CRITICS CORNER COLUMNIST
One hundred and seventeen chapters is a formidable length for a book, so I doubt many people have delved into the literary commitment that is Alexandre Dumas’ “The Count of Monte Cristo.” Even so, perhaps this summer you could take some time for this remarkable study on justice and redemption.
I’m sure many people have seen a movie adaptation or are at least familiar with the pitiable story of Edmond Dantes, the innocent man thrown into jail for being in the wrong place at the wrong time and being an inconvenience to the wrong people. While in prison in the isolated Chateau d’If, he befriends a priest who gives him the key to a fabulous treasure.
Even more impressive than this is the drive of Edmond to revenge himself on the men who wronged him after he escapes, and to this end he becomes the larger than life Count of Monte Cristo. Edmond’s actions — involving himself deeply in the lives of the men who put him in jail and his habit of popping up in different disguises all over the place — gives the reader a sense that he is almost omniscient and omnipresent. In point of fact, he does believe his actions are sanctioned by God and that he is dealing out divine justice.
Edmond’s plans for revenge all work out perfectly and he has no cause for remorse until his actions push a man into madness and indirectly cause a woman to kill herself and her little son. The sight of the dead child particularly is an earth-shattering wake-up call to Edmond, and for the first time he calls into question the virtue of his actions. For the first time, he doubts God’s approval.
How often have we gone too far in our own concept of what justice is? Obviously none of us have ever partaken of a masterminded effort like that of Edmond Dantes, but what about normal anger that seizes us and makes us want to punish the people who’ve hurt us? We might see ourselves in a certain sense as the fair hand of justice, maybe even the justice of God.
But if “The Count of Monte Cristo” is any indicator, man’s justice is simply not enough. We don’t know all ends, we don’t understand why things happen. The best our justice system can do is to treat every accused person the same way and hope that it correctly separates those who are innocent from those who are guilty.
Edmond seeing the child whose death he helped to bring about is a painful reminder that, though we may think we can act like God, doling out justice, we can’t see all ends. We might even end up hurting people more than they deserve. In his determination to avenge himself, Edmond loses sight of everyone around him and behaves with reckless disregard for collateral damage.
Moreover, his hatred causes him to forget the mercy of God that goes part and parcel with his justice. He thinks he’s acting on behalf of God, but in reality, his hatred and anger have so consumed him that he has forgotten everything that made him human.
In the end, I think Dumas is seeking to communicate to his audience that ultimately, we must entrust injustice against us to God, who knows all hearts and will take care of us. If we seek to enact justice ourselves, our imperfections may very well destroy our initial just intentions and make us into monsters.
After the horrible misfortune in the novel, Edmond repents of his harshness and deals mercy to the last man involved in the plot against him. Thus relieved of his burden and his hatred, he is free to live the rest of his life in love and peace, knowing that he is not the equal of God. This message is one that cannot be repeated enough and is why this work is a stunning commentary on human suffering and the need for vindication. It may be lengthy, but it’s a work you’ll not soon forget.