Dumas plays on two senses of the word “debt” in the novel: the first is money owed, and the second is a debt of gratitude, or a sense that one’s behavior follows from, or is informed by, the good graces of another. Financial debts in the novel offer opportunities for great gains in wealth, and also for ruin of one’s reputation—but they are, in either case, debts that are easy to comprehend and straightforward to repay. Emotional debts, on the other hand, prove far more difficult in the novel, for, as the Count realizes, much has changed in his and others’ lives in the twenty years since he was a young man. This means he cannot always repay directly the people to whom he was once emotionally indebted, and must go about creating new family structures of care and concern in which emotional debt—debts of gratitude—can be formed and nurtured.
Debt and financial speculation are important aspects of the novel’s many subplots: the Count develops his income by placing it in various banking concerns, including the shadowy firm of Thomson and French; Danglars invests heavily in foreign interests and finds that, owing to the Count’s machinations, his fortunes dwindle and debts rise; and Caderousse finds himself financially ruined owing to various debts, which, as an innkeeper, he cannot repay. These debts form the economic under-layer of the novel. Debt, in this financial sense, is an indication of middle-class interests at the time—with the “middle class” signifying those who do not make money from land or inheritance, but rather create wealth from financial speculation, from gambling on the French and European stock and bond markets. This speculation, when it is successful, can allow middle class families like the Danglars to “purchase” a title, as Danglars “creates” himself Baron by buying this name from the French government. And financial speculation, when it goes poorly, can be ruinous for the middle class, because they do not, generally speaking, have the same land-stocks nobles do, which would allow their wealth to be passed down to future generations with more stability.
More powerful than these financial interests, however, are the emotional debts characters experience. The Count feels he is indebted to Old Morrel, who gave him his start as a sailor, and so the Count believes he should do all he can, when he leaves prison, to help Old Morrel, who finds himself saddled with outstanding financial debts. The Count pays off these debts as a way of making clear the perceived emotional debt he feels to Old Morrel. Yet the Count does not believe that this repayment can take the place of, or entirely make up for, the emotional debt he feels toward the man. Similarly, Haydee and Ali, saved from death by the Count overseas, are so personally indebted to him as to consider themselves his “slaves.” Haydee, especially, feels that, because the Count enabled her to find a stable home after the death of her father, she owes her life to him, and this feeling, which begins as an economic arrangement of “purchase,” turns into an emotional debt that becomes the springboard for romantic love between the two. And the Count, on his return to the Chateau D’If ten years after his release, understands that the Abbe Faria has given him, in a sense, two things, one far more valuable than the other: the map to the fortune at Monte Cristo, and the tools necessary to become an accomplished and learned man of the world. Although the Count uses this fortune to exact his revenge, and then bequeaths it to young Morrel and Valentine, he comes to realize how important Faria’s teaching was for him—how this created an emotional debt the Count must somehow repay in life.
If Dumas demonstrates that emotional debts are more lasting than financial debts, he also shows that emotional debts are more difficult to repay. After all, the Count really can remove Old Morrel from financial difficulties by paying his debts; he really can give a diamond to Caderousse to help him settle with his creditors (only to realize, later, that Caderousse is a treacherous man, unworthy of this repayment). But emotional debts cannot be repaid in this way because people and circumstances change. The Count cannot return the care and worry his father has expended on his behalf, because his father has died during Dantes’ imprisonment. The Count cannot repay the emotional debt of romantic love Mercedes felt for him, because Mercedes did in fact marry, and have a son with, Fernand. The Count cannot keep Old Morrel from dying, nor can he bring back the Ali Pasha, Haydee’s father. These emotional disturbances cannot be set straight the same way that one’s financial accounts can.
But the Count realizes that there is a solution to this problem of emotional debt. If he cannot repay it exactly as it used to stand because circumstances have changed, he can find a way to pay forward the care and aid he has received, to those around him. Thus he gives his fortune to young Morrel and to Valentine to create a new emotional bond, and to hearken back to all that Old Morrel once did for him. He can also educate young Morrel and Valentine, teaching them all he has learned of the world and its cultures, in emotional repayment of all that the Abbe Faria taught him. And he can establish a new, loving life with Haydee, even though he cannot bring her father back from the dead.
Thus, financial debts in the novel can be repaid, as in the case of Old Morrel, or they can be lasting and damaging, as when Danglars loses his entire fortune to financial speculation. In the case of Danglars, the financial debt incurred is a proxy for an unpayable emotional debt—for Danglars’ treachery was so horrid, according to the structure of justice in the novel, that he would eventually be forced to answer for it. But debts of gratitude, emotional debts, are positive, constructive, and affirming—they create bonds of connectedness between characters and across generations. One need not “repay” an emotional debt, because it establishes a link between figures, and a ground on which love and happiness can be constructed. Thus there is no need for the Count to “settle up” his emotional debts with the Abbe Faria, or with Mercedes, or with his own father. Instead, he can create new, affirming relationships of emotional exchange with Haydee, young Morrel, and Valentine, the members of his chosen family.
Debt and Gratitude ThemeTracker
Debt and Gratitude Quotes in The Count of Monte Cristo
Come, now ... I have a better opinion than you of women in general, and Mercedes in particular, and I am persuaded that, whether I were a captain or not, she would remain faithful to me.
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.
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.
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!
Come away, Monsieur! Come away, I beg you. You are on the very spot!
What spot is that?
The spot where he fell.
But everything that you know, with respect to the French legal system, I know, not only with respect to that, but also to the laws of every country: the laws of the English, the Turks, the Japanese and the Hindus are as familiar to me as those of the French ... relative to all that I have done, you have very little to do, and relative to what I have learned, you still have very much to learn.
A drop of that elixir sufficed to bring the child back to life when he was dying, but three drops would have driven the blood into his lungs in such a way as to give him palpitations of the heart. Six would have interrupted his breathing and caused him a much more serious fit than the one he was already suffering. Ten would have killed him.
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!
How odd it was! For all the confused feelings that he experienced on seeing [Valentine’s] tears, he also managed to observe Mme de Villefort; and it seemed to him that a faint, dark smile passed briefly across her thin lips, like one of those sinister meteors that can be glimpsed as they fall between two clouds against a stormy day.
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.
But in the end, since I myself failed and was found wanting—more profoundly perhaps than other men; well, since that time I have shaken out their clothes to discover a blemish, and I have always found it; I will say more: I have found it with joy, this evidence of human weakness and perversity.
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’?