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Desert Solitaire
by Edward Abbey

The Count of Monte Cristo

The Count of Monte Cristo

Alexandre Dumas

There are very few points in The Count of Monte Cristo in which the titular Count doubts his judgment.  He has no reason to.  The world Dumas creates is one in which the villains are thoroughly villainous, and the righteous are entirely pure of motive.  As an adventure tale, it keeps the story tidy.  The Good Guys all get their rewards, and the Bad Guys all are struck down, to a man.  And as a moral tale, it works just as well.  Even in those rare moments in which The Count wavers in dispensing divine justice, doubts whether his path is true, one of the Bad Guys does something especially bad, or one of the Good Guys does something especially good, and his resolve is steeled once again.  Let the smiting continue!

One interesting side note is that Dumas manages not to take sides in the conflict between the Royalists and the Bonapartists.  Against that backdrop, The Count of Monte Cristo could easily have conflated a moral tale with a political one, but it doesn’t.  While individual characters are thoroughly good or thoroughly bad, it isn’t because of their Royalist or Bonapartist leanings.  Dumas is careful to separate their moral failings from their political persuasion.  The enemies are enemies because of thirst for wealth or power at the expense of others, and those failings cut across political lines.  Was Dumas hedging his bets?  Probably.  While his father was a general in Napoleon’s army, the young Alexandre worked in the office of Louis Philippe, and participated in the revolution that would install him as the last king of France.  Which almost certainly contributed to the antipathy toward Dumas held by Napoleon III when he came to power as the first President and last Emperor.  Time for a long vacation in Russia!

Moral ambiguity makes politics complicated, and if you’re a politician trying to sway public opinion, complexity is a bad thing.  So we create heroes and villains where there were none.  Saddam Hussein: Bad! Crazy! Osama Bin Laden: Bad! Crazy! George Washington: Good!  Wise! Ronald Reagan: Good!  Wise! Because it makes for a better Monte Cristo-esque narrative, and then we can all cheer when the Bad Guy takes a bullet in the eye, knowing that Justice Has Been Served.  We would do well to pay more attention to those narratives, to the stories as stories — which isn’t to say that they’re entirely untrue, but that they are moral tales carefully crafted to serve a purpose.  Because there are always other stories that could be told.  People who are Bad! Crazy! don’t amass hundreds or thousands of followers willing to give their lives.  They have attributes, causes, passions that people relate to and believe in.  But we have to vilify them in order to make enemies of them.  And we have to reduce their adherents to mindless drones to feel OK about destroying them.  Star Wars doesn’t work as well if you take the helmets off all the Stormtroopers and realize that they’re all individuals just trying to earn a living.

And with that: