In The Count of Monte Cristo, people’s identities often shift due to reversals of fortune and deliberate assumptions of disguises. Dantes’ identity is the most in flux, as he is a master of disguise (living as the Count, the Abbe Busoni, Sinbad the Sailor, and Lord Wilmore) who also experiences two major reversals of fortune: his imprisonment, which steals his young life for fourteen years, and his finding the treasure of Monte Cristo, which makes him enormously wealthy. While Dantes’ appearance changes as he assumes different identities and inhabits different social statuses, his core characteristics—a devotion to family and close friends, a love of learning about the cultures of the world, a physical skill and command of himself in difficult situations—remain the same. Therefore, Dumas uses Dantes’ life to demonstrate two interdependent ideas about changing identity. First, that it is possible, in nineteenth-century Europe, to reinvent oneself through a combination of perseverance, hard work, luck, and intellectual application. And second, that despite changes in identity, people retain a core set of values—a sense of what is good and bad, what is morally acceptable and unacceptable—that tend not to change, even over the course of an adventurous, tumultuous life.
Like Dantes, many of the novel’s primary characters undergo a change in identity, social status, or both. Mercedes becomes the Countess de Morcerf, a wealthy Parisian; Benedetto the traitor assumes the guise of Andrea Cavalcanti, an Italian nobleman; and Danglars goes from a ship’s cargo manager to one of the great bankers of Europe. That the characters’ “social faces” and social statuses seem so malleable demonstrates that nineteenth-century France enabled surprising social mobility for those lucky and skilled enough to achieve it. The novel focuses on industries, such as banking, shipping, and manufacturing, which were newly available engines of middle-class wealth. Work in these industries fueled social mobility because it was accessible and potentially lucrative, allowing people who would once have been trapped in lower classes to “buy” titles and acquire vast estates, thereby changing a fundamental aspect of their identity: their social station.
Linked to this idea of changed social station is the idea that characters can put on various masks, or disguises, which can, for a time, allow them to trick others. Luigi Vampa, one of the most notorious crime leaders in all of Rome, is particularly adept at assuming disguises, as when he and his comrades trick Albert into giving them money during the Carnival sequence in Rome. Caderousse, for all his ineptitude at personal finance, is skilled at reinventing himself, first as an innkeeper, then as a petty criminal, then as a low-class workman, hiding out in Paris and blackmailing Benedetto. In perhaps the most daring “disguise” in the novel, the Count makes it seem as though Valentine de Villefort has died by slipping her a potion of opium and hashish, thus allowing him to spirit her away from the Villefort home, to insure she can marry young Morrel safely, once removed to Marseille and then to Monte Cristo. These disguises, more temporary and improvised than larger-scale changes of social station, nevertheless allow characters to achieve their goals and to work within the malleable systems of identity available to them in the France of the mid-1800s.
While many characters believe that their changes of social status and identity affect their whole being, the novel suggests that, underneath, the changed characters are the same people they always were. For example, Dantes gives Caderousse—the most reluctant of Dantes’ betrayers—numerous opportunities to mend his ways, and prove himself morally superior than the scheme he participated in hatching. When, in the guise of the Abbe Busoni, Dantes visits Caderousse at his inn, he indeed gives him a very valuable diamond after speaking with him, believing that Caderousse, though too weak, ineffectual, and intoxicated to stop the plot created by Danglars and executed by Fernand, nonetheless feels guilt and shame over his past cowardice. But Caderousse cannot become the person that Dantes hopes, since his greed and envy are fundamental to his character.
Likewise, the Count goes to great pains to show, in uncovering the secrets of Fernand’s past, that Fernand used his connections with the Ali Pasha in Greece to sell him to the Turks and make an enormous profit, thus launching him into titled Parisian society. Despite Fernand’s great rise in Paris, he commits suicide rather than submit to the legal and social consequences of his previous lies and treachery. This proves that, despite his shifting appearances, he remains cowardly and weak-willed at heart. Similarly, Villefort, who out of cowardice keeps Dantes in prison to avoid the revelation of his own father’s Bonapartism, cannot, despite his success as a prosecutor, overcome this fundamental weakness. This weakness, indeed, is revealed in Villefort’s behavior toward Hermine Danglars and toward their child out of wedlock, later known to be Benedetto. Villefort would rather have the child die than see his own reputation ruined. Villefort’s cowardice remains a constant, as even during the poisonings in his own home he is too nervous about the appearance of criminality to stop the woman, his second wife, who commits these crimes. And Villefort succumbs to madness out of a persistent, crippling cowardice, complicated by the revelation of his past misdeeds and the resultant societal shaming he undergoes, publicly, in the court.
