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  • Writer's pictureIsaac Estrada

On Reading The Count of Monte Cristo

Updated: Nov 26, 2023

Painting: Mead Schaeffer's the Count of Monte Cristo

I started reading the Count of Monte Cristo in early Spring 2021 after a psychopathic aquaintance attempted to tarnish my reputation, and my boss at the time started coercing me to make some very foolish decisions - stories for another time, perhaps. I had meant to read the Count of Monte Cristo for some time, but the combination of my subpar reading comprehension skills, faintheartedness, and the sheer magnitude of the book made for some procrastination. But finally, after cutting ties with my manipulative boss and the person who sought to destroy my reputation, I found that I needed to read some fiction to help process the events of my life from an outsider's perspective, and what better story to read during such a time than the story of the envied, betrayed, and utterly sabotoged Edmond Dantes?

I collapsed on the floor with the 1467-page book and opened to Chapter One. The very first line read, "On the 24th of Febuary..." - my birthday! I laughed incredulously. I had recieved many Godwinks during that time, most of them coming from a synchronization of the Liturgical calendar and the events of my life. All of them were unexpected, and all of them reassuring and comforting in their own right. It felt as though God were actually winking at me, and saying "Hey you - yes you, Isaac John Estrada - I see you and I hear you. Everything is going to be alright."

Spoilers moving forward! Continue reading at your discretion.

So I read on. I found the first several hundred pages incredibly gripping. It was so easy to read - it felt like real life. The imagery made for an immersive experience. I really felt Edmond's loss deeply, and I found his anger and grief relatable, yet so far worse than mine that it called me to be grateful. And yet, even in the midst of his disasterous loss, Providence was with him. When Edmond had been broken down to despair after 4 years in the Chateau d'If, the head of a priest - Abba Faria - popped up from his cell floor, followed by his shoulders, then arms, torso, legs, and feet, until there was another human being in his prison cell. The priest showed Edmond friendship and compassion - Edmond's first social interraction in 4 years.

In exchange for help digging his way to freedom, the priest educated Edmond in philsophoy, economics, politics, physics, literature, and even combat. To boot, he helped Edmond discover why exactly he was betrayed by Danglars and Fernand, and sent to prison by Villefort. Endond found solace in his comiserating mentor. This sheds light on the immeasurable treasure of the master/apprentice relationship - something our culture in 21st century America is sorely lacking. The vast majority of schoolchildren nowadays don't get the time, care, and attention they need to become courageous, competent, skilled, stable, and mature individuals and citizens simply because the student/teacher reatio is far too large and the content of the classes far too ideologically driven, not to mention our anti-family culture which destabilizes their home life. In that dark pit of despair, Edmond Dantes had a richer treasure than most kids in 21st century America who have food in their belly and a bed to sleep in - the treasure of a wise, kind, holy, and competent mentor. If we all thought deeply enough, I'm sure we would all agree that it is preferable to have love and wisdom but no food until the moment of death, rather than to have food but no love and wisdom until the moment of death.

The mentor can guide his apprentice's heart to the fountain of life, but he cannot force his apprentice to drink from it. This is exactly the predicament Abba Faria faced with Edmond Dantes. Edmond learned practical skills and knowledge well, but he ignored the moral guidance of his mentor. Upon the priest's dying and Edmond's successful escape, Edmond vowed to use the skills he learned to take his revenge.

This is when things got boooooring. Soooooo boooooring. Hundreds upon hundreds of pages of side characters and their backstories with no mention of Edmond Dantes, the Count of Monte Cristo - the very title of the book. Agh! Why do you torment me, Alexandre? You Dumas! Naturally, this is when I put the book aside and did not pick it up for a year or so. When I picked it up again, I could barely make any progress and put it down for another 6-12 months. Finally, a few weeks ago, I made the firm decision that I was going to finish this book if it killed me. It nearly did, and boy am I glad I finished it.

After about 500 pages of monotany, wherein my lack of comprehension skills got the best of me, things got to be very exciting again. Edmond was taking his revenge, not by killing those who did him wrong, but by making them suffer. He exposed Fernand's financial treachery, to which Mercedes responded by divorcing him, and he suffered in a manner that drove him to kill himself. Edmond then accidentally drove Villefort's wife to kill her daughter and herself by poison, which made Villefort suffer in a manner that drove him to psychosis. Edmond saw the dead mother and daughter, and he repented of his veangence, seeing that it went too far. He later caught Danglar red-handed in theft, who begged for mercy, and he granted it in a glorious monologue:

"I am not the Count of Monete Cristo! I am he whom you sold and dishonored - I am he whose betrothed you prostitued - I am he upon whom you trampled that you might raise yourself to fortune - I am he whose father you condemned to die of hunger - I am he whom you also condemned to starvation, and who yet forgives you, because he hopes to be forgiven - I am Edmond Dantes!"

And he continued:

"...your life is safe; the same good fortune has not happened to your accomplices: one is mad, the other dead. Keep the 50,000 francs you have left, I give them to you. The 5,000,000 you robbed from the hospitals has been restored to them by an unkown hand."

Even in his veangence, Edmond Dantes is to be admired for his sheer virility - his cunning, determination, focus, physical strength, industriousness, and hunger for justice. But, obviously, he is to be admonished in this state, and admired even more for his conversion, for these masculine virtues unchecked by feminine virutes of compassion and mercy become destructive. We see this in Edmond, and in a lot of the alpha-male anti-heros we see in cinema and TV: Tommy Shelby in Peaky Blinders, Eren Jaeger in Attack on Titan, and Michael Corleone in the Godfather, to name a few. The fainthearted - or perhaps, the misandric - see this unhinged virility and say that masculinity is inherently "toxic," but it is not. Rather, the masculine impulse needs to be channeled towards the accomplishment of the highest good and the victory over every evil, and all other goals are to be pursued within this context. This requires the cultivation of feminine virtues of compassion and mercy, for the masculine needs the feminine, and vice versa, between men and women and within all individuals. Only with the guidence of the feminine virtues of compassion and mercy does a man direct every ounce of his masculinity towards the triumph over the evil in his own heart and accomplishment of internal union with Christ as his first priority, and the triumph over external evil and the accomplishment of the common good as an extension. Thus virile manhood is perfected by its union with femininity, and thus we admire Edmond more as the novel approaches its conclusion.

The Lord's Prayer from Matthew 6 in the New Testemant reads, "forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors," and is commonly recited as, "forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us." It is a statement that agrees to participate in justice: forgive me, God, insofar as I forgive others. Have mercy on me, God, insofar as I have mercy upon others. How can I expect to recieve from others - no less from God - when I myself refuse to give? This is why the prayer attributed to Saint Francis says:

"O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life."

This is the true Christian attitude: to enter into an eternal relationship of mutual self-giving with the almighty, transcendent God. It is an attitude that challenges me - and all of us - to turn the other cheek and walk away when I am being coerced to do wrong, blackmailed and unjustly accused, or when I have my reputation attacked by a hypocrite. It is an attitude that challenges us to be better than our oppressors, rather than stooping to their level. It is an attitude that shocks humanity out of its cycle of hate, and allows Love, Truth, and Beauty to plant its roots into our lives; into our very minds and hearts. It is the attitude that, after years of brooding and scheming vengeance, was adopted by Edmond Dantes, the Count of Monte Cristo.

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