The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

The Count of Monte Cristo (1844-1845)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

The Count of Monte Cristo (original: Le Comte de Monte Cristo) was written by Alexandre Dumas père and first appeared in Le Journal des Débats (August 1844 to January 1845). Dumas père (1802-1870) was a giant of nineteenth century French letters. He wrote a vast number of novels, plays, and poems, and is considered the greatest of the French romantic novelists. With The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo is regarded as Dumas’ masterpiece, and is a classic still read with pleasure today. The Count of Monte Cristo is not Art, not flawless, and is too long, but nonetheless is a great read and a wonderful story.

Edmond Dantès is a humble sailor with a bright future ahead of him. He has a father who loves him and who he loves. He has a beautiful, innocent, and sweet fiancée, Mercédès, and he is going to be made the captain of his ship by the ship’s owner, Edmond’s good friend M. Morrel. Unfortunately, Edmond is too good a man to realize that he has enemies: his shipmate M. Danglars, who hates Edmond for his favorable position with Morrel as well as Edmond’s easy way with the crew, and Ferdinand Mondego, who loves Mercédès but who Mercédès cares for only as a brother. Danglars and Mondego collude together and send an anonymous note to the procureur du roi, a local judge, accusing Edmond of carrying a letter from Napoleon, then imprisoned on St. Elba, to a Bonapartist conspiracy in Paris. This being 1815, the charge of aiding Bonapartistes is no small thing, and so Edmond is arrested, on his wedding night, unfortunately during dinner. Edmond is carried away and brought before a deputy, M. Villefort, whose father, a Bonapartist, would be captured (thus ruining Villefort’s career) if the letter Edmond carries were to be made public. (There is such a letter, but it has nothing to do with Bonapartist conspiracy). M. Villefort destroys the letter and has Edmond taken away to the dreaded Château D’If, the prison from which none emerge. Villefort conspires to keep Edmond there permanently.

Edmond languishes in the prison for fourteen years. In his early years he comes close to going mad, but he is fortunate enough to meet, quite by accident, another inmate, the Abbé Faria. (The Abbé thought he was digging a tunnel to the sea; instead he dug into Edmond’s cell). The Abbé and Edmond become friends, and the Abbé educates Edmond, teaching him languages and philosophy and the sciences, none of which the unschooled Edmond knew. Edmond also discusses with the Abbé his past and comes to the correct conclusion as to who had framed him and why. Edmond and the Abbé begin digging another escape tunnel. But the Abbé suffers from catalepsy, and after two attacks is partially paralyzed. The Abbé knows he cannot escape from the Château D’If, and also knows that the next attack will kill him, and so he tells Edmond where to get an enormous treasure, one hidden from the Borgias centuries ago. The Abbé suffers another attack and dies from it. Edmond hides in the sack in which the Abbé’s body was to be placed and is thrown into the sea in the Abbé’s place. Edmond swims ashore and is picked up by a gang of smugglers, who he works with until he goes to the island of Monte Cristo, a small, rocky, uninhabited island on which the Abbé’s treasure rests. Edmond unearths the treasure, which is as huge as the Abbé said it was, and then goes to the mainland. He discovers that his father had starved to death while Edmond was in prison and that Mercédès had married Ferdinand Mondego.

The rest of the novel is taken up with Edmond’s lengthy revenge against Danglars, Mondego, and Villefort, as well as Edmond’s involvement in their lives and the lives of their friends and families. By the end of the novel the guilty have been punished, the good rewarded, and Edmond is at peace with himself.

The Count of Monte Cristo was originally published as a roman feuilleton. The feuilletons were serialized novels published in newspapers:

The word feuilleton (leaf) originally referred to the lower, detachable section of a French daily newspaper. As news communication was unreliable, alternative material was published below the feuilleton line. At first the fill-in material consisted of indexes, literary and dramatic criticism, and short tales. Gradually, however, episodic fiction took over the space, and for about 15 years in the mid-19th century the feuilleton dominated French literature and literature worldwide. Roman-feuilleton became a generic, and usually derogatory, term for light literature.1 

The romans feuilleton got their start in 1836, and reached their peak in France in the 1840s, but declined in 1851 when the French government began applying a stamp tax to newspapers containing fiction. During the feuilleton’s heyday, the most popular feuilleton authors included Dumas, Eugène Sue (see: The Wandering Jew), Paul Féval (see: The Black Coats Adventures), and Frederic Soulié (see: The She-Tiger of Paris). In more conservative literary journals Honoré de Balzac (see: Father Goriot), George Sand, Gustave Flaubert (see: Salammbô) and Émile Zola were the more popular feuilletonists.

The Count of Monte Cristo represents the apex of the roman feuilleton’s popularity. The novel was enormously successful in its first incarnation as a feuilleton; it gave its reading audience both the thrills of The Three Musketeers as well as the social humanitarianism of Dumas’ feuilletonist rival Eugène Sue. Dumas wrote Monte Cristo with the assistance of Auguste Maquet (1813-1888), a writer and history professor who often collaborated with Dumas and who gave Dumas both chapter outlines as well as historical and factual material. Dumas made use of his own earlier novel of revenge, Georges (1843), as well as a magazine account of the life of Francois Picaud (?-?), who was wrongfully imprisoned and returned after Napoleon’s defeat to violently avenge himself on his accusers.

As is perhaps inevitable, some aspects of The Count of Monte Cristo have not aged well. The novel is undeniably melodramatic (a key part of most romans feuilleton). Dumas never uses the light touch, in characterization, dialogue, or plot developments. The novel is not as over-the-top as Eugène Sue’s The Wandering Jew but it is hardly restrained. The dialogue--and admittedly this depends on the translator--is dated, and has an awkward, stodgy, overly formal feel to it:

“Where am I?” exclaimed she, when her first raptures at her son’s recovery were past; “and to whom am I indebted for so happy a termination to my late dreadful alarm?”