Just as Dumas suggests that status-changes do not affect a person’s fundamental character, he implies that they also cannot redeem the past. In other words, even good and rewarding changes in characters’ circumstances or identity do not erase the truth of what they’ve been through, or what they most want. The Count, for example, receives a fine education while in prison and comes into fabulous wealth once he escapes, but this tremendous good fortune—which would never have happened had he not been falsely imprisoned—does not erase his grief over what his imprisonment took from him. Similarly, Mercedes, who is honorable and steadfast, makes one significant error in life—marrying Fernand—and yet she must pay for it eternally, as her marriage means that she can never have the happy life she imagined with Dantes, even when he returns. Thus, the book suggests that even the most advantageous changes of station and identity can neither change someone’s personality nor rectify his or her past.
Changes of Identity and Station ThemeTracker
Changes of Identity and Station Quotes in The Count of Monte Cristo
The king! I thought him enough of a philosopher to realize that there is no such thing as murder in politics. You know as well as I do, my dear boy, that in politics there are no people, only ideas; no feelings, only interests. In politics, you don’t kill a man, you remove an obstacle, that’s all.
Finally, do you realize that I thought my labors were at an end, that I felt I had just enough strength to complete the task, and that God has now not only set back my goal but removed it, I know not where? Oh, let me tell you, and repeat it: I shall not take another step to try and regain my freedom, since God’s will is for me to have lost it for ever.
I regret having helped you in your investigation and said what I did to you ...
Why is that?
Because I have insinuated a feeling into your heart that was not previously there: the desire for revenge ...
Let us change the subject.
Die! No, no! It was not worth living so long, and suffering so much, to die now. Death was welcome previously, when I made a resolution to meet it ... But now it would truly be conceding too much to my miserable fate. No, I want to live, I want to struggle to the end.
Then he began to count his fortune. There were a thousand gold ingots, each of two or three pounds. Next to these, he piled 25,000 gold ecus, each worth perhaps twenty-four francs in today’s money ... Finally, he measured ten times the capacity of his joined hands in pearls, precious stones and diamonds ...
Monsieur ... they had both made me drink until I was almost senseless. Everything was blurred. I protested as much as a man can in such a state, but they assured me it was a joke they were playing and that nothing would come of it.
And now ... 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!
What country does the Count come from? What is his language? What are his means of support? Where does his huge fortune come from? What was the first half of this mysterious and unknown life, that it has cast over the second half such a dark and misanthropic shadow?
Come away, Monsieur! Come away, I beg you. You are on the very spot!
What spot is that?
The spot where he fell.
You mean, I didn’t kill him?
Come, come ...
But he isn’t dead?
No, he isn’t, as you can very well see. Instead of striking him between the sixth and seventh left rib, as your compatriots usually do, you must have struck higher or lower; and these lawyers, you know, are not easy to kill off.
How can you live like that, with nothing attaching you to life?
It is not my fault, Madame. In Malta I loved a girl and was going to marry her, when the war came and swept me away from her like a whirlwind. I thought that she loved me enough to wait for me, even to remain faithful to my tomb. When I came back, she was married.
I was taken to the bazaar. A rich Armenian bought me, educated me, gave me teachers and, when I was thirteen, sold me to Sultan Mahmoud.
And from him, I bought her, as I told you, Albert, for that stone equal to the one in which I keep my lozenges of hashish.
Oh, my lord, how good and great you are ... How fortunate I am to belong to you!
Oh, God. Oh, God, forgive me for denying You. You do indeed exist, You are the father of men in heaven and their judge on earth. Oh, my Lord, I have long mistaken You! My Lord God, forgive me! My god, my Lord, receive my soul!
What would you say if you knew the extent of the sacrifice I am making for you? Suppose that the Lord God, after creating the world, after fertilizing the void, had stopped one-third of the way through His creation to spare an angel the tears that our crimes would one day bring to His immortal eyes. Suppose that ... God had extinguished the sun and with His foot dashed the world into eternal night ...
Yes, I share your hope: the wrath of heaven will not pursue us, you who are so pure and I so innocent. But since we are resolved, let us act promptly. Monsieur de Morcerf left the house around half an hour ago; so, as you see, we have a good opportunity to avoid scandal or explanations.
You see, the angel for whom you longed has left this earth. She no longer needs the adoration of men – she, who, at this moment, is adoring the Lord. So say your farewells, Monsieur, to these sad remains that she has left behind among us.
Oh, yes, now. That’s where the trying times will begin. You know what is agreed?
Have we agreed something?
Yes, it is agreed that you will live in Marseille and I shall leave for Africa. There, instead of the name I have given up, I shall make for myself the name I have adopted.
Yes, he is gone. Farewell, my friend! Farewell, my sister!
Who knows if we shall ever see them again?
My dearest ... has the Count not just told us that all human wisdom was contained in these two words – ‘wait’ and ‘hope’?