Many people see The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas as an amazing yarn, but not much more. And indeed, it boasts one of the most intricate, fascinating plots ever devised. But the tug-of-war between free will and Providence, between justice and revenge, between despair and hope make The Count of Monte Cristo much more than a mere adventure story.
Edmond Dantés, an eighteen-year-old sailor, arrives back in France after taking command of a merchant ship whose captain died en route. Another sailor anonymously informs the deputy crown prosecutor of Marseille, Gérard de Villefort, that Dantés is (unknowingly) delivering a message on behalf of the exiled Napoleon in the form of a letter he promised to carry for his late captain. When Villefort interrogates Dantés, he comes to the conclusion that if Dantés is guilty, “it is only of imprudence.” But then Villefort finds out the letter is addressed to Villefort’s own father. He fears that his career will be destroyed if this becomes known, so in order to protect himself, he sentences Dantés to life in prison.
Initially, after everything he cares about has been ripped away from him and he is thrown in prison, Dantés thinks it is just a misunderstanding. Then, when he sees no man will help him, he turns to God. When he thinks he isn’t heard, he turns from God to fury. And from fury to suicide. It is at this moment, at the very brink of brokenness, as he is intentionally starving himself to death, that he hears a fellow prisoner, Abbé Faria, tunneling through his wall in an attempt to escape. The shocking hope of escape rekindles Dantés’ desire for life and his openness to God. He turns back to God and prays, “God! Do not let me die in despair!” At this moment he and Faria first meet. But his newfound faith is still in its infancy, and he mistakes the nature of his relationship to God. Abbé Faria, a clergyman with a renaissance bent teaches Dantés everything he knows about high society, from languages to customs to the sciences. It is their first unusual meeting that plants a seed of faith in Edmond’s soul, one that takes time to germinate and eventually to grow.
Eventually, Faria tells Dantés where to retrieve an immense treasure once he is free. When the Abbé dies, Dantés exploits the prison’s process of disposing bodies as a way to escape. Upon gaining his freedom, he collects the treasure. But when he searches for his family, he finds that his father has passed away and his former fiancée is now married to a man named Fernand who (unbeknownst to her) had been party to Dantés’ denunciation. He feels that there is no one left living who cares for him, so he transforms himself into an “avenging angel” and sets about orchestrating the downfall of all those who had betrayed him fourteen years before.
Most men who escape from prison and acquire an extraordinary treasure would seek happiness for themselves. But once Edmond is free, he uses the treasure and what he learned from the Abbé to insert himself into the lives of those who betrayed him, all the while disguising his true identity. He intends to destroy them and their families through what means the most to each of them. He spends ten years in careful preparation. He thinks this patient waiting, this gaze towards the future in twisted hope, will bring him happiness. He is bent on vengeance, but it leads not to the freedom and satisfaction he is hoping for, but to empty, frustrating despair. He escapes prison only to confine himself in a hollow life of his own making.
At the beginning of the story, we see that Dantés’ view of himself is as someone blessed by Providence, and then as someone cursed by it. Now that he has escaped from prison, he sees himself as one who has risen from the grave: a man outside of the bounds of Providence and an agent of Providence itself. He waits and hopes, but only for and in his own plans. And as his planned destruction comes to his enemies, he realizes events have slipped out of his control. He intended to drive Fernand’s family to leave him; they do and, unforeseen by Dantés, Fernand commits suicide. He intended to drive Villefort to public ruin, but does not anticipate that it will drive him to insanity. At the moment that Dantés sees Villefort driven mad, he has his first doubts about whether he has the right to do as he has done. “Pray God that I have not already done too much,” he pleads as he changes course and seeks to save the last victims of his machinations. He starts to see that his waiting should have been on the Lord and his hope should have been in the will of Providence. There will always be unplanned consequences: No matter how exactingly executed or well thought out our plans, no human has omnipotent control.
But even after this epiphany, Dantés is still unhappy. He has achieved all that he ever dreamed of from the second he stepped foot out of prison, and yet, in the end he questions it all: “I have come from a planet called sorrow.” Revenge, only justified by his delusions of being an agent of Providence, brings no happiness. He is returned to the despair he suffered in prison. But then he realizes that there is someone who loves him. He had been so focused on revenge as his way to happiness that he could not see anything in people beyond their use for his plans. A woman who has been devoted to him for years expresses her love to him and he cries, “God has sustained me in my struggle with my enemies, and has given me this reward; he will not let me end my triumph in suffering; I wished to punish myself, but he has pardoned me.”
Looking back on his campaign of vengeance, he realizes the cost of his revenge—for others and for himself. He will ever seek forgiveness from the Lord for the arrogance of thinking himself “for an instant equal to God”—a deputized agent of Providence instead of an instrument of the Almighty God. His last words exhort us to follow a different path than he did, a path of contentment in Providence:
Live, then, and be happy, beloved children of my heart, and never forget that until the day when God shall deign to reveal the future to man, all human wisdom is summed up in these two words,—’Wait and hope.’