“Madame,” answered the count, “you are under the roof of one who esteems himself most fortunate in having been able to save you from a further continuance of your sufferings.”2 

Along with the melodrama and a certain straining for affect is the lack of depth to the characters. Edmond is the most complex of the cast of Monte Cristo, but everyone else is one-dimensional and does not change or grow. The novel’s length is also a problem. Monte Cristo contains lengthy diversions which are almost irrelevant to the main plot. Dumas was trying to show the lives of those Edmond influenced, including the minor characters, but they are far less interesting or compelling than Edmond. Compared to his story, that of, for example, the daughter of M. Danglars is almost tedious, and yet Dumas spends more time on her than on Edmond.

So it is hard to call The Count of Monte Cristo well-written. It has too many flaws for that–and was written on a daily deadline, moreover, a condition which makes producing Art quite difficult. But at the same time it is impossible to call The Count of Monte Cristo anything but a classic, because its virtues more than make up for its flaws by far. It is an exciting novel, with plot twists, clever maneuvering, thrilling escapes, intrigues, love affairs, duels, great riches, improbable yet emotionally fitting happy endings, poetic justice, and relentless vengeance. Even at its too-great length it is a page turner, because the reader sympathizes with Edmond and wants to know what will happen next and how Edmond will achieve his vengeance. While the dialogue is dated in style and at times overheated, Dumas usually uses it to advance matters, rather than to provide endless reams of description, as Hugo does in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The awkward introductory sections of other Victorian novels is lacking; Dumas gets things going immediately. Readers may wince at certain passages or grow annoyed with Dumas’ style, but they will not be able to stop reading.

Looming above everything else is the character of Edmond Dantès. He begins as an innocent, almost a naïf, but after he is imprisoned and disillusioned he becomes another person entirely, the superior, alienated, morally ambiguous hero who was a staple of Dumas’ work. Edmond is proud and cold, but not inhuman. Although he does not forgive Mercédès and is unkind to her, he does not crush her utterly as he does Mondego, and he does not kill Albert, the son of Mercédès, as he had originally planned. And Edmond even allows Danglars to live, a curious decision on his part, as it is Danglars more than anyone else who is responsible for Edmond’s years in jail. Edmond is passionate, but his passion, after his escape from D’If, runs to revenge rather than love. He is smart and quick witted, well-educated, extremely rich, a crack shot and a good swordsman, he is well-travelled, and he treats his servants well, both in respect and payment, as long as they obey him. In other words, he is a superior being. Dumas loved the idea of the superior being who righted wrongs, helped the unfortunate and punished the wicked, and Edmond is the most prominent and best-defined of these characters. Edmond is also misanthropic, caring only for those close to him or those who have come into contact with him. He is, in other words, a feuilleton version of the Gothic Hero-Villain. In looks Edmond is gaunt and pale and is compared by others to Polidori’s Lord Ruthven (see: “The Vampyre”).

Edmond Dantès looked backwards to the Gothics as a Hero-Villain. But Dumas’ creation also served as a prototype for countless other characters. Dantès is the archetypal Man of Extraordinary Capabilities:

The Man of Extraordinary Capabilities is, essentially, the man (less often, a woman) who is good at everything, who excels at whatever the story requires him to, whose skills are the superior to everyone regardless of who “everyone” is and what skills might be in question. Numerous pulp characters, such as Henry W. Ralston, John Nanovic, and Lester Dent’s Doc Savage, fall into this category. So, too, with many comic book superheroes, such as the omni-capable Batman, who has been described, like Eratosthenes, as “second best in the world at everything.” This character came from the romans feuilleton and Rodolphe von Gerolstein (see: The Mysteries of Paris) and Edmond Dantès.

The Man of Extraordinary Capabilities is what Umberto Eco actually claims for Dantès in Eco’s introduction to Le Comte de Monte Cristo. Eco uses the word “superman,” but it is clear that he means something other than Siegel and Shuster’s creation:

And over everything towers the supreme topos of the serialization: the Superman. But unlike Sue and all the other craftsmen who have tried their hand at this classic instance of the popular novel, Dumas aims for a disconnected and breathless psychology of the superman, showing him to us as torn between a vertiginous omnipotence (by reason of money and knowledge) and a terror of his own privileged role, in short, tormented by doubt and lulled by the awareness that his omnipotence is born of suffering. Whereby, as a new archetype imbued with a superior strength, the Count of Monte Cristo is also a Christ, duly diabolic, who falls into the tomb of the Chateau d’If, a sacrificial victim of human malice and, in the thunderbolt of the treasure’s rediscovery after centuries, rises again to judge the living and the dead, without once forgetting that he is the son of man.

Dantès is not a Superman prototype, but a Batman prototype. Dantès is omni-competent and omni-capable, master of every situation by virtue of his money, knowledge and skills–just like Batman et al. They are all Men of Extraordinary Capabilities, and they got that from Rodolphe von Gerolstein and from Edmond Dantès.3 

The Count of Monte Cristo is not Art, but it is the next best thing: superior entertainment.

Recommended Edition

Print: Alexandre Dumas and Robin Buss, The Count of Monte Cristo. New York: Penguin, 2003.



1 Toni Johnson-Woods, “Roman-Feuilleton,” in Paul Schellinger, ed. The Encyclopedia of the Novel (Abingdon: Routledge, 1998), 1108.

2 Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo (New York: A.L. Burt, 1904), 554.

3 Nevins, The Evolution of the Costumed Avenger, 105.  

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