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The Count of Monte Cristo | Context

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Alexandre Dumas's popular historical novel, The Count of Monte Cristo, was first published in serial form from 1844 to 1845. An adventure story with larger-than-life characters, Gothic images, and melodramatic events, this saga of betrayal and revenge was an instant hit with French readers. Set mostly in France, the story's events unfold in the turbulent years from 1815 to 1839, with Bonapartists, who wanted Napoleon returned to power, and Royalists, who favored the reinstalled Bourbon monarchy of France, conspiring against one another for control of the government.

Napoleon Bonaparte

While Dumas takes liberties with historical events, many of the key plot points revolve around the pivotal 19th-century French political figure Napoleon Bonaparte. Bonaparte, from the island of Corsica, was a general in France's Revolutionary Army who saved the revolutionary government from a mob attack and then led the army to victories that, by 1800, formed the basis of an empire that included Austria, Italy, and Egypt. In 1799, Bonaparte led a coup against the ruling government and made himself France's dictatorial leader. By 1804, he had revised the French constitution and had become emperor. Even though Bonaparte came to power by less than noble means, he was popular with many people. He put the finishing touches on abolishing the feudal system that had for centuries been the backbone of French society. He made education available to all classes, created standard codes of law, and organized the court system. Bonaparte's attempts to completely conquer Europe led to his defeat by a coalition of nations, and in 1814, he was forced to abdicate and was exiled to the island of Elba, located in the Mediterranean. Some Bonapartists remained loyal, and he succeeded in escaping from Elba a year later, returning to France to reclaim his throne and title. It is the information of this escape that is found in the letter Dantès is caught carrying and what sets the events of The Count of Monte Cristo in motion.

The Nobility

In the early 1800s, the old hereditary aristocracy, which traditionally only socialized with and married within its own class, began to mix with and marry into the newly wealthy families of business and industrial leaders. The use of titles and coats of arms had been outlawed after the French Revolution, but when the monarchy returned, so did these symbols of the aristocracy. Those with new wealth, like the characters Fernand and Danglers in The Count of Monte Cristo, were eager to acquire titles to cement their arrival in the highest levels of society. A title that was purchased or granted was considered second class by the traditional aristocracy, who inherited their titles over many generations but was nevertheless coveted by the rising middle class.

Fact, Fiction, and Style

Dumas has been criticized for a lack of rigorous historical accuracy in his historical novels. For him, the most important goal was to create a good story, so he sometimes changed dates or events to suit the needs of the plot. The sheer length of the book is an issue for some. The length is partly due to the fact that the novel was first published in serial installments, so sometimes Dumas had to repeat important points to provide continuity. The length of the novel also might be related to the fact that Dumas was paid by the word, and he always needed money.

Dumas also comes under critical fire due to his liberal borrowing of other sources. There were even accusations of plagiarism against him for using plot lines from other works. The Count of Monte Cristo is an example of such a situation. Dumas's acknowledged inspiration was an anecdote in a collection of criminal cases recorded by a former police archivist named Jacques Peuchet. While the original tale, told by Peuchet, is of a man wrongfully imprisoned by jealous friends, Dumas added his own flair and romantic touch to create The Count of Monte Cristo.

Dumas's expertise as a playwright shines through in his skillful and extensive use of dialogue, which brings the story alive. He gives readers a window into the foibles and fixations of Parisian high society that is at once entertaining and educational, describing a night at the theater or the carnival in Rome in a way that seems to put the reader right into the scene.

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