Lessons from the Real Count of Monte Cristo

The Black Count

In the 2002 film The Count of Monte Cristo, handsome sailor Edmond Dantès is betrayed by his friend Fernand Mondego, robbed of his beautiful fiancé, and wrongly sentenced to prison in the Château d’If. Deep in despair, Dantès befriends a fascinating old priest and polymath who becomes his multidisciplinary mentor. Dantès later escapes, creates a new identity, and exacts all kinds of ingenious and meticulous revenge.

This film is based on the 1844 literary classic by French novelist Alexandre Dumas, who also wrote The Three Musketeers.

These two books have a particular kind of protagonist in common: a suave and daring hero who uses wits and weaponry throughout his many adventures. These leading men are, it appears, dreamy reflections of the novelist’s lesser-known father.

This father, General Alex Dumas, was a mixed-race warrior who at the height of his military responsibilities commanded 50,000 men. Born in slavery and raised in an age of segregation (his mother was a slave and his father was a noble), Dumas rose to astounding heights. He became renowned for his handsome appearance, his striking physique, his brute strength, his unbending courage, and his disciplined fairness and impartiality.

I recently finished the 2013 Pulitzer-winning biography The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss. Reiss excavates the historical records surrounding Dumas’ life and times, piecing together a mosaic of this legendary life. This decorated military leader suffered deep injustices at the machinations of a fellow general (Napoleon Bonaparte) whose insatiable political ambitions and ruthless political savvy drove his rapid rise to power.

General Alex Dumas died when his son and future novelist Alexandre was a young boy. Alexandre clearly adored his father, and later spent time learning about him from the general’s old friends. Out of the boy’s young memories, out of the stories that surrounded his father’s life, and out of the testimonies of his father’s compatriots, Alexandre’s own vision of his father arose.

I was struck by a number of lessons in this rich account of a larger-than-life figure from a bygone era.

  1. Racism spares no country, no culture, and no generation.
  2. Men can rise high above the station in which they’re born.
  3. Much can be accomplished in a short life.
  4. Courage and compassion can co-exist in the same person.
  5. The blend of strength and fairness is as beautiful as it is rare.
  6. Stories of bravery never fail to inspire.
  7. Selfish ambition is destructive to both men and nations.
  8. Precious is the adoration of a son for his father.

The lessons of history are there for the taking. Wise is the man who takes and reads, and wiser still is the man who discerns and acts. That man will repeat the wisdoms of history rather than her follies.


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