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Friday, May 6, 2016

Revenge Is the Dish Best Served Cold

When I told my friends that I was finally reading Alexandre Dumas’ novel The Count of Monte Cristo, a number of people told me Edmond Dantès is redeemed at the end, but somehow I don’t think so. I don’t think this qualifies as a book about Christian forgiveness and redemption.

When Edmond Dantès is wrongfully imprisoned for fourteen years, he and his fellow inmate, Abbé Feria, plan to escape, and the good Abbé tries to get Edmond to forsake his revenge plans. But the Abbé dies, and Edmond has no intention of giving up any part of his plans after he escapes and discovers the Abbé’s fantastic tale of untold and unclaimed riches is true. Dantès believes that his good fortune is a sign that God approves of all his plans.

Dantès plans to pursue his vengeance as soon as he has done good to people who were good to him. He finds that his father has actually died of starvation, but his former master, Pierre Morrel, is on the verge of financial ruin, so he saves him and helps his children. He gives a ship and captaincy to the sailor/smuggler who befriended him after his escape from prison. He is generous to various people who can be useful to him, from the Nubian, Ali, to the Italian bandit Luigi Vampa, to the wrongfully enslaved Albanian princess Haydée.

He has a five-part revenge plan, one for each person who has wronged him:
  1. Fernand Mondego—the man who wrote the damaging and essentially false accusation of treason about him is to be the subject of a most cruel revenge. As soon as Dantès learns Fernand married Mercédès, he plans to kill their son and expose all other crimes he has found out against Fernand, especially Fernand’s treason towards, murder and enslavement of the Pasha Ali Tebelen and his wife and daughter. 
  2. Mercédès Mondego, née Herrera—his erstwhile fiancée did not stay true to him but married his rival, Fernand. Dantès plans to kill her son, and she will be implicated in the ruin and shame Dantès can bring upon her husband. 
  3. M. Danglars—the mastermind behind the treasonous accusation, Danglars was once under Dantès’ command aboard M. Morrel’s ship and hated him unreasonably. Dantès plans to ruin him financially since he has become a rich and comfortable banker. When he learns the Danglars family situation, Dantès plans to use that in his revenge as well. Finally, he makes use of the Italian bandit, Vampa, to starve Danglars into using up his last bit of money for food. 
  4. M. Gérard de Villefort was the prosecutor who could have thrown out Dantès’ case, but because that would have implicated Villefort as being in sympathy with his Bonapartist father, Noirtier de Villefort, the prosecutor sends Dantès to prison uncharged with no trial. Dantès plans to ruin him in any way he can and uses his family against him as well. 
  5. Gaspard Caderousse—formerly a tailor and neighbor of the Dantès family, he was present when Fernand Mondego and Danglars concocted their plot against Edmond Dantès, and although Caderousse was too drunk to participate or even to realize fully what they were doing, he did not speak up later when he could have saved Dantès. Greedy and uncharitable, he additionally nearly let Edmond’s father starve to death before Dantès returned from his voyage at the beginning of the novel. Dantès is curiously of two minds about what to do with him. He seemingly does him good by giving him a large diamond, but Dantès’ knowledge of Caderousse’s greedy nature makes him pretty sure that Caderousse will not use the fortune for a good cause, and indeed, Caderousse turns to crime.
That this is unchristian is unquestionable. What did Christ do with criminals? He got them to realize exactly what they were doing that was wrong, and confess. Then he charged them to repent, or “sin no more.” He forgave them. He did not punish them; unless they persisted in their crimes and punished themselves. He never took revenge on anyone.

Is Edmond Dantès an agent of God in wreaking vengeance against his enemies? These are not explicitly the enemies of God we are talking about. But they certainly are a collection of very unpleasant people at the least, criminal and immoral, and murderous at the worst. In the sense that people who break God’s laws are God’s enemies, this might work. But the Old Testament “eye for an eye” laws of God were replaced by Christ’s merciful laws in the New Testament: compassion, kindness, meekness, charity, forgiveness—these are the mandates Christ laid down. He taught that it is easy to love those who love you, but His higher law was to love those who use you, abuse you, betray you—those who are your enemies.

