European life in the nineteenth-century depended on global trade. As a result, the fabric of European culture and society was shaped by the goods and services, and the cultural and political systems, of other European nations and of foreign lands. The constant mixing of cultures both near and far is a fixture of The Count of Monte Cristo, and its setting and characters are shown to be hybrids of different cultures simply by virtue of being European. The characters’ relationships to the Near and Far East, and to more proximate “foreign” places like Monte Cristo, therefore demonstrate that otherness was a central part of European domestic life.
Dantes was born and raised in Marseille, a port city that, though French, reflects significant Spanish influence and has a constant influx of foreign cultures through the port. It’s fitting, then, that Dantes takes on a career as a sailor, broadening his exposure to the global influences with which he was brought up, before being imprisoned and taught languages, philosophy, and world history, which makes him even more cosmopolitan than he was before.
Dantes’ sense, which he developed at a very young age, that Europe is simultaneously foreign and domestic is reflected in his disguise as the Count of Monte Cristo. In a time when foreign culture is the height of domestic fashion in Paris, and when foreign wealth is a primary source of domestic revenue in western Europe, Dantes becomes an indispensable part of Parisian society by proclaiming that he is the only nobleman of Monte Cristo, an unpeopled island in the middle of the Mediterranean, visited mostly by sailors and smugglers, men who pledge no allegiance to any one country or code. Therefore, the Count’s disguise can be seen as an exaggerated way of fitting in—a reflection of European cultural hybridity that allows him to hide in plain sight.
Dantes’ adopted home of Monte Cristo is also significant in that it evokes Napoleon, the great historical exemplar of the interconnectedness of “domestic” and “foreign” life. The island of Monte Cristo is near the island of Napoleon’s birth, Corsica, and the island of his exile, Elba. That Dantes is seen by French society as being simultaneously European and foreign parallels the French view of Napoleon. Though Corsica is a French island, its distance from the mainland and its Italian-influenced culture made Napoleon seem not-quite-French to the French, though he still became the foremost example of the French imperial spirit in action abroad. Dantes’ disguise as the Count is therefore indebted to this Napoleonic spirit, in which a culturally-hybrid European can rise to great power—after all, Monte Cristo is a place both close to Europe and, somehow, beyond the ken of European civilization, an island Dantes can credibly claim to rule as his own fiefdom.
In addition to the exoticism conferred on Dantes through his association with far-flung European lands, Dantes’ disguise also has an Orientalist inflection, through his invocation of the languages and practices of, and in literary and religious allusions to, the Near and Far East. French society in the 1800s was familiar with life in the Near and Far East primarily through fictional accounts, such as the 1,001 Arabian Nights, and through interaction with foreign cultures via trade. Thus the Count’s adoption of the dress, manners, and decors of the East is a nod to both these cultural discourses. For the Count was, after all, a sailor in his young life, and the port of Marseille leads to the farthest-flung cities of the world, engaging with them through merchant trade of goods and services. And, as in the decoration of his cave at Monte Cristo, the Count can use the stories of the 1,001 Nights as a cover—to render mysterious the source of his wealth, and to make visitors feel that they are not on a rocky island off the coast of Europe, but on foreign shores many thousands of miles away. After all, the 1,001 Nights are as much a European as they are a Middle Eastern sensation—in their rendering of the lives, loves, and outrageous acts of peoples believed to be foreign, these tales, referenced by the Count in his persona of “Sinbad the Sailor,” become, in the 1800s, central narratives of European art, literature, and culture. The Count thus uses the complexities of this persona as a means of making himself well-known in Parisian society: famous but unreachable, otherworldly but omnipresent, easy to encounter yet impossible to comprehend. And it is his knowledge of Parisian life, gained by virtue of the sensation his “foreignness” makes among the wealthy, that allows him to effect his revenge, to establish bonds of love and devotion, and to accept that the past is closed—that he must forge a new life and family for himself.
The Domestic and the Foreign ThemeTracker
The Domestic and the Foreign Quotes in The Count of Monte Cristo
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 ...
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?
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!
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’?