Just as Dantès’s imprisonment is portrayed as a sort of death, his escape is cast as a sort of rebirth. Dantès emerges into the free world by way of water, clearly a symbolic reference to the Christian tradition of baptism, in which a newborn baby is doused with water in order to dedicate its soul to God. Dantès is reborn as a man with a single mission—to avenge the wrongs done to him. His baptismal pledge, then, can be seen as a pledge to carry out this vengeance, which he believes is God’s will. Signs of Dantès’s transformation emerge immediately, as we see when he boards the smugglers’ ship bearing falsehoods about his identity. The Dantès of the early chapters is a compulsively honest man, yet he now lies easily and skillfully about his identity. His constructs his first lie without a second thought, and he follows with a barrage of other untruths. Dantès’s radically different behavior indicates that he is a new man, born during his imprisonment and baptized during his watery escape.
Dumas challenges the rigid and judgmental expectations of French society in portraying the smugglers as good, even admirable men. The smugglers’ actions have little to do with justice in an ethical sense. Indeed, though The Count of Monte Cristo is a novel about justice, the concept of justice in the novel is deep and complex, based on fundamental ethical rights rather than societal law. Indeed, Dantès’s concept of justice does not at all match up with civil society’s concept of justice. The distinction between Dantès’s concept of justice and society’s concept of justice is further underscored by the fact that the public prosecutor, Villefort—who, we see later, is portrayed as the human arbiter of societal law—is cast as a vile and unjust character. Dumas’s message is clear: societal justice is really no justice at all, as it punishes moral and good people for petty crimes that have nothing to do with real justice, while rewarding the vile and unethical with wealth and power.
In Chapter 24, Dumas begins to explore an important difference between lives filled with hope and lives filled with hopelessness. Preparing himself for the disappointment of not finding the treasure, Dantès reflects that “[t]he heart breaks when, after having been elated by flattering hopes, it sees all these illusions destroyed.” He thus acknowledges that hope is what keeps a human being going and that hopelessness is the only thing that destroys the human spirit. Dantès begins to understand that happiness and despair stem from expectations, not from what one actually has or does not have. With all his desires now pinned on enacting his revenge, Dantès realizes that he faces the possibility of falling into despair once again if he finds no treasure and thus cannot hope to carry out his revenge. He attempts to dim his hopes in order to save himself the crippling pain that would result if he finds these hopes thwarted.
When Dantès locates the treasure, he considers the event both “joyous and terrible,” because he knows that with this wealth, he must now begin the obsessive, dark endeavor that will consume him for the next decade. He must sever ties to normal human life and devote himself to destroying his enemies. This daunting task is made possible by his fortune alone, and so the fortune itself frightens him. Only when Dantès prays is he able to feel the day is at all “joyous.” His prayer calms the feelings of horror and revulsion that the sight of his treasure stirs up and convinces him that God supports his mission of revenge. Dantès convinces himself that only God could have orchestrated the successful discovery of such an enormous treasure, and that the treasure exists for the very purpose of carrying out a terrible punishment on Dantès’s enemies.
As we see later, Dantès’s conviction that God is using him as an instrument to carry out divine will continues to buoy his determination throughout the novel. Given Dantès’s religious interpretation of his mission, it is significant that the island where he finds his treasure is called “Monte Cristo,” which in Italian means “the mountain of Christ.” This religious conception of his mission and Dantès’s certainty about its legitimacy allow him to overlook the “terrible” aspect of his discovery and bask in its “joyous” aspect.