Welcome to February and March’s reading recommendation! In keeping with the outlining theme of the month, today I’m sharing a book with one of the most complex and interesting plots I’ve ever read. I listened to The Count of Monte Cristo audio book last summer and it is now one of my favorite classics. There are several movie and TV adaptations that I haven’t seen, but I want to focus on the book to demonstrate how Alexandre Dumas handles a story that spans several decades and dozens of inter-character relationships. Its the sort of story that works really well because of the slow pacing of a book, rather than being constrained by an arbitrary time limit, and hopefully by dissecting it, we can learn a few things about how to do this sort of plot as well.
This book is 1243 pages, 117 chapters, and over 375K words long, so I’m splitting this post up into four parts and stretching it out over the next month. I wanted to make sure I had enough page time to give enough context and that’s the winning option from my polls. That being said, I think there’s a statue of limitations when it comes to spoilers in 177 year old books, so I’m going to prioritize the “what can writers learn” aspect of the analysis in this article. If you’d like to read more, the whole work is available for free download on Project Gutenburg. True to form, I’m also color coding this! Try to spot the themes as I explain the twisty plot points!
The Creation of the Count, Chapters 1-30
The story follows the life of Edmond Dantes, a young sailor who finds himself in command of his ship after the captain dies at sea with the mission to take a message from the island of Elba to Paris. He comes home to Marseille, France, where he has everything a 19-year-old in 1815 could possibly want – a loving father, his beautiful and faithful fiancee Mercedes, and the promise of a promotion from the owner of the company, Monsieur Morrel.
Unfortunately, he’s also got three jealous enemies who have alcohol aplenty and motive enough to make ruining Edmond’s life sound like a really great idea. Danglars is another sailor who wants to be captain, and he writes an anonymous tip with his left hand suspecting that Edmond is a traitor to the crown. For context, at this point in history, Napoleon Bonapart was the former emperor of France, but he had been overthrown and banished to Elba – the island Edmond stopped at on behalf of the late captain. Now, Edmond is going to Paris to deliver a message he knows nothing about, but chances are good it could contain Bonapartist sympathies and get him in a lot of trouble with the current monarchical government. It’s just plausible enough to land Edmond in jail, or at least, get him out of the way long enough for Danglars to sweep in and snatch the promotion to captain.
The second member of the conspiracy is Edmond’s greedy and selfish neighbor, Caderousse. He doesn’t particularly like Edmond, but he also doesn’t want the poor kid to get killed either. At this point in the dinner, he’s too drunk to help with the scheme, and too drunk to properly protest it either. To keep him quiet, Danglars promises that he was “only joking”, mashes up the letter, and throws it into a corner – getting rid of the ploy but not actually destroying it.
That intentional choice allows the third member of the conspiracy, Fernand, to later pick up the letter and mail it to the guards. He’s in love with Mercedes, but she turned him down in favor of Edmond. He’s also her cousin (blegh) and can’t take no for an answer. He would just kill his competition and marry her anyway, but Mercedes promised to kill herself if he did anything to hurt her fiance. Danglar’s scheming gives Fernand the perfect opportunity to get Edmond out of the way for his own gain too.
It’s worth noting that Edmond has only ever been polite to these three men . He’s not stupid, and knows they don’t like him, but he does his best to work with them and even give them gifts as a sign of peace. But the letter is sent anyhow and the poor guy is dragged off to Paris for trial by the royal guards in the middle of his betrothal feast. Caderousse says nothing in his defense, Danglars convinces Morrel to give him the position as captain, and Fernand goes to comfort and woo Mercedes, exploiting her pain for his gain.
Meanwhile in Paris, Edmond meets the prosecutor Gerard de Villefort, who is responsible for deciding his fate. At first, everything seems to be going well and Edmond is hoping for an acquittal, until Villefort learns that the letter he’s carrying is addressed a man named Noirtier, his father, and a leader of the Bonapartist party. Afraid that the affiliation with a traitor could damage his own ambitious career, he sentences Edmond to a life sentence in the dungeon of the Chateau d’If and tells the king about the plot, earning a promotion for himself in the process.
In introducing the first of a very large cast of characters, Dumas helps make the important ones easily identifiable and memorable by giving them distinct motivations and personality traits. This helps avoid the writing equivalent of “same face syndrome” in art – even though we’re introduced to a dozen different players. This also sets up arcs for each character and their relationships as the story continues, with each character’s primary goal becoming an element of their downfall.
