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.