This week, I took advantage of the flu to partake in one of my annual rituals, rereading Alexander Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. One advantage of fluency in a foreign language is the privilege of reading literature in the original language. In this case, I read the French, unabridged version, which is longer and contains several generally untranslated chapters, including one about taking Hashish. In any case, as I am well familiar with the story, I was able to concentrate, through the eyes of Dumas of course, on French upper-class society in the middle 19th century. Specifically, it was interesting to consider the social relations between men and women at that time.
Among the families portrayed in the book, it was striking to see the loss of power of parents to determine marriages. All of the young people, either actively (Eugenie Dangler) or passively (Albert de Morceff) did whatever possible to escape the designs of their parents. Even if there is ostensible filial or daughterly obedience to the father, it is not internally accepted. In other words, love matches had already become common, if not completely accepted. By contrast, neither Edmond Dantės nor Mercedes even consider marrying each other at the end of the book. The reason may be that Mercedes was too emotionally wrecked or Edmond’s heart was with Haydėe but could be that widows did not remarry at the time.
Looking at the well-developed women characters in the book, you can see a high level of emancipation, at least as compared to most societies of the time. Women were entitled to inherit property, lead independent social lives and even have discreet lovers, of course as long as they did not make their husbands look ridiculous. Moreover, despite the clear legal dominance of males by law, in the book no husband actually orders his wife, merely politely but clearly requests. Women had a voice, albeit a smaller one than men.
One of the pleasures of the book, one shared by the dialogue of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, another of my annual reading pleasures, are the delightful and poignant conversations. Within the framework of formal politeness and respect, people express the entire range of emotions, from the closest friendship to the strongest hatred, all while never raising their voice or using a foul word. Civil society is maintained even while uncivil thoughts are expressed. At least in that respect, modern society has gone downhill.
If, by any chance, anybody distainly notes that I have not inserted any quotes to justify my opinions, it is by intention. My purpose is not to produce a literary criticism but encourage the rereading of an old classic. The book has not changed since the last time but our eyes and sensitivity have, rendering our experience as good as if not better than the first time. Ultimately, old friends are no less enjoyable than new ones.
*Image taken from Amazon.