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The Count of Monte Cristo

Alexandre Dumas

Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Analysis of Major Characters

Chapters 1–5

Themes

Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Limits of Human Justice

Edmond Dantès takes justice into his own hands because he is dismayed by the limitations of society’s criminal justice system. Societal justice has allowed his enemies to slip through the cracks, going unpunished for the heinous crimes they have committed against him. Moreover, even if his enemies’ crimes were uncovered, Dantès does not believe that their punishment would be true justice. Though his enemies have caused him years of emotional anguish, the most that they themselves would be forced to suffer would be a few seconds of pain, followed by death.

Considering himself an agent of Providence, Dantès aims to carry out divine justice where he feels human justice has failed. He sets out to punish his enemies as he believes they should be punished: by destroying all that is dear to them, just as they have done to him. Yet what Dantès ultimately learns, as he sometimes wreaks havoc in the lives of the innocent as well as the guilty, is that justice carried out by human beings is inherently limited. The limits of such justice lie in the limits of human beings themselves. Lacking God’s omniscience and omnipotence, human beings are simply not capable of—or justified in—carrying out the work of Providence. Dumas’s final message in this epic work of crime and punishment is that human beings must simply resign themselves to allowing God to reward and punish—when and how God sees fit.

Relative Versus Absolute Happiness

A great deal separates the sympathetic from the unsympathetic characters in The Count of Monte Cristo. The trait that is most consistently found among the sympathetic characters and lacking among the unsympathetic is the ability to assess one’s circumstances in such a way as to feel satisfaction and happiness with one’s life. In his parting message to Maximilian, Dantès claims that “[t]here is neither happiness nor misery in the world; there is only the comparison of one state with another, nothing more.” In simpler terms, what separates the good from the bad in The Count of Monte Cristo is that the good appreciate the good things they have, however small, while the bad focus on what they lack.

Dantès’s enemies betray him out of an envy that arises from just this problem: despite the blessings these men have in their own lives, Dantès’s relatively superior position sends them into a rage of dissatisfaction. Caderousse exemplifies this psychological deficiency, finding fault in virtually every positive circumstance that life throws his way. Caderousse could easily be a happy man, as he is healthy, clever, and reasonably well off, yet he is unable to view his circumstances in such a way as to feel happy. At the other end of the spectrum are Julie and Emmanuel Herbaut—they are fully capable of feeling happiness, even in the face of pressing poverty and other hardships. The Dantès of the early chapters, perfectly thrilled with the small happiness that God has granted him, provides another example of the good and easily satisfied man, while the Dantès of later chapters, who has emerged from prison unable to find happiness unless he exacts his complicated revenge, provides an example of the bad and unsatisfiable man.

Love Versus Alienation

Dantès declares himself an exile from humanity during the years in which he carries out his elaborate scheme of revenge. He feels cut off not only from all countries, societies, and individuals but also from normal human emotions. Dantès is unable to experience joy, sorrow, or excitement; in fact, the only emotions he is capable of feeling are vengeful hatred and occasional gratitude. It is plausible that Dantès’s extreme social isolation and narrow range of feeling are simply the result of his obsession with his role as the agent of Providence. It is not difficult to imagine that a decade-long devotion to a project like Dantès’s might take a dramatic toll on one’s psychology.

Yet Dantès’s alienation from humanity is not solely due to his obsessive lust for revenge but also to his lack of love for any living person. Though he learns of his enemies’ treachery years before he escapes from prison, his alienation from humanity begins to take hold only when Abbé Faria dies. Until Faria’s death, Dantès’s love for Faria keeps him connected to his own humanity, by keeping the humanizing emotion of love alive within him. When Dantès learns that his father is dead and that Mercédès has married another man, his alienation is complete. There are no longer any living people whom he loves, and he loses hold of any humanizing force.

This humanizing force eventually returns when Dantès falls in love with Haydée. This relationship reconciles Dantès to his humanity and enables him to feel real emotion once again. In a triumphant declaration of emotion, he says to Haydée, “through you I again connect myself with life, through you I shall suffer, through you rejoice.” Dantès’s overcomes his alienation, both from society and from his own humanity, through his love of another human being.

Motifs

Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Names

The constant changing of characters’ names in The Count of Monte Cristo signifies deeper changes within the characters themselves. Like the God of the Old Testament, Dantès assumes a host of different names, each associated with a different role in his schemes as the agent of Providence. He calls himself Abbé Busoni when standing in judgment, Lord Wilmore when engaging in acts of excessive generosity, and Monte Cristo when assuming the role of avenging angel. That Dantès possesses so many identities suggests that he lacks a true center.

Villefort also changes his name, though for different reasons: he refuses to adopt his father’s title of Noirtier, a name closely associated with the despised Bonapartist party. Villefort’s choice of names signifies both his political opportunism and his willingness to sacrifice ruthlessly those close to him for his own personal gain. Fernand Mondego’s change of name to Count de Morcerf is, on one level, merely a sign of his ascent into the realm of power and prestige. Yet, since Mondego pretends that Morcerf is an old family name rather than merely a title he has purchased, the name-change is also a symbol of his fundamental dishonesty. Mercédès also undergoes a change of name, becoming Countess de Morcerf. This change in name, however, as we learn when Mercédès proves her enduring goodness, does not accompany a fundamental change in character. Instead, her name-change merely emphasizes her connection to her husband, Dantès’s rival, and, by association, her disloyalty to Dantès. Only Benedetto’s change of name, to Andrea Cavalcanti, seems to signify nothing deeper than the fact that he is assuming a false identity. All of the other name changes in the novel are external signals of internal changes of character or role.