What did Edmond Dantès do to his enemies?
  1. Fernand Mondego, Count de Morcerf. Dantès decides not to kill Fernand’s son because he came to like Albert, the Viscount Morcerf. But Dantès publishes Fernand’s betrayal of Ali Tebelen, the Pasha of Janina (part of Albania), which got the Pasha killed and his wife and daughter sold into slavery. Dantès engineers things so that Fernand’s wife and son renounce him and leave him. He forces Fernand into a corner as regards honor in those days, ensuring that Fernand’s only recourse is to commit suicide. Had he not killed himself, we are left wondering if Edmond Dantès would have engineered someone else taking the life of Fernand Mondego, if Dantès didn’t do it himself.
  2. Mercédès Mondego, Countess de Morcerf. When Dantès learns that she never knew her husband’s part in framing Dantès and that she still loves Dantès himself, Dantès relents and ensures that she can escape Paris with a fortune if she so desires. This is simply Edmond’s usual practice of doing a good deed for one done to him. She sinned against him in ignorance, so she is given a partial pass. But he will not return her love, nor does he explicitly forgive her for the past.
  3. Baron Danglars is manipulated by Edmond Dantès to lose his entire fortune bit by bit. Dantès makes use of Danglars’ wife to help along the financial ruin. He uses Mme. Danglars’ illegitimate son (the result of her affair with Villefort), the son whom even she does not know is living, to become engaged to the Danglars’ daughter—with the implication of incest as the young man is half-brother to his erstwhile fiancée—and then uses the young man’s criminal background to ruin the social prospects of the family. Young Eugénie Danglars runs away; her mother runs another way, and Danglars thinks he has escaped to Italy. But Dantès has him kidnapped by Luigi Vampa, the Italian bandit who is in Dantès’ control, and Danglars is starved until he gives up the rest of his fortune for food. It is a slow and cruel torture.
  4. Gérard de Villefort is tortured by Dantès, who suggests to Villefort’s wife Héloïse that she could murder the people who stood between her and her greedy, ambitious plans for her unpleasant son. Héloïse accordingly murders Villefort’s first wife’s parents, then his father’s servant. She attempts to murder Villefort’s daughter, Valentine, and his father, Noirtier de Villefort. Villefort himself comes to know pretty much who is responsible for these crimes, but he refuses to prosecute a member of his own household until Héloïse reaches the end of her crimes and kills herself and her son. Finally, Dantès exposes Villefort’s long-past affair with the present Mme. Danglars and his attempted murder of their illegitimate infant son, effectively ruining all Villefort reputations in society and ensuring that Villefort will lose his livelihood as well. Had Villefort not gone mad, perhaps Dantès would have ensured that he either committed suicide or was murdered. It seems Dantès would have been satisfied with no less.
  5. When Caderousse turns to crime, Dantès finds and makes use of him, manipulating events so that Benedetto, the illegitimate son of Villefort and Hermine Danglars, becomes his accomplice and kills him.
These revenge plans are all extreme. They are not meant to bring any of the criminals to a state of repentance or redemption. They are meant to kill, or at least to completely ruin, each person. When Dantès finds that one or another of his victims “deserves” a measure of mercy, he carefully applies only so much as he judges that person merits in their treatment of him. In no case is anyone restored to his good graces, not even Mercédès, who still loves him and who has suffered the loss of him all those years, ending in a knowledge of her betrayal by the man she accepted as second best, as her husband. Even she is relegated to a sorry state of comparative poverty and endless regret.

What about all the innocent victims of Edmond Dantès? His plans for ruining his enemies necessarily involved their family members, some of whom are completely innocent, some of whom are pretty much as bad as the ones who originally harmed Dantès.

Albert de Morcerf, son of Fernand and Mercédès, certainly did not deserve the disgrace of his father and the loss of his position. But of course the families of criminals who are caught must necessarily suffer for the crimes their kin commit, even though they are innocent. Albert handles his position with grace, but it’s a little hard on him that Dantès made his father suffer so public a revenge plot.

Eugénie Danglars, the daughter of Baron Danglars and Hermine Danglars, has wanted to escape from her life and destiny for some time so that she could live the free-spirited life of an artist, so she does not suffer too much in losing her societal position and her family’s fortune. She will probably do just fine on her own. Still, she is part of the collateral damage, and she represents another of the innocent bystanders whom Dantès does not care about when he plans to take revenge on his enemies.

