The Count of Monte Cristo, Napoleon, and V for Vendetta

I’m not a movie person. I used to be, when I lived in San Francisco and going to movies offered delightful experiences ranging from the mini-mall of the Kabuki Theater to the cozy popcorn of the Red Vic. Here in Michigan, though, the experience is not so magical. Nevertheless, because I once hung out with folks hipper than I am, I have a remarkable habit of going to the opening weekend showings of the Wachowski Brother films, including V for Vendetta.

I can’t vouch for V for Vendetta’s interpretation of the Alan Moore graphic novel (and I’m frankly glad that my graphic novelist friend probably won’t read this post). But I can vouch for V for Vendetta’s interpretation of Count of Monte Cristo. Whether intentionally or not, the movie succeeds in doing something the original serialized novel did (and few appropriations since have done well)–use a pop culture medium to meditate on the most just relationship between the state and individual. In this post, I’ll explain some of the political background of the Count of Monte Cristo as a way to explain how clever V for Vendetta’s appropriation of the Monte Cristo tale is. I’ve given a spoiler alert below, so if you want to read the bit on Monte Cristo, you’ll know where you need to stop before you get to the V for Vendetta stuff.

Napoleon as a Background to Monte Cristo

Most people don’t realize this about Count of Monte Cristo. But it was a remarkably politically charged book. Consider, first of all, the premise. Edmond Dantes is imprisoned, and through that process of imprisonment, becomes superhuman, the cipher that is the Count of Monte Cristo. But the reason for Dantes’ imprisonment–in a book appearing during the troubled period leading up to 1848 and soon thereafter Louis-Napoleon’s Second Empire–is an association with Napoleon. That is, a perceived connection with Napoleon Bonaparte set off a process that produced a figure every bit as superhuman as Bonaparte himself, one who managed to deliver justice in the corrupt world of July Monarchy Paris.

And that was not a mistake. The Count of Monte Cristo was first published from 1844 to 1845 in the era’s equivalent of the Wall Street Journal–the banker’s paper, the paper most supportive of France’s Orleans government. Not long before the serialization of Monte Cristo, the newspaper published another serial novel, The Mysteries of Paris, that featured another such superhuman character and also drawing an explicit connection to Bonaparte. The novels were two of the most popular and best-compensated books of the pre-1848 period. Remarkably, both used this organ of the governing party to present a challenge to it.

But it was not just this newspaper; every major paper in Paris serialized some kind of Napoleon narrative in their feuilleton section: the memoirs of one of Napoleon’s relatives, the retelling of one incident from his life. Even minor, individual feuilleton essays used Napoleon’s name as a means to talk about desirable characteristics. My favorite is a feuilleton reporting the results of the weekly horse race at Bois de Boulogne; the feuilleton used the description of one horse to hail the qualities of Napoleon, leaving ambiguous, of course, whether it referred to the horse named Napoleon or the man of the same name. The invocation of Napoleon was almost omnipresent in the feuilleton sections where Monte Cristo first appeared. It was as if, today, every TV channel featured series about JFK at the same time, implying a Kennedy was the only solution to our woes.

The omnipresence of Napoleon did not happen by accident. The censorship laws of the day (enforced by Janet Jackson’s boob-type fines) forbade any mention of the word Bourbon or Republic, as well as any explicit criticism of the king or a member of his government. If you wanted to complain, the legally available way to do so was to invoke Napoleon.

What many of these narratives effectively explored was the means by which a superhuman Napoleonic character could bring justice to an increasingly industrialized bourgeois society. In the earlier serial novel, Mysteries of Paris, the Napoleonic main character Rodolphe was basically a pop socialist, coaching the poor to visualize their dreams, then delivering those dreams. Perhaps not incidentally, Louis-Napoleon had recently published a socialist tract, every bit as dreamy as Rodolphe’s promises. Alexandre Dumas went one step further, actually visiting Louis-Napoleon in jail (he had been jailed after a coup attempt) just before Dumas began writing Monte Cristo. And while Monte Cristo was not quite as popular, in its day, as Mysteries of Paris, the Napoleon figure depicted in it more closely resembles the benevolent dictator Louis-Napoleon would claim to be.

There’s a reason why these novels used Napoleonic figures, beyond the censorsip laws. The French were seeking a way to merge the individual created by the Rights of Man with the unity of Louis XIV, whose famous statement “L’Etat, C’est moi” effectively claimed the state and the sovereign to be one. The reign of Louis Phillipe, who legally ruled under the novel formulation “King of the French,” just wasn’t delivering (though the failure had as much to do with his embrace of bourgeois capitalism as it did with any legal basis for his power). Napoleon Bonaparte–at once a leader who embodied the nation as had Louis XIV, and the consummate individual who succeeded through merit–offered a way to achieve both unified nation and individual. The novelistic Napoleonic reincarnations were effectively meditations on how to accomplish that formula again.

