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Behind the Iron Mask

Everett Collection
Léon Bary and Douglas Fairbanks in The Three Musketeers, 1921

His twenty months in prison become Edmond Dantès’s fourteen years in his son’s novel. The original plot of The Count of Monte Cristo came from a story Alexandre Dumas found in a great source text, the Mémoires historiques tirés des archives de la police de Paris compiled by one Jacques Peuchet and published in six volumes in 1838. That, along with an Italian travelogue he’d been working on, provided almost all the elements he needed, though it was Maquet who rearranged the order of events, insisting that the betrayal and incarceration of Dantès had to stand at the outset of the novel, not as a flashback. Dumas saw the wisdom of this. And doubtless, as Reiss contends, his account of life in prison owed much to his father’s experience.

The nightmare of imprisonment without trial, without explanation, without apparent reason was an obsession of the age. In the Romantic imagination, the prison is everywhere. It represents one of the ultimate, extreme, hyperbolic human agonies that so appealed to an age that created melodrama. To be unable to know why you are incarcerated, to be kept in solitary confinement and on the verge of madness, to fear that your meals are poisoned, finally to lose your very name and identity—Dantès after a time is merely “prisoner number 34”—perfectly represents the monsters bred in the sleep of reason.

In the stage melodramas that appealed to the popular imagination following the Revolution, prisons and fortresses are everywhere. One of the repeated plot structures is the attempted escape—foiled, of course, by betrayal and villainy, though in the ultimately optimistic universe of melodrama the denouement will bring freedom or, even better, the destruction of the prison itself. The play often recognized as the first melodrama, Les Victimes cloîtrées (1791, by Boutet de Monvel), ends with the liberation of the hero and heroine from the underground dungeons of a monastery and a nunnery, represented side-by-side in an innovative stage set. The supreme master melodramatist, Guilbert de Pixérécourt, used fortresses and prisons over and over, and his late masterpiece, Latude, or Thirty-Five Years of Captivity, spectacularly stages the escape from the Bastille of Masers Latude, who indeed was imprisoned for thirty-five years because he had the audacity to write Marie Antoinette a mad love letter.

In fact, Bastilles of all sorts were part of the landscape of Old Regime Europe, places where you could be imprisoned by lettre de cachet or other arbitrary means, and with the struggle against revolutionary France the use of prisons for political purposes only increased, and then the Revolution itself made its own use of prisons. The Holy Alliance of nations against Napoleon, which was dedicated to stamping out the revolutionary spirit everywhere, famously locked up its prisoners in the Moravian fortress of Spielberg. The firsthand account by the carbonaro Silvio Pellico, Le mie prigioni (My Prisons), published in 1833, recounting his arrests and imprisonments from 1820 onward, became a source text for, among others, Stendhal.

The citadel of Parma in which Fabrizio del Dongo is twice imprisoned in The Charterhouse of Parma may be the most memorable of all the prisons evoked by the novelistic imagination since it has all the potentialities of confinement. When Stendhal sends Fabrizio to prison in chapter 16 he warns us that when we come back to him we may find him trans- formed. Stendhal’s hero discovers a “sublime spectacle” in the view northward to the Alps from the window of his prison—before the governor has that window covered by a shutter. He discovers, too, that he loves the governor’s daughter, Clelia Conti, and when the shutter makes communication with her ever more difficult, they move through a kind of reinvention of language from the ground up, Fabrizio tracing letters on his hand with charcoal dipped in wine, then Clelia creating a “magnificent” alphabet on paper cards.

These primitive means of communication permit the reinvention of a love free from the corruption of the court of Parma. It’s the imminent threat of poison upon his second incarceration, supposed to be a mere formality while the case against him is dismissed on appeal—but he has insulted the governor by his prior escape, so vengeance is in the works—that provokes Clelia finally to cast off all restraint and charge up the stairs to Fabrizio’s prison, to dash the poisoned plate from his hands, and to fall into his embrace.

