French author Alexandre Dumas has been keeping young and old audiences alike on their toes for centuries now. His epic novels are marvelous examples of fine writing, both in regards of building narratives, developing characters and crafting worlds filles with adventure, love, danger and suspense.
Nevertheless, 21st century readers, being the sceptics and critics we usually are about every- and anything, would rate Dumas’ works as somewhat naive.
In this, we would be somewhat corect – but also, moreso, very wrong.
My last reread by Dumas was “The Count of Monte Christo”. It is an adventurous and magical story about a young, innocent, beautiful and intelligent man in love. He suffers a great injustice due to envy and goes through an excruciatingly long period of suffering. However, he does not yield to destiny and, with the help of a wise friend, swears to serve revenge upon those who have wronged him and win back his great love. Also: a great treasure, hidden on an island.
Sounds positively overdone, doesn’t it. Well, Alexandre Dumas is told to have said that once he encounters Death himself, he would tell him a good story to prolong his lifetime. If said story happened to have several sword fights, murder plots, twisted love stories and possibly a political coup – the man would gain a few further hours doing what he does best. Who would blame him?
“The Count of Monte Christo” follows many very traditional tropes. Of course, these are now known to us, we know what to look for. Some of them, the magical number seven, for example being prominent throughout the novel, are already known to us from fairy tales and legends. It is rather visible.
There are still several aspects in which Dumas’ talent remains undeniable, even for the modern reader. Firstly, his use of language. Dumas’ use of words, his sentence structure, his flow, the melody and rhythm in his style are magical. Secondly, he is a master of suspense. Although I am fully aware of the methods used in “Monte Christo”, they still manage to keep me alert as to wanting the characters to know what I have just learned, to linger on a corner for a second longer so that the other character could reach them in time – or to have received vital facts in the last minute preceding a duel.
One could argue his characters to be mundane, cliché-like, mere tropes with short elaborations to tailor them to the story. I would firstly implore such a pettifogger to take another long look at the publishing year of “Monte Christo”: 1844. He is right up there with greats like Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Herman Melville and H. G. Wells. Even The Great Institution of Barnes and Noble agree with my assessment. (2) (Yes, I am using pluralis majestatis here). All of these wonderful people use somewhat naive ideas on human psychology, follow a code of conduct we would now consider to be vastly outdated, and, with the exception of Wells, remain accurately inside their own time frame. Which is the natural and truthful way these stories would have taken place.
And once one has taken a closer look, Dumas’ characters secede stereotypes. Yes, Edmond Dantès is somewhat perfect, which makes him slightly annoying, but he does go through all that suffering and torture so he may be allowed a fulfilled life after having niffled through semi-magical realms, survived unbelievable situations and cumulated all the riches a man can ever dream of and then some. The effusive loyalty his friends and servants show him also baffles me often.
Edmonds love interest Mercedes, however, is somewhat of a wild card when examined closely. She has a mind of her own, manages to make strong men yield to her, is emotionally stable and can take a secret to her grave.
Let me know which character you found most interesting in the comment section below!
The one thing about this masterpiece I cannot let go without chuckling over it are the staggering differences when it comes to rules of conduct, courting and marriage, honor and shame in high society. As a modern reader, 19th century France is obviously somewhat perplexing, it is to be noted that Dumas has accurately portrayed the customs and beliefs of his time, naive as one might find them these days.
It is, for example, factually correct that a man’s word and honor were a thing to be truly valued during those times. For example, prisoners of war were allowed an honor-leave during the Revolutionary wars:
“giving captured officers the option to give their word of honour to abstain from further fighting for the duration of the campaign in return for privileges that were designed to ease conditions of captivity.” (1)
And yet, to see a father meet the news of his bankruptcy (by a series of events entirely out of his hands) with the full knowledge that now he must kill himself to safe the family honor, and his own son standing next to him, wringing his hands, lamenting towards the sky, absolutely and in no way questioning the way of the honorable man who must shoot himself when – due to a natural disaster – the family fortune is lost. Because it is the right thing to do. What?!
The ending of the story is by no means perfect either. Edmond considering a woman young enough to be her daughter as his so-called perfect person does attribute a level of cultural openness to him, as it is unusual to see an “Oriental“ as his equal in marriage. On the other hand, he has kept her as a pet (legally, as a slave) for years and… well, obvious misogyny and ephebophilia.
But, such was the culture in regards to appropriate marriage ages – again, accurately depicted by Dumas.
All in all, Dumas’ works are intricately woven masterpieces with powerful plots, fascinating suspense structures and marvelous character arcs.
If you believe them to be naive, it is, in fact, you who is need of a historico-cultural education.
Thank you for reading. Feel free to share your opinions on Dumas and other 19th century classics in the comment section! I’m looking forward to reading yor thoughts.
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