I first ran into The Count of Monte Cristo in movie form, when I was a freshman or sophomore in high school. I was living in the Philippines, my parents were out of town, and a typhoon was blowing in. As I was watching, the protagonist, Edmond, had just gotten out of prison when the power went out, and when the power went out in the Philippines, it might not turn back on for day or even weeks. I was so caught up in the story that I went outside in the middle of the typhoon and started our generator so that I could keep watching the movie.
A few years later, I was concluding my second senior year of high school (I was a particularly motivated student) and borrowed the book from the library. It took me at least a month to finish, maybe two. Reading the book wasn’t a pivotal experience and I didn’t enjoy the book the way I enjoyed the movie.
Then six or seven years later, after I’d finished my English degree and written my first book, I got the audiobook for The Count of Monte Cristo. This second time through, I realized that the book is brilliant. It was still a journey to get through—389,180 words or 1,276 pages—but I listened to it in back-to-back years. Each time I listened, I understood more and appreciated it in deeper ways. While I still like the movie, I now see it as less than a shadow of the book.
My two favorite elements to the book are its plot and its wit:
The plot isn’t so much complex as it is masterful, with each point leading naturally into the next. The book has long stories inserted into the overarching narrative that built the plot, which is a revenge story. The main character disappears from the forefront of the narrative, but is clearly active behind the scenes. As the story moves, smaller characters are introduced, and as their stories are fulfilled, they provide a step in the grand story of Edmond Dantés. The farther the book continues, the more impressive it becomes that one author could sustain such an extensive yet tightly knit story, especially when one considers that the story was original written as a serial with eighteen parts.
The wit comes out in Alexander Dumas’ descriptions, especially descriptions of society, and in the dialogue. Take for instance the words of a drunk who sings, “The wicked are great drinkers of water; As the flood proved once for all.” No matter how many times I hear the line, I still can’t get over it. While reading The Count of Monte Cristo, it’s best to remember that Dumas is often subtly witty or one risks glossing over an amusing or brilliant social observation.
Because it is so long, some people opt for the abridged version, but I would caution against such a choice. I’m generally against abridged versions of books, even extended works—with perhaps the lone concession of Les Misérables—and The Count of Monte Cristo is no exception to this general principle. Most readers would be reluctant to abridge The Lord of the Rings, for example, because we understand what would be lost, and The Count of Monte Cristo’s writing is even tighter and weightier.
Like all excellent books, the journey and not the destination is the point. It’s easy to differentiate a good book from a great book. We read a good book like we’re racing to the end; a good book is about the conclusion. However, a great book is about enjoying and experiencing how we get to the end. We relish the beginning and the anticipation that comes with it, we revel in the substance of the middle, and we are almost disappointed by the end because now the journey is over. Every time I get to the conclusion of The Count of Monte Cristo, the feeling is bitter sweet and leaves me feeling just a bit hollow because I don’t want the journey to end.