‘The noble Brutus hath told you that Caesar was ambitious: if it were so, it was a grievous fault, and grievously hath Caesar answer’d it.’
Or so is Mark Antony made to proclaim to the people of Rome upon the death of Julius Caesar by Shakespeare. The Count of Monte Cristo is a tale of many things: adventure, betrayal, jealousy, fate, vengeance, society. It is, above all, a cautionary story on the consequences of unchecked ambition, matched with a human capacity for limitless vice.
The novel, elaborately if tortuously expanded upon, revolves around one point: the pre-meditated and wrongful incarceration of Edmond Dantès for over a decade, and the protagonist’s subsequent determination to seek satisfaction at all costs, and the question of ‘who put Dantès there?’ is one that pervades the novel.
The four villains are, intentionally or otherwise, surprisingly comical, given the gravity of the crime (and later crimes) they commit. Mondego, whose motive was his intense and uncontrollable jealousy of Dantès for commanding the heart of his beloved Mercédès; Danglars, who was fearful of Dantès career advancement at the (potential) expense of his own; Caderousse, who in all his works lusted for wealth; and Villefort, a ruthless magistrate, made ‘of stone’.
After Dantès’ imprisonment in the Chateau d’If, Caderousse eventually finds himself on the brink of impoverishment. By the machinations of Dantès—who assumes various personae throughout the novel, from an abbé to a count of the small island of Monte Cristo—Caderousse is smiled upon. He is given a diamond worth 50000 francs, and, from certain squalor and destitution, he and his wife are thrust into wealth. But his unceasing ambition to acquire dictated otherwise. A jeweller comes to purchase the diamond. Caderousse ends up murdering him and keeps the diamond, along with the funds the jeweller had brought with him. The world is not enough; after being caught, imprisoned, and released by the Count of Monte Cristo, he subsequently essays to rob him, and ends up murdered in the crossfire. Caderousse did not want an opportunity to redress his ways; he wanted no ambition; it was his perpetual wont to extort and be fattened with wealth.
Fernand Mondego realises his short-term goal; he marries Mercédès in a quasi-Stockholm-syndrome manner but succumbs to his downfall by the same sword with which he achieved his ascendancy. Under the auspices of Ali Pacha in Greece, he betrayed his master to the Turks (much like he did to Dantès) and stole his wealth—even going so far as to sell Pacha’s wife and daughter into slavery. He had stolen fortune and fiancée. ‘Truth will out’: multiple Parisian newspapers get wind of this, and his reputation inevitably crumbles. He is tried and convicted; in lieu he opts to take his own life.
Villefort is a truly remarkable character, a true Talleyrand on the page. He ‘sacrificed ’Dantès ‘to his ambition’, that is, he knew of his innocence, but by prosecuting him, Villefort could thereby gain career advancement, which—of course—he does; he would enjoy a rather uncomfortable place within Dante’s Nine Circles of Hell. A cold and calculating personage, with each step made scrupulously to accord with his ambition: ‘I was then a royalist, because I believed the Bourbons not only the heirs to the throne but the chosen of the nation. The miraculous return of Napoleon has persuaded me; the legitimate monarch is he who is loved by his people’.
‘Dantès must be crushed beneath the weight of Villefort’s ambition.’
Perhaps this sounds like poor conduct. However, to exacerbate Villefort’s invoice, he seeks to murder his new-born, illegitimate, child (with none other than Madame Danglars). This fails—to him, unknowingly. To let him survive would not do; his career would be tarnished. With peculiar similarity, Madame Villefort attempts to kill her husband’s daughter from his first marriage (but here to prevent any inheritance from going to her and not to her child with Villefort). Likewise, this fails. Villefort, however, becomes aware of this and coerces her to commit suicide—rather less respectably than Cato the Younger—or else, yet again, his career would suffer. Concurrently, a man Villefort is seeking to prosecute—one Benedetto—turns out to be the child whom Villefort sought to quell. In court—nowhere else would be fitting for the procureur du roi—Villefort meets his fate when his illegitimate child outs him. No better sentiment than ‘Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practise to deceive ’(Sir Walter Scott) epitomises the life and death of Gérard de Villefort.
Danglars, a la Robert Catesby, was the chief orchestrator of the plot to get Dantès imprisoned. He accrues great wealth through speculation, is made a count, marries highly, and garners influence in the French court—which court does not really matter: ‘although in reality a liberal, he negotiated a loan of six millions for Charles X’. In an embarrassing passage, for Danglars, who claims to be ‘a representative of the liberties of the people ’(though Dantès would surely have raised his eyebrow at this), it is revealed he preserves ‘the habit of styling ’himself ‘baron’, while laying ‘aside that of calling others by their titles’.
‘I see; to your domestics you are, “My lord!” “M. le Baron!” the journalists of the day style you “Monsieur!” while your constituents term you “Citizen!”’
Ultimately, his haughty condescension does him no favours; his unfaithful (shockingly) wife speculates with his wealth with one of her lovers in government. To redress his monetary losses, he attempts to coerce his daughter to marry a man for his money, but this plan spectacularly backfires: he turns out to be an ex-convict, a humiliation for Danglars, and his daughter flees. Unlike the others, despite his lust for the illegal, he is spared by Monte Cristo. The Count determines he can no longer claim to be God’s agent on earth; he has gone too far. Providence must decide for Danglars what it wills, not Dantès himself.
Out of raging jealousy and desire, Dumas shows what people will do to achieve what they want. ‘History repeats itself ’in the face of these four actors. Dantès becomes disillusioned with his mission. Mercédès begs Dantès to spare her son Albert’s life, for no one should be guilty for their father’s crimes. Similarly, Valentine is spared. Yet most hauntingly in this volte-face is when Villefort ‘drags ’Dantès to the bodies of his wife and son and witheringly congratulates: ‘Are you well avenged?’
‘He felt he had passed beyond the bounds of vengeance, and that he could no longer say, “God is for and with me.”’
Dantès ’ambition is tempestuous and agonising—‘I may sacrifice my soul’—but he stays himself, realising the error of his ways, unlike his adversaries. Whether Dantès was just in his ambition is one thing—Dumas appears to condone the character of Dantès in the end—but there is little doubt that these men were the architects of their own downfall, beyond Dantès. Arguably, their role in the false imprisonment paled in comparison to their wider crimes. It was they, not Dantès, who were crushed beneath the weight of their own ambitions, and they grievously answered it.