for me, vicariously) satisfying to watch him get his revenge. I know there are so many ways to read this text — many of which don’t necessarily have anything to do with criminal justice. For me, though, those are the readings that speak the loudest.
One word of advice you decide to read this book, though: don’t read an abridge version. The revenge plots are really too complex to completely make sense when condense. I accidentally picked up an abridged version at a book sale. It didn’t actually say that it was abridged anywhere on the outside cover and I didn’t realize until it stopped making sense around page 200 and I began reading the details on the inside cover. So I went to the library and checked out the 1200-page unabridged version. This is one book where you just have to read the unabridged version because the abridged version doesn’t even make sense. There are so many details that are necessary for the revenge plot to remain coherent that abridgments leave some major gaps and omit some necessary relationships.