Returning to my love of classics, The Count of Monte Cristo was one of my earliest favorites. Like Jean Valjean, protagonist Edmond Dantès was imprisoned. Unlike Valjean, he had not committed a crime at all (as opposed to Valjean’s technically criminal but completely sympathetic theft of a loaf of bread) – Dantès is the innocent victim of another men’s greed, jealousy, and cowardice.
Dantès and Valjean diverge even more in their reactions to imprisonment. After six years in solitary confinement, Dantès despairs, attempting to starve himself to death. However, he eventually is able to covertly communicate with a prisoner in a neighboring cell, Abbé Faria (“The Mad Priest”). Over the next eight years, Faria educates him, and finally, near death, Faria tells Dantès about a fantastic treasure on the island of Monte Cristo. When Faria dies, Dantès uses his funeral sack to escape. After some adventures, he manages to make his way to the island, recover the treasure, purchase the island and the title of Count from the Tuscan government, and reenter society, determined to wreak justice/vengeance upon his enemies.
And he does. Before, he was an innocent youth, unaware of any reason why he would have been framed. Now, he’s savvy, cynical, angry, and possesses the means to do almost exactly what he wants. He rewards a few people who were kind to him, but the rest of the book is, in large part, a description of his cunning as he methodically takes away everything his enemies care about – wealth, status, and, by accident, even a child.
That incident, in which an innocent child dies, is a turning point for Dantès. He realizes that, while vengeance may be sweet, forgiveness is sweeter. It’s hard. He was unjustly imprisoned, and he did suffer because of what they did. He lost everything he cared about. The girl he loved married one of the men who framed him, and has a son by him now. Dantès’ father died of starvation while he was in prison, unable to help or even communicate with him. His friends have forgotten him or washed their hands of him, assuming he really committed the crime for which he was convicted.
But eventually he realized that justice isn’t the most important thing, after all. Vengeance can’t give you back the things you’ve lost. All it can do is make more people suffer… and some of those people may deserve it, but innocents will be hurt too.
Dantès has to grow up. He has to look outside himself and his pain, and decide whether he’ll forgive what has been done to him, or whether he’ll remain locked in rage forever. It’s not fair. It’s not easy. And he doesn’t do it perfectly. It would have been better, more magnanimous, if he’d made that decision earlier. He didn’t. He couldn’t.
But eventually he lets go.
I love Dantès because he’s so sympathetic and yet so flawed. He’s not as mature as Valjean. He was twisted by his ordeal in ways that Valjean wasn’t… perhaps his character wasn’t as strong. He was younger when he was thrown in jail, and solitary imprisonment is rough on even the strongest character. Yet Dantès is so relatable. He really is innocent. It really was unfair. How many times do we suffer, and then turn that innocent suffering into anger, bitterness, and thoughts of revenge?
But revenge isn’t really the answer. Making others suffer doesn’t remove our pain. Forgiveness isn’t just a command… it’s actually good for us.
Have you seen any of the movies that have been made of The Count of Monte Cristo? I haven’t. If you have a favorite one, please let me know!