The Hero’s Journey in “The Count of Monte Cristo”

In 1815, Edmond Dantès, a 19-year-old merchant sailor, returns to port in Marseilles. Rich in nature’s blessings, handsome, clever and well-made, he is about to be named captain of his ship, and to marry his Catalan fiancée, Mercédès. But, framed by his jealous rivals as a Bonapartist traitor, he is arrested on his wedding day and summarily imprisoned.

Dantès is incarcerated in the notorious Chateau d’If for 14 years. Here he receives an extensive education from the Abbé Faria in the next cell; acquires an aristocratic, unearthly pallor, allowing him, later, to masquerade as both a lord and a vampire; and is told the location of an unimaginable treasure – a barren island known as Monte Cristo.

Staging a daring escape, Dantès finds the treasure, but his life is irrevocably changed by his imprisonment. The years of his youth are lost; his father has died in penury. Mercédès, his betrothed, believing him gone forever, has married Fernand, his arch-rival, and borne him a son. Donning myriad disguises and aliases, Dantès sets out to wreak havoc among those who cost him so dear.

Despite its plethora of plot strands, places, and characters, and its layers of detail, rendered with a miniaturist’s anxious exactitude, The Count of Monte Cristo remains compulsively readable. In part, this is because of its unrestrained richness – it’s full of emeralds hollowed into pillboxes, diamond-bedecked horses, picturesque bandits and letters of unlimited credit. I also love its memorable, melodramatic crises, like the moment when Mercédès bursts through the polite fictions surrounding “the Count” to utter her despairing, agonised plea: “Edmond, you will not kill my son?” 

But I think I find Dantè’s narrative most addictive because it’s a forerunner of the classic superhero stories. The Count has a great deal in common with, say, Batman; in his new incarnation, he’s unrecognizable to almost everyone – and he has powers which seem almost supernatural, but which in fact derive from his limitless resources. He’s driven by past trauma and injustice – but is ultimately forced to confront the fact that he, too, has strayed from the side of the angels, becoming almost as pernicious as the villains he persecutes.

Dantè’s extraordinary journey, from youthful naivety through madness, torment, and calculated revenge to an eventual peace, relinquishing his ultimate vengeance, remains one of my favorite stories of all time.