Whenever someone wants to praise a fantasy or an adventure novel, they’ll talk about the complexity of its characterization and the ambiguity of its morality. Because there is something inherently very suspect about the act of killing or harming people, even when you’re certain that they’re villainous. For one thing, what if you’re wrong? Also, what social good is achieved by killing them? What makes you better than them? Why are you allowed to rise above society’s laws?
In many adventure stories, these problems are elided. My knowledge of superheroes is limited to movies, admittedly, but I’ve never seen Superman worry about whether or not he was doing the right thing by going out and punching people on the street.
But I think the adventure stories that are even worse are the ones that make a nod towards these problems, but don’t dramatize them. For instance, Batman is always taking shit for being a lawless vigilante, but all the people he fights are: a) extremely powerful; b) totally evil; c) fully insane; and d) way beyond the capacity of Gotham’s legal system to punish. Also, Batman claims some moral high ground because he doesn’t use guns, even though, in reality, if you go around punching people really hard and flinging batarangs at them, then you will kill a few.
Generally, though, adventure narratives aren’t like Batman or Superman. Most of them don’t contain easy answers, because that’s just what it means to be good literature. In The Iliad, you have the question of whether this war is worth it, and why exactly the Trojans are going to be destroyed even though they’re so much more noble-minded and civilized than the Greeks. In The Mahabharata, you have the question of why a million people need to die just so that one group of cousins can rule instead of another one. In The Epic of Gilgamesh, there’s the question of what good it did Enkidu to be civilized, and whether he ought not have remained in the wild.
All I’m saying is, it feels a bit passé to say that some work is more morally ambiguous and complex than most adventure narratives, because that’s what good adventure narratives do.
In any case, The Count of Monte Cristo continues to be amazing. The last third is, almost impossibly, even more suspenseful than the first third. And it’s in the last third that you really begin to think about some of the lingering questions of the narrative. Like, does Edmond Dantés deserve to succeed in his quest for revenge?
Because as the novel goes on, the mask starts to slip a little bit, and you begin to see the madness that lurks underneath the Count’s civilized demeanor. You begin to see that he’s willing to kill and betray all the people he’s befriended. And you start to see all the little tics and rituals he’s built up in order to convince himself that what he’s going to do is okay (he’ll bring a man right up to the precipice and tell him to jump…but he won’t push him).
And you start to wonder: Is he going to through with it? Is he really going to destroy all the thoroughly harmless kids and wives and grandparents of the men who betrayed him?
I really have no idea. But only a fifth of the book is left!
(Of course, that fifth is roughly a hundred thousand words long).