The Count of Monte Cristo

by: Alexandre Dumas



[I]f I live, I am only a man who has broken his word, failed in his engagements . . . If I lived, you would feel shame at my name; when I am dead, you may raise your head and say, “I am the son of the man you killed, because, for the first time, he was compelled to fail in his word.”

Monsieur Morrel, expecting financial ruin, explains to his son, Maximilian, that he plans to kill himself at the moment he finds himself unable to pay a debt. Although at first appalled, Maximilian not only agrees with his father’s plan but determines to join him, only changing his mind because he needs to look after his family. Both Morrels consider death preferable to dishonor, a common belief among the morally upright people throughout the novel. Interestingly, although the Catholic Church considers suicide a sin, the characters do not seem to take that fact into consideration, perhaps because suicide expiates a greater crime.


I owe my life and the honour of my name to you; for had this been made public, oh, Beauchamp, I should have shot myself; or, —no, my poor mother! I could not have killed her by the same blow,— I should have fled from my country.

Albert de Morcerf has just learned that the rumor of his father’s betrayal of Ali Pasha many years ago is in fact true. His friend Beauchamp, a journalist, dug up the facts but now promises to keep them secret. Albert believes that he would have to do something radical to expiate the guilt of being associated with such dishonor. Readers might note that he does not believe that his father’s betrayal itself warrants a demonstration of shame, but the public knowledge of the betrayal does. As long as nobody knows the shameful secret, Albert believes his honor will remain intact.


You do not suppose, that publicly outraged in the face of a whole theatre, in the presence of your friends and those of your son,—challenged by a boy, who will glory in my pardon as in a victory;—you do not suppose I can for one moment wish to live.

Mercédès pleads with Dantès as Monte Cristo to have mercy on her son, Albert, whose challenge to a duel Monte Cristo accepted. Here, Monte Cristo agrees to spare Albert for her sake, but then makes clear that he will die instead. Dueling was a prime means of protecting and restoring one’s honor. The laws of dueling dictate that, having been publicly challenged, one cannot honorably refuse the duel, and the only honorable outcomes are winning or death. Like others in the story, Monte Cristo prefers death to dishonor, so he plans to let Albert kill him.


‘The general has just blown his brains out . . . ’ said Monte Cristo; ‘a dead father or husband is better than a dishonoured one; blood washes out shame.’

After the public revelation that Count de Morcerf betrayed Ali Pasha, honor requires one result: his suicide, which he duly commits. This act shows that he recognizes the dishonor of his behavior, and thus partially, though not completely, expiates the shame attached to his name. Readers may infer, however, that Morcerf did not actually feel shame over his betrayal of Ali Pasha as he lived proudly and happily for many years after that campaign. He kills himself only when publicly called out for his behavior, presumably for the sake of his family’s honor.


‘Oh, do not fear the scaffold, madame,’ said the magistrate, ‘I will not dishonor you, since that would be to dishonor myself . . . ’

Villefort has finally accepted that the poisoner stalking his family is his own wife. In order to get justice while not dishonoring himself, he makes clear he expects her to poison herself. Seeing his wife on the scaffold would publicly dishonor him, since he serves as France’s top prosecutor and thus represents a symbol of justice. Readers may determine that if he truly cared about justice, however, he would want his wife tried and convicted, especially since she was responsible for their daughter’s death. But in fact his honor, or rather the appearance of his honor, seems more important to him.