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Why Great Romantic Novels Don’t Get Old

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By Walter Donway

June 25, 2017

 

Romanticism can provide the child with a sense of the seriousness and excitement of valuing as such—the foundation of any specific code of values (morality).

It is too weak to say that all my life I have been a fan of literary Romanticism; the better characterization is “addict.” Ayn Rand has explained how Romanticism can provide the child with a sense of the seriousness and excitement of valuing as such—the foundation of any specific code of values (morality). The Tarzan novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs and the Sherlock Holmes stories of Arthur Conan Doyle set me up for a love affair with Atlas Shrugged, which I read in 1962 during the summer between high school and college.

That is a broad introduction to my topic, but today I finished reading The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexander Dumas, a novel of 928 pages, and wondered why it had taken me long to read one of the dozen most celebrated novels in the Romantic tradition.

I almost loved this novel. I locked myself in my bedroom with Atlas Shrugged and read it in three days. I was not compelled in that way by Monte Cristo, but I returned to it relentlessly over two weeks and became agitated today to see how it finally came out. The conclusion is dramatic, although in a somewhat forced fashion, and happy, but, I am sorry to say, not the best part of the book.

 

Monte Cristo in the Romantic Tradition

Ayn Rand, in The Romantic Manifesto, said she saw her role as a transmission belt, informing readers, in our time, of the forgotten and unimaginably benevolent sense of life of the late Nineteenth Century. To her, that sense of life was represented by Romantic literature, most particularly, by the novels of Victor Hugo. French Romantic literature came late in the Romantic movement, which started and flourished first in England and Scotland, and the Romantic novelist Ayn Rand revered, above all, Victor Hugo, published his great novels in the 1860’s and later—well after what historians designate the “end” of the literary Romantic movement in 1840. (Romanticism in music, for example, lasted much longer.)

Dumas’ Monte Cristo claimed a popularity that seems to have exceeded the novels of Hugo. Editions of Monte Cristo, dozens and dozens of film and TV versions, sequels, plays, and videogames have poured forth. But in the end, perhaps, quality triumphs. Les Miz, since its premier in Paris in 1980, has become the second longest-running musical in theater history (after The Fantasticks). Critics at the London opening panned the play; audiences fell in love and stayed in love.

The Count of Monte Cristo is French, of course, and, like Hugo’s novels, came late even in French Romanticism—1844. It is tempting to say that Monte Cristo has been more popular than Victor Hugo’s novels, but that is true only in a specific sense. Victor Hugo, over his lifetime as a poet and dramatist–and at the end as a novelist—was incomparably popular, almost worshipped. His fame was not only literary but political. His funeral in May 1885 was considered a historic moment in France.

In the many decades that followed, though, Dumas’ Monte Cristo claimed a popularity that seems to have exceeded the novels of Hugo. Editions of Monte Cristo, dozens and dozens of film and TV versions, sequels, plays, and videogames have poured forth. But in the end, perhaps, quality triumphs. Les Miz, since its premier in Paris in 1980, has become the second longest-running musical in theater history (after The Fantasticks). Critics at the London opening panned the play; audiences fell in love and stayed in love.

 

Buried Alive: Edmond Dantes

The theme of The Count of Monte Cristo is survival of the human spirit through any ordeal, vengeance against those who have tried to destroy us, and how in battling evil we risk becoming tainted by it.

I am not sure the critics would agree, but to me the theme of The Count of Monte Cristo is survival of the human spirit through any ordeal, vengeance against those who have tried to destroy us, and how in battling evil we risk becoming tainted by it. Ayn Rand probably would not have written a novel like this because of her conviction that evil is not important enough to be our chief adversary. In her novels, the dominant conflict is between good characters who clash because of different premises (errors of knowledge); evil characters are able temporarily to cash in on those errors—as do Ellsworth Toohey in The Fountainhead and Lillian Rearden in Atlas Shrugged.

My whole heart and attention were engaged at the outset of Monte Cristo, when Edmund Dantes, a young French sailor out of Marseilles, is promoted for his competence, with still greater prospects to come, and can now propose to the woman he loves. His enemy is envy of success. The man who wants his fiancé and the man who wants his job act together to denounce him as a Bonapartist agent as a time when Napoleon on Elba was anathema to the new French monarchy.

Buried for life in a dungeon in an island hell-hole prison, by a corrupt prosecutor, while his rival marries his finance when she gives him up for dead, Edmund Dantes becomes the focus of a prison sequence that for me is the highlight of the novel. His suffering, utter despair, extraordinary secret relation with another prisoner, and his bizarre escape are unforgettable Romanticism.

But … there are many more pages to go after this. This is the story of how Edmond Dantes, made indescribably rich by a secret treasure revealed by his fellow prisoner, consciously and deliberately fashions himself into a master of the world–the Count of Monte Cristo—the triumph of human purpose over all odds. Human will, not fate, shapes our lives. This is the defining characteristic of the Romantic movement.

 

Master of the “World’s City”

Rich, powerful, elegant, and schooled profoundly in secrecy and intrigue, the Count step by step moves toward Paris, where the three men who left him buried for life are wealthy barons at the heart of the Paris aristocracy. The Paris of barons and counts, their lives, their families, and their intrigues are the setting for most of Monte Cristo and the literary mastery of Dumas brings them, and the era, to life.

The unimaginably subtle intrigues by which the Count of Monte Cristo ensnares and brings down his powerful foes occasionally left me seeking to recall who is who. If you read the novel, keep handy the list of those who tried to help Dantes, and those who cast him into hell, to track the action. It is worth it, believe me!

Because Romanticism is defined by assertion of human choice, a great pleasure is always the mastery of life by the heroes and few will ever match the Count of Monte Cristo. Just as each enemy faces his doom, Edmond Dantes reveals himself to him and takes a bow.

Perhaps the inner conflict in the novel is that to destroy three powerful men, drive them to suicide, bankruptcy, and madness, the Count must affect the lives of many innocents. Malefactors have wives and children.

Perhaps the inner conflict in the novel is that to destroy three powerful men, drive them to suicide, bankruptcy, and madness, the Count must affect the lives of many innocents. Malefactors have wives and children. Are you God, even if you seem to have his power, to determine their fate? And, of course, there is the woman Dantes loved—so long ago—now wife of his sworn enemy. And there are the people who tried to help, who gave much in the attempt to rescue him from prison.

In the end, Dumas, who refers ultimate morality to God, does not resolve the contradictions, preferring a final ambiguity. The conclusion for which we have waited so long is satisfying, the villains are undone and a pair of young lovers whose harrowing romance we have followed through much of the novel are united, virtually magically, by the Count. He has found the woman he loved long ago and secured her future. But his own fate is as elusive as his distant sails upon the sunlit sea. He has left us with the “only truth” we can know before divine revelation: “Wait and hope.”

That appears, however, to be his advice to others, not himself—the situation of Eddie Willers, not John Galt—for the Count has willed and attained his every objective. He seems to set sail for a destination we cannot know because he created himself to bring justice to evil and that is done. Perhaps it is the turn of Edmond Dantes to live, again.

 

EXPLORE

The Romantic Manifesto by Ayn Rand.

Ayn Rand Resuscitates Dying Romanticism” by Walter Donway.

“The Romantic Revolution: The Glory, the Tragedy, the Future” by Walter Donway.

 

 

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  • Christopher Budden

    This was a great review, Walter! Now I want to read “The Count of Monte Cristo!” Thanks for the tip on keep a list of who is who in the novel too!

  • W.R. Donway

    Thanks, Chris! I find that in most Nineteenth Century novels you have to slip into a different pace because readers then loved long novels, novelists offered long and evocative descriptions, and far more characters were involved than in today’s typical novel. That surely is true for the “Monte Cristo.” In fact, I easily could read it again because Dumas offers so many stories, so many long scenes, so many passages of description or reflection, I did not fully appreciate them at the speed that I read. The same, for sure, could be said about “Atlas Shrugged.”