Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Classically, canonically, frustrating

I now completely understand why I abandoned reading The Count of Monte Cristo as a pre-teen: it's dense, it's full of a confusing array of characters, it's dry, and it's a really effing long book. The word count clocks in somewhere in the 450K range and my particular edition was juuuuuuuust shy of 1000 pages, which meant that it had a really tiny typeface, and as a pre-teen I didn't yet have a prescription for the glasses that made it much easier for me to push my way through Monte Cristo.

I liked it overall but kept getting wrapped up in the feeling that the novel wasn't really one long work so much as one moderately long work with three or four short works plopped in the middle. The whole thing with Sinbad the Sailor and Franz in the grotto feels like a short story, everything in Rome seems like a standalone novella, and the whole poisoning plot could have been pulled straight out of another story and dropped in at random. And maybe it was - Dumas constructed the epic tale of revenge out of contemporary tales of men wronged by their friends - there's no reason the author couldn't have pulled together several disparate stories and woven them together with the ill-fated Edmond Dantes as the frame for his tapestry.

There's a lot of really excellent drama going on throughout the story, and very few of the thousand pages are actually boring. It's pretty easy to get sick of the exhaustive descriptions of nearly indistinguishable dandies and ladies who populate the last third of the novel, but some of those characters (Eugenie comes to mind) are at least fun to read if not really functional as movers and shakers in the story.

What kind of got to me in the end is that the story is just unsatisfying enough to be completely frustrating. I'm a total fan of shades of gray and multiple layers of meaning and ambiguity in general and that's what's missing at the end of The Count of Monte Cristo - everything is too cleanly fixed, especially since the main character has been wrestling with feelings of guilt and regrets for his actions for 100 pages by the time the novel comes to a close.

I guess I just feel like this isn't a book that should have a happy ending, at least not for the characters who get the happy ending.  By the time Dantes gets his revenge you don't really want him to have it because he's become, in many ways, a worse person than those who wronged him. But then you don't even get the satisfaction of that unhappy ending - Dantes subsuming himself to the Count and continuing on as a flaming sword over the night and losing all the innocence of Edmond  would be gratifying and depraved. Instead the Count gets his revenge and Edmond gets to have his happiness restored with a replacement for his lost bride to repair his morals and raise his character.

A while back I criticized The Stand for ending on too down a note and right now I'm criticizing The Count of Monte Cristo for ending on too up a note, so I suppose I might just be hard to satisfy. (Maybe. Probably. Okay I'm totally impossible to satisfy and it's part of why I love reading as much as I do.)

But, for all of that, it's a worthwhile read. The book is bitingly funny at times while still generally being dark and miserable. The characters who are well realized are VERY well realized and the others don't matter enough to think about. Dumas did an admirable job of crafting a complicated work in the exact manner he needed to to direct attention where he wanted it. I get why Dumas in general and this book in particular are part of the stodgy old Canon, and I'm happy to have read it.

Dumas, Alexandre. The Count of Monte Cristo. Adventure Classics. Naples: Florida. 2001. (1844).

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