V for Vendetta, the Individual, the State

That’s the aspect of the Count of Monte Cristo that V for Vendetta has managed to recreate so well. The fascist nation depicted in the movie thrives on dehumanization. V is at once the product of that dehumanization and the refutation of it. He is not only stronger than the state, he cherishes all the trappings of individuality with his taste in music, movies, art. And because of these characteristics (and because he exposes the lies of power, something else that Monte Cristo did), V succeeds in having the entire nation identify with him.

The revelation of identity is central to the Count of Monte Cristo. Indeed, it is the way he metes out judgment. He has to do no more than reveal his identity to his three enemies to defeat them utterly, as he does here with Comte de Morcerf, the man who stole his fiancee, when he begs Monte Cristo to reveal his true identity:

‘I admit that I am known to you, but I do not know you, you adventurer, smothered in gold and precious stones! In Paris you call yourself the Count of Monte Cristo. In Italy, Sinbad the Sailor. In Malta–who knows what? I have forgotten. What I ask from you is your real name. I want to know your true name, in the midst of these hundred false names, so that I can say it on the field of combat as I plunge my sword in your heart.’

[snip]

‘Fernand!’ Monte Cristo cried. ‘Of my hundred names, I shall need to tell you only one to strike you down. But you can already guess that name, can’t you? Or, rather, you can recall it. For in spite of all my woes, in spite of all my tortures, I can now show you a face rejuvenated by the joy of revenge, a face that you must have seen often in your dreams since your marriage … your marriage to my fiancee, Mercedes!’

The general, his head thrown back, his hands held out, his eyes staring, watched this dreadful spectacle in silence. Then, reaching out for the wall and leaning on it, he slid slowly along it to the door, out of which he retreated backwards, giving this one, single, lugubrious, lamentable, heart-rending cry: ‘Edmond Dantes!’

Realizing Monte-Cristo’s identity–realizing that this super-human man worthy of respect is the same ordinary man that he cheated many years earlier–is enough to make Morcerf kill himself.

[spoiler alert]

There is this aspect of identity in V’s revenge. He always makes sure his victims recognize him (though he remains nameless) before he kills them, so their last moments are the horror of realizing the creation of their own crimes has been their undoing.

But there’s another aspect of identity, “showing a face,” as Monte Cristo says, that V for Vendetta displaces. For V’s mask sets a narrative expectation in the same way a gun does; we expect a gun shown early in a movie to be shot before that movie ends, we expect a mask to be raised and the face underneath revealed. Yet V for Vendetta frustrates this expectation. Several times, the movie presents us with a moment that, traditionally, would be the unmasking. Yet even when Evey asks V to remove his mask, he refuses to do so. V never does it, he never reveals his face.

Instead, the average people do. The average people, cast to look like you and I–or like you and I would look if we were Brits. Old people, girls in coke-bottle glasses, people who are not Hollywood beauty. The narrative expectation that V will find justice at the moment of his unmasking is resolved only when the crowd of nameless average people raise their mask and reveal themselves in all their individuality.

V for Vendetta offers neither a novel alternative to fascism nor a really well developed one, philosophically or politically. It is no more than a promise that individuals, acting in solidarity, can replace the oppressive state.

But it appropriates and overturns the tradition of the Count of Monte Cristo in a remarkable way. It removes the central Napoleon figure, making his identity secondary to the delivery of justice. It takes a narrative that has been used to lobby for the return of a dictator and flips that into an embrace of the common man.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

  1. viget says:

    Thanks for the insightful discussion emptywheel. I’m going to go see V tomorrow, can’t wait. Incidentally, if you have any essays or thoughts on the Matrix trilogy, I’d love to see those as well.

    O/T, but MoJo has a new piece on fabrication of pre-war intel, this time dealing with a so-called Iraqi defector who gave the NYT and PBS info on a purported Iraqi terrorist-training camp at Salmon Pak. While the story is not new, what is new is that sources for the story admit that the defector was not who he claimed to be(a Lt. General) , but rather a sargeant in the Iraqi army who was given a cover story by the INC, memorized it, and put on a good display for the western media.

    Not terribly surprising, but good to see that there are sources now willing to speak up about the Rendon/INC propaganda machine. What gets me is that this was pretty much wholly funded by American tax dollars after susceptible congressmen were lured in by Chalabi’s tales. Which is to say, they pretty much had this Iraq war thing planned for a LONG time.

    Another interesting tidbit in the article was Bob Baer’s assertion that INC sources were fooling no one at CIA. An excerpt:

    This legal end run caused some unease at Langley—“What did they expect?†says the INC’s Musawi. “We were committed to overthrowing Saddam Hussein, not holding a tea party. We had to take some risks to achieve that.â€â€”but it was the shoddy intelligence provided by the INC defectors (as well as an unauthorized and disastrous coup attempt) that caused the CIA to withdraw funding in 1996. “The quality was very bad,†said Robert Baer, the former CIA base chief in northern Iraq. (Baer’s memoir, See No Evil, inspired the George Clooney character in Syriana.) “There was a feeling that Chalabi was prepping defectors. We had no systematic way to vet the information, but it was obvious most of it was cooked.â€

    I find this fascinating because in Baer’s tell-