Suicide

Many characters in The Count of Monte Cristo—Dantès, Monsieur Morrel, Maximilian Morrel, Haydée, Fernand Mondego, Madame d’Villefort, and Albert de Morcerf—contemplate or even carry out suicide during the course of the novel. Dumas presents the act of suicide as an honorable and reasonable response to any devastating situation. As in much Romantic literature, suicide in The Count of Monte Cristo is most closely linked with failed romantic relationships.

In fact, eagerness to take one’s own life for the sake of a beloved is held up as one of the only sure signs of absolute devotion. Monte Cristo is convinced that Maximilian loves Valentine, for instance, only when he sees that Maximilian sincerely wants to die when confronted with her loss. Likewise, Monte Cristo believes that Haydée loves him only when she swears that she would take her life if he abandoned her. The frequency with which suicide is mentioned or contemplated by characters might seem to reflect a cavalier attitude toward this most serious of acts. However, suicide is clearly regarded as a serious action: Dantès gravely warns Maximilian not to take his life if there is anything in the world that he regrets leaving. The characters in the novel are not arrogant about life—they simply live it melodramatically, finding the world devoid of hope and meaning on a fairly regular basis.

Politics

The Count of Monte Cristo is a historical novel, with key plot elements drawn from real historic events. Politics, therefore, play a significant role in the novel, particularly in branding certain characters good or bad. All of the major sympathetic characters are somehow connected to the democratic ideals of the Bonapartist party, from Morrel and Noirtier, who were once ardent fighters in the Bonapartist cause, to Dantès, who emerges as a champion for individual rights. Likewise, in his wooing of Valentine, Maximilian fights for social equality, another Bonapartist ideal. Many of the major unsympathetic characters, by contrast, are overwhelmingly associated with the oppressive, aristocratic royalists, such as Morcerf and Villefort. Others are simply self-serving capitalist opportunists, such as Danglars, responsible for ushering in the soul-deadening age of the Industrial Revolution. In this sense, Dumas does not assign political allegiances arbitrarily, but uses them as windows into the souls of his characters.

Symbols

Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The Sea

When Dantès escapes from prison, he plunges into the ocean, experiencing a second baptism and a renewed dedication of his soul to God. He has suffered a metaphorical death while in prison: the death of his innocent, loving self. Dantès emerges as a bitter and hateful man, bent on carrying out revenge on his enemies. He is washed in the waters that lead him to freedom, and his rebirth as a man transformed is complete. The sea continues to figure prominently in the novel even after this symbolic baptism. Considering himself a citizen of no land, Dantès spends much of his time on the ocean, traveling the world in his yacht. The sea seems to beckon constantly to Dantès, a skilled sailor, offering him perpetual escape and solitude.

The Red Silk Purse

First used by Monsieur Morrel in his attempt to save the life of Dantès’s father, Dantès later uses the red silk purse when he is saving Morrel’s life. The red purse becomes the physical symbol of the connection between good deed and reward. Morrel recognizes the purse and deduces the connection between the good deed performed on his behalf and the good deed he once performed himself. Morrel concludes that Dantès must be his savior, surmising that he is working from beyond the grave. Morrel’s daughter, Julie, then emphasizes the symbolic power of the purse by keeping it constantly on display as a relic of her father’s miraculous salvation.

The Elixir

Dantès’s potent potion seems to have the power both to kill and to bring to life, a power that Dantès comes to believe in too strongly. His overestimation of the elixir’s power reflects his overestimation of his own power, his delusion that he is almost godlike, and his assertion that he has the right and capacity to act as the agent of Providence. It is significant that, when faced with Edward’s corpse, Dantès thinks first to use his elixir to bring the boy to life. Of course, the elixir is not powerful enough to bring the dead to life, just as Dantès himself is not capable of accomplishing divine feats. The power to grant life—like the power to carry out ultimate retribution and justice—lies solely in God’s province. It is when Dantès acknowledges the limits of his elixir that he realizes his own limitations as a human being.

More Help

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Sultan of Monte Cristo-The Sequel

by keitht7, July 15, 2012

The Sultan of Monte Cristo is a return to the great classic writing of

the late 19th century.Written as a sequel to the long time loved and

treasured adventure novel The Count of Monte Cristo,Sultan of

Monte Cristo pays great tribute to the original by remaining full of

intrigue and adding more seductive romance with the harem of the

Sultan.
The many exploites of the Sultan leaves you wondering how could

this astonishing work of literary art be so captivating while keeping

to the ... Read more

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23 out of 77 people found this helpful

WARNING!!!!!

by KingSize4, May 02, 2013

This for the full version if your not reading the full version this will get you even more confused than the book does. The Count of Monte Christo is a good book but not when your confused about the Plot i'm in the middle of reading it and think the spark notes really help.

0 Comments

5 out of 8 people found this helpful

Not done yet- Many Characters

by thereader77, October 16, 2013

Keep track of the many characters in this novel - the notes so far are far off from the chapter notes. Chapters listed here are incorrect. wait for further notes.

See all 4 readers' notes   →

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