The more time I spend on this planet, the more I see the centrality of The Count of Monte Christo to Western literature. It is certainly a strange book to applaud: the impeccable plotting of the first 300 pages (where every short chapter hooks the reader into the next one) then gives way to 900 pages of unevenly written, petit bourgeois wish fufillment. And yet… Edmund Dantes and the Chateau D’If seem everywhere now. The Great Gatsby is (of course) but a rewriting of the Count; Love in the Time of Cholera begins invoking the marks on a prison wall as soon as we meet its love-lorn hero. I feel confident, as I read more of the world’s novels, I will find more traces.
What’s funny is how ambivalent both Marquez and Fitzgerald seem about their “source story” – they seem keen to distance themselves from Dumas. Fitzgerald’s narrator dismisses the whole tale of Gatsby’s “Rajah” youth as an absurdity; Florentino Ariza quickly sets out to find buried treasure and fails utterly. And it’s also interesting that these two writers focus on the romantic aspects of the story, rather than the revenge – unlike Dumas.
Dumas’s sad, Orientalist fantasy of the Count’s later life (occupying the last 900 pages or so) takes his hero away from humanity, and away from his sweetheart, Mercedes, who was the dream we first see Dantes chasing, leaping off his newly won ship, still innocent, ready to ask her to marry him. I doubt I am the only reader who finds the book’s constant mentions of fate and revenge – and its byzantine later plot lines – insufficient compensation for the loss of Dantes’s simple, heroic true nature. He gains the world, this Count, he gains all of human knowledge and skill – what, however, is that worth?
Perhaps part of why the Count of Monte Christo has been so influential is because it is so flawed: writers like to feed from a novel that seems so obviously improvable.
PS Can you guess the name of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s wife? Mercedes…