Jumping ahead.. some politicking happens, nobody tells poor Edmond what in the world is going on, and he nearly starves himself out of desperation and depression. Just before he actually dies, he makes a friend in prison who gives him hope and instructions on where to find buried treasure, and escapes 14 years later. Upon finding his wealth on the island of Monte Cristo, he creates a new persona for himself as The Count, befriends some smugglers with a few lies about his identity, and starts out to get some answers.
First, he disguises himself as an Italian priest called Abbe Busoni and finds the now impoverished Caderousse. He pretends that Edmond Dantes was bequeathed a large diamond while in prison, but died in his cell and wanted to have it divided amongst his “friends”. As the executor of the “will”, the Abbe says he wants to find the others: his father, Danglars, Fernand, and Mercedes. Caderousse feeling partially guilty and mostly greedy, tells of the whole plot to have Edmond imprisoned, and the Abbe gives him the whole diamond to keep as reward for his friendship. He also learns what happened to the others. Edmond’s father starved himself to death out of grief, cared for until the end by Mercedes and Morrel, who gave him a red silk purse of money, but is now on the verge of bankruptcy after several ships sunk. He’s now waiting for Edmond’s old ship to come into port, hoping it’ll be enough to save his family. In the meantime, Danglars resigned from his position as captain and began chasing money, becoming a wealthy banker and a baron. Fernand spent a tour in the military, fighting in Greece and earning a high rank before returning with a new (somewhat mysterious) fortune. After 18 months, Mercedes accepted that Edmond was probably dead, and gave into marrying Fernand.
Caderousse reflects that it seems the good are always punished, when the evil are rewarded – ironic considering his wishy-washy position between the two. Edmond, a good person who “died” to give way to the vengeful Count, intends to bring justice to the people who hurt him and to reward his friends. The other characters quickly start to fall into one of those two categories. But instead of diving off into parallel plots dealing with each friend or foe individually, their stories quickly intertwine, and add a new layer of complexity to the Count’s relationships with each family. Because I’m running out of colors, each family is going to get one color though.
After talking with Caderousse, Edmond goes to his home of Marsilles in a new disguise – pretending to be an Englishman named Lord Wilmore that has connections to Morrel’s bank. He visits the mayor to get information, buy up most of the shares in the shipping company (so now he owns Morrel’s debts), and in the process, learns how Villefort ordered him to be locked away for life, and confirms Caderousse’s story. He files this information away for later before going to visit Morrel, who is devastated after learning that his last ship has sunk. Lord Wilmore explains how he now holds the debts, gives the family another three months to pay them back, and as he leaves, pulls aside Morrel’s daughter, Julie, and makes her promise to follow any instructions she receives from someone named “Sinbad the Sailor.”
Three months pass, and the family is still unable to pay back the debts. Morrel knows that if he cannot pay his debts, his children will be discredited both financially and dishonored, so he tells his son, Maximilian, that he plans to commit suicide on the day they are due, and let the insurance take care of the rest. Max tries to stop his father but ultimately can’t do anything to change his mind. At the last moment, Julie receives the letter from Sinbad the Sailor with instructions to find a red silk purse – the same one Morrel gave to Edmond’s father all those years ago. It is filled with the debt notes, which have been paid, and a diamond for her dowry. Immediately after, they get news that the ship, though sunk, has been exactly replaced with a new one, loaded with the same cargo, and sent back to Marseilles – saving the business, and Morrel. They rejoice over this anonymous benefactor, and Edmond quietly leaves Marseilles without revealing himself.
By completing the setup of the story, we learn about Edmond’s new mindset and priorities in rewarding the people who were kind to him. His use of several different fake personas differentiates the benevolent Edmond from the vengeful Count of Monte Cristo, but the layers of secrecy obscure his true motivations from the people around him. We learn from the dialogue (especially in the Abbe persona) that he views himself as an agent of God’s justice, and how he will make sure everyone gets what’s coming to them eventually. At this point, the story takes a 10 year time jump, and the next arc focuses on the Count’s activities in Italy while on tour, so I will save that for the next post.
Thank you for your patience with this long analysis! It’s one I’ve wanted to do for a while and I hope you find it informative or at least interesting enough to keep reading. We’ll be back to the usual schedule for April. Have you read TCOMC before? What’s your best recommendation for a story with a complex plot? Let me know your thoughts in the comments, and I’ll see you next week!