Stendhal’s prison is richly ambiguous: the place of confinement can bring inner liberation as well as menace. Dumas’s Château d’If is more directly in the melodramatic mode—the experience of incarceration as pure nightmare, the erasure of self in radical unfreedom. Early in his time in the dungeon, Dantès has this dialogue with the jailer (Dumas famously filled pages with dialogue):

“I want to speak to the Governor.”
“Pah!” the jailer said impatiently. “I’ve already told you that’s impossible.”
“Why is it impossible?”
“Because, under the prison regulations, a prisoner is not allowed to make that request.”
“And what is allowed here?” Dantès asked.
“Better food, if you pay; walks; and sometimes books.”
“I have no need of books, I have no desire to walk and my food suits me well; so there is only one thing I want, which is to see the Governor.”
“If you get on my nerves by repeating the same thing over and over,” said the jailer, “I shall stop bringing you any food at all.”
“Well, then,” said Dantès, “if you do not bring me anything to eat, I shall starve.” The tone of Dantès’ voice as he said this showed the jailer that his prisoner would be happy to die; and, as every prisoner, when all is said and done, represents roughly ten sous a day for his jailer, the man considered the loss that he would suffer from Dantès’ death and continued in milder vein:
“Listen, what you want is impossible, so don’t ask for it again: it is unheard of for the governor to come into a cell at a prisoner’s request. But behave well and you will be allowed to exercise; and one day, while you are in the exercise yard, the governor may go by. Then you can talk to him. It is his business whether he wishes to reply.”
“But how long,” Dantès asked, “am I likely to wait before this occurs?”
“Who knows? A month, three months, six…perhaps a year.”*

This might seem to anticipate Kafka in the utter frustration of bureaucratic circularity, in the impossibility of appeal to a higher authority. What distinguishes it from The Trial or In the Penal Colony is the absence of Kafka’s impassive restraint, his management of a language of bureaucratic routine indifference, to chilling ends. That is not at all the tone of Dumas. In the melodramatic mode, everything must be stated, overstated, given a clear articulation. The naming of names is always a high moment in melodrama—and later in this novel, as Dantès under various disguises takes systematic revenge on those who put him in the Château d’If, the moment that reveals his true identity is fatal to the victim and triumphant for the hero.

Dantès in prison is not saved by “the Friends of the French” in the manner of the author’s father at Taranto, but rather by prisoner number 27, the abbé Faria, who was incarcerated three years before Dantès’s arrival, and has spent his time improving his knowledge—and digging a tunnel, which was supposed to penetrate the outside wall but through a miscalculation ends in Dantès’s cell instead. Faria not only saves Dantès from despair and suicide, he instructs him, and promises him buried treasure—on the isle of Monte Cristo—if and when he is liberated.

The jailers call him the mad abbé; his offers of riches if allowed to escape are put down as the delusions that prison typically creates. For there is here, as in Stendhal and Hugo for instance, a dialectic of jailer and prisoner that touches on the depths of human humiliation—the kind of exchange still with us, in our reinvention of the Chateau d’If in our “super maximum security” prisons. As Dumas writes, “despotic governments have always been loath to exhibit the effects of prison and torture in broad daylight.”

Dantès’s escape from the island fortress comes only through Faria’s death: he can switch the abbé’s corpse to his own bed and sew himself into the body bag. He sequesters a knife inside the bag, ready to rip his way out and dig himself from the grave. But it’s not the earth that awaits him but, in the most dramatic moment of the novel, burial by sea: tossed from the parapet into the waves with a thirty-pound cannonball tied to his feet. Chapter 20 ends: “The sea is the graveyard of the Château d’If.” Yet Dantès survives, to be picked up by a boat of smugglers, to find the uninhabited isle of Monte Cristo (which had struck Dumas’s imagination on a tour of Italy years before), and to become the very spirit of vengeance. After rewarding his early benefactor, Morrel:

“And now,” said the stranger, “farewell, goodness, humanity, gratitude…Farewell all those feelings that nourish and illuminate the heart! I have taken the place of Providence to reward the good; now let the avenging God make way for me to punish the wrongdoer!”

If only the real world followed the dreamwork logic of melodrama. Eventually, Dantès (now the Count of Monte Cristo, ennobled—as so many were coming to be—by wealth) decides that vengeance belongs to the divinity, not to man, and retires from the retribution business.

  1. *

    I quote from the most recent translation, by Robin Buss ( The Count of Monte Cristo, Penguin Classics, 1996), p. 81. Most editions, including Oxford World Classics (with an excellent introduction by David Coward), reprint the anonymous 1846 translation, which is fast-paced and remains very readable. Buss’s translation is more faithful and restores a number of omissions. 

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