13. The Count of Monte Cristo (Audiobook, 1844-1846, Alexandre Dumas) – If Hamlet is the perfect antithesis of revenge dramas, then this is perhaps the perfect initial thesis of those stories despite coming some 200 odd years after Shakespeare’s tale.
This novel is in two parts. The first part is the story of Edmond Dantès, a merchant sailor who is first mate on board the ship Pharaon
who has just returned home to Marseilles in 1815. While at sea, Dantès' captain uses his dying breath to order him to deliver a package to General Bertrand (Who is exiled on the Island of Elba alongside Napoleon), and then to deliver a letter from Bertrand to a man in Paris. Dantès doesn't think much of this being a young man, he simply fulfills his captain's last request and then proceeds to return home so he can marry his fiance Mercédès.
With the captain of the Pharaon
dead though, Dantès is next in line to become captain despite being young. This causes fellow shipmate Danglars to become insanely jealous of Dantès. While chatting with Fernand Mondego (Cousin of Mercédès, and he is very much in love with her (Eww)) and Caderousse (Dantes' neighbor that just kind of doesn't like him), Danglars sets the idea of falsely accusing Dantes of being a Bonapartist traitor, who seeks to return Napoleon to France and overthrow King Louis XVIII (Its worth noting here that the initial captain of the Pharaon
was in fact a Bonapartist, which gives the accusation some heavy circumstantial weight). Danglars writes the letter, Fernand is the one who actually sends it, and Caderousse chooses to say nothing about the plot to the authorities.
Officials believe this accusation, and during his wedding ceremony Dantès is arrested. Dantes is then interviewed by prosecutor Gérard de Villefort, who actually realizes that Dantès is innocent, it the was the captain of the Pharaon
who was the Bonapartist, and initially moves to have Dantès freed...until he sees the letter Dantes was to deliver to Paris, which was addressed to Villefort's father Noitier of all people in the world. Now Gérard is a staunch Royalist, but Noitier being revealed as a Bonapartist would of course hurt his own reputation and to protect his family name Gérard knowingly sends to Dantès to the hellish prison Château d'If to rot away, forgotten.
Dantès spends several isolating years suffering in the Château d'If, not even knowing how or exactly why he was sent there. He tries to tunnel out at one point, but it ultimately fails- however it does lead him to the cell of another inmate, the Abbé Faria, who has also been trying to escape. Faria, despite being dismissed as a lunatic by the prison guards, is an intelligent and learned man, and after befriending Dantes is even able to deduce that there was a plot against him. He educates Dantes over further years, teaching him foreign languages, sciences etc., but perhaps most important he tells him of a treasure that is buried on the island of Monte Cristo.
Unfortunately Faria dies is prison before the two can escape together, though Dantes uses the opportunity to switch places with Faria's corpse in a body bag, thinking he'll be thrown out somewhere he can escape from safely. Unfortunately the "corpse" is thrown into the ocean, though being a sailor gives Dantes just enough of an edge to survive the ocean long enough to be picked up by sailors.
Dantès finds that it has been fourteen long years since he thrown into the Château d'If. He eventually works up enough funds to journey to the island of Monte Cristo, finds the buried to not only be real but vast beyond anyone's imagination. He uses this treasure to buy the island itself, the title of "Count", and then returns home to Marseille to get up to date on what has happened since his imprisonment.
Napoleon's One Hundred Days have come and are now long gone (Side note: Dumas had very good reason to want to tarnish the name of "The Usurper", considering what he did to Dumas' own father.
). Dantès learns that his father has died alone and penniless. Caderousse remains in poverty as well, while the rest have risen to the heights of Parisian society. Danglars has become the "Baron" Danglars and a wealthy banker. Fernand Mondego has become a war hero, reinventing himself as the "Count de Morcerf", and married Mercédès. Villefort meanwhile has become the Crown prosecutor of France. Dantès own reputation is basically ruined now of course, as he is now remembered as a traitor to France, though it is thought he died in the Château d'If. This is somewhat to his benefit though, as that belief as well the considerable passage of time (In addition to his imprisonment has distorted his face enough to be beyond recognition to most) allows him to mostly walk freely again without much fear of being recongized.
Dantès decides to secretly assist those that actually tried to help him in prison (Namely the Morrel family, who pleaded that he was innocent and a good man), and then later even meets up with Caderrouse, though in disguise as Abbe Busoni, "Busoni" basically tricks Caderrouse into admitting his part in the plot against Dantès, though Caderrouse seems to regret and feel guilt over his actions/lack of action however, and so "Busoni" rewards him with a diamond that he says Dantès had intended for his friends.
Afterwards, Dantès announces that his doing of good deeds is now finished, and then sets out for revenge against the rest.
That's just part 1 of the novel, and by my estimate covers roughly 15 of the 53 hours of the audiobook version. Part 2 picks up about a decade later, once Dantès, having now reinvented himself primarily as "The Count of Monte Cristo" and leaving his old name behind, begins to actually enact his revenge now that the preparations are mostly complete. The next 25 or so hours involves Dantes straight up trolling and manipulating his way across Europe and into Paris (Including even more goofy disguises such as the banker "Lord Wilmore" and "Sinbad the Sailor"), so he can begin dismantling the reputations, bank accounts, and lives of Danglars, Morcef, and Villefort. This is where the meat of the novel takes place, this slow burn as the Count inches his way into the lives of these three families so he destroy them from within without them realizing what's going on until its already too late. This is also where I think a lot of the social critique of the novel of comes in as well, as with the implicit argument that most of high society is built on similar crimes.
Anyways while the adventure novel that is part 1 is fun, I still quite enjoyed all of the subtle manipulations and such of part 2 as well, watching the dominoes slowly knocked down one right after the other until bodies have even started to pile up by the end.
Part 2 does seems like it handles things differently than Part 1 though. One way that immediately comes to mind is how it handles Point of View and dramatic irony- in Part 1, while Dantès is clearly the protagonist we the readers actually have much more information than him about what's going on with the plot against him until the chapters that focus on his time in Chateau d'If, where Faria explaining what the fuck is going on finally aligns (Well mostly aligns) Dantès' information with our own as readers. In Part 2 this shifts somewhat- we know that the Count is seeking revenge and who he's seeking revenge against, but the specifics of his plan aren't ever clearly laid out to us and we're left to infer it for the most part. The kidnapping of Albert de Morcef in the Italy chapters is a great example- its never specifically said that the Count had this arranged so he can be the one to save him and have Albert "reward" the Count by introducing him to Parisian society and the Morcef family, but that this is the Count's plan from the beginning and not a series of random coincidences is something were meant to puzzle out (And stands in contrast to, say, how even after years I still don't get what the fuck the Man in Black was doing in Lost). Where we were ahead of Dantès, now the Count is ahead of us and we're playing catch up throughout Part 2- especially because all of the different families and their interlocking drama is much more complicated than anything in Part 1, and the Count already has most of that figured out (Though that he only has "most of it" and not "all of it" figured out is something that comes back to haunt him in the novel's end).
I think this shift in Part 2's POV is also what adds to the kind of mythological bent to the Count as a character, beyond basically every other character just finding him generally mysterious, rather than the mere sailor of Part 1. The Count himself views himself as some kind of avenging angel doing God's work (Until the end, anyways), though this is perhaps paralleled by others suspecting him of being some kind of vampire.
While they're around in Part 1, this is also the part of the novel where the references to One Thousand and One Nights starts becoming more significant- there are some in Part 1 (Dantes' saying "Open Sesame" when looking for the treasure and such), though this really kicks into high gear with Part 2. The most notable example is probably how one of the Count's many disguises includes "Sinbad the Sailor", throughout the story we do sometimes see Dumas even replicate the nested structure of One Thousand and One Nights as well. Chapter 33 is a good example- the chapter where Franz and Albert get told the story of Luigi Vampa. It seems like a really random aside, especially once the story about Vampa himself is interrupted by the story of another particularly brutal bandit Cucumetto. The Cucumetto story eventually moves up a "layer of relevance" within the fiction when Cucumetto is eventually meets Vampa, who agrees to let him hide out for a time. The story starts seeming more relevant once Vampa meets and befriends a man calling himself "Sinbad the Sailor", and later on Vampa just fucking murders Cucumetto and takes over his brutal gang for himself. We later on see Vampa and "Sinbad" working together on friendly terms, and this seemingly random chapter gains new significance as it shows how in some ways Dantes has morally degraded a bit to work with such shady characters as Vampa (Who will be the one to actually kidnap Albert for the Count). Vampa's name even recalls the rumors about the Count of Monte Cristo being some kind of a vampire that I mentioned earlier.
If I had a complaint about the novel its that for as long as it is, a lot of the characters are fairly straightforward though that's arguably part of the point for at least some of them (Danglars being almost comically one-dimensional immediately comes to mind, particularly the bit from the end of the novel where he reveals he's read precisely one book in his entire life and ironically enough for someone who lives such an unexamined life its Don Quixote), and a lot of the cast is at least still pretty memorable which is saying something considering how large it gets and complicated the plot becomes in Part 2.
So in a lot of a ways The Count of Monte Cristo may be "just" a straightforward revenge novel but at the same time its hard to imagine one being done much better than this. More than anything, its just so damn fun.
14. Markheim (Audiobook, 1885, Robert Louis Stevenson) – Markheim is a guy who kills a shopowner is a dispute, and then while wandering around in a daze meets a strange a guy who Markheim believes might be the Devil. They debate the nature of mankind and sin and such, whether good intentions can justify awful crimes etc., with the stranger primarily arguing that as he’s followed Markheim his whole life he knows him to be an evil man who will always commit sin and do crimes (Like robbery, more murder etc.) and whatnot. The devil/stranger then tries to get Markheim to commit even more crimes.
Markheim gets so fed up with this that he basically tells the first other person he meets to contact the police so he can admit to the crime, almost to spite the stranger more than anything.
It’s a neat little short story. I’m not entirely sure whether the devil/stranger actually even exists or just isn’t some psychological projection of Markheim’s guilt or not. Either way, I’m also not sure whether he was trying to manipulate Markheim into giving himself up to the police or was sincerely just trying to corral him into doing bad deeds together. Interesting how there’s a few ways to look at it.
15. Lobo, the King of Currumpaw
(1898, Ernest Thompson Seton) - A "fact-based short story" about the author hunting Lobo, the leader of a pack of wolves that's going around eating cattle and stuff. Not a whole lot to really say about from my end, though the whole thing is more sad than any kind of triumphant adventure, particularly with regards to how Lobo is actually killed.
"[Cinema] is a labyrinth with a treacherous resemblance to reality." - Andrew Sarris