Hermine Danglars seems to deserve all that she gets, because she conducts illicit affairs, manipulates the stock markets and her husband’s investments to her own benefit, and seems to have a history of coming out on top of whatever dicey situations her immoral nature gets her into. Nevertheless, she does not deserve the full weight of the wrath of Edmond Dantès, which hits her almost as hard as it does her husband and former lover, Villefort. Had she been a virtuous wife and devoted mother, Dantès would not have cared any further what became of her and her daughter. He did ensure that she knew enough to enrich herself against a coming, vague catastrophe, but that is all he did.

Valentine de Villefort is the epitome of the innocent victim of Dantès and his plans. She has done nothing wrong but be born to Gérard de Villefort. Yet Dantès unleashes a poisoner in her house, where she is obviously one of the targets. He only belatedly realizes that she does not “deserve” to die and saves her life.

What was Dantès thinking when he tempted Héloïse de Villefort to poison anybody who was in her way? Did he think, Of course she will poison only the man I want revenge on, her husband, Gérard de Villefort. No! He had spoken with her enough to know that the totally innocent Marquis and Marquise de Saint-Méran would be her first targets. And if he did not fully realize that, he simply wasn’t thinking at all, but soon enough he knew it anyway. He should have realized at that moment that he himself was complicit in their murders. But it went on. She murdered Noirtier de Villefort’s servant, and then attempted to kill Noirtier and Valentine. She killed herself and her young son, Édouard. Morally, Dantès should have had all these murders on his own conscience. But he never even thinks of them. He finally regrets that Valentine was a victim, and he strains himself to save her.

(This crime, urging another person to murder, is what Agatha Christie made Poirot die for in his final case!)

Dantès seems to me to be a pretty amoral character after all. When it suits him, he does good, but generally only if doing so is going to benefit himself, or if it is in payment of some good deed someone did to him. What is scary about him is that he uses and abets criminals in both revenge and reward schemes.

Besides Mme. de Villefort, think of Caderousse and that diamond, and how Dantès uses him to get Benedetto involved in the scheme to ruin the Danglars family. Think of how Dantès uses Major Cavalcanti to pose as a nobleman with Benedetto as his son, in order to ruin Danglars and Villefort both. Think of how he encourages Mme. Danglars to embezzle from her husband. Think of how he uses Benedetto to kill Caderousse and to ruin the Danglars and Villefort families. Think of how he uses the bandit, Luigi Vampa, to kidnap Albert de Morcerf before he realized he was going to save him and use him in a different way. Then he uses Vampa again to effect the final financial ruin and torture of Danglars. Before all of that, think of how he falls in with the smugglers and helps them, and then rewards Jacobo Manfredi with his own ship and crew.

Finally, what was the purpose of his engineering that terrible month of suffering for his friend Maximilien Morrel, when the poor young man is led to believe that his fiancée, Valentine de Villefort, is dead? How easy it would have been for Dantès to tell him immediately, “Don’t worry, I have made sure Mlle. de Villefort was given a drug that simulates death. She will awaken and be fine.” But instead he thinks he has to make him suffer, that he might “deserve” happiness! And he even judges how much suffering might be enough—as if Morrel, should he not suffer enough, might be allowed to commit suicide after all! Why this revenge on a friend?

I can just barely see how someone, stretching for an atonement metaphor, could put Valentine in the position of a Christ figure, an innocent victim put to death because of others’ sins, who comes back from the grave to rescue the dying (Morrel, who was going to commit suicide). But it is a huge stretch, and it doesn’t serve the purpose of redeeming Dantès, who engineered the whole thing. Dantès is not God, or if he is, the god he represents is certainly not the loving Christian God of the New Testament, even if he does endow the couple with all his worldly wealth. Or most of it. Or maybe just a portion.

Our last view of Dantès is as he heads east with his now-lover Haydée, whom we are meant to assume will be wed to him soon. It’s a strange affair, to switch Dantès from being a father figure toward her, to being a husband. This ending smarts when I think of Mercédès.

It doesn’t convince me one whit that he “deserves” his happy ending after all the crimes he committed. His regrets are few considering the long list of innocent victims. The scene in the now-defunct prison where he reflects on his role in inflicting punishment on his enemies is a paltry attempt at repentance, and more than that, an unsatisfying leap of logic to justify him if Christian values are the major premise. But I do not believe they are. At heart, this is a good old revenge tale, fully carried out.

The dish best served cold is unsatisfying to my taste.

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