I had a recent conversation with a friend who told me about his mother’s six-year bout with cancer. He told me that once she had the cancer diagnosis, she led an incredibly productive life. Uncertain about the future, she lived each day to the max, accomplishing an entire range of worthwhile activities. Hearing the story reminded me that bad news or bad circumstances can be a spur to good outcomes. A lot depends on one’s perspective.
In The Count of Monte Cristo. Edmund Dantes, an unlearned sailor, is placed in prison unjustifiably for thirteen years. But it is in prison that he learns how to read and write, how to fight, and how to navigate the corridors of power. Were it not for his incarceration, his life would be blessed but unremarkable.
The story begins in 1815 when Edmond Dantès and his friend Fernand Mondego, travel to the isle of Elba to seek medical attention for their sick captain. Dantès and Mondego are chased by the British who assume that they are supporters of the exiled Napoleon Bonaparte, who is living on the island. Bonaparte comes to their rescue and gives them access to his physician. In return for his kindness, he asks Dantes to deliver a letter to a Monsieur Clarion in France, a request to which Dantes agrees.
The letter becomes the vehicle through which Dantes is betrayed by his friend Mondego, resulting in his being imprisoned and tortured in the Chateau d’If for thirteen years. While there, he surreptitiously meets another prisoner, Abbe Faria, a former priest and soldier in Napoleon’s army. Faria tutors him in literature, philosophy, economics, swordsmanship, and military strategy, eventually enabling him to blend into court society and plan an elaborate revenge.
At his death, Faria reveals the location of a vast treasure to Dantes. He encourages Dantes to use this newfound wealth for good things and not just for revenge. When Faria’s body is to be taken out of the prison for burial, Dantes creatively comes up with a clever ruse. He changes places with the corpse, which is wrapped up in a large sack and escapes from the prison. How he orchestrates his vengeance makes for a fascinating adventure, with a number of surprise plot twists along the way. The evolving perspective of Dantes shows a man bent on revenge but who, inwardly, is a religious man struggling to make sense of what has happened to him. In the end, the attitude of the priest Abbe Faria prevails in Dantes’ life.
The classic example in the Bible of someone who grows through a prison experience is Joseph. He is sold into slavery and put into prison for a crime he did not commit. He could easily have succumbed to a life focused only on revenge, but he did not because his abiding faith convinced him that a divine plan was in the making. Edmund Dantes does not see this immediately. Revenge is his primary motivation; and it is a motive that motivates him to survive, but it also poisons the way he perceives the future.
Dantes begins as a devout believer and goes through a period where he denies the presence of God in his life. His core values of faith are tested over a long period of incarceration. However, contact with Abbe Faria ultimately changes his destiny financially, emotionally, and religiously. The implicit message of Edmund Dantes’ ordeal is to overcome anger and revenge and devote your life to good. Doing good is redemptive and enables one to transcend the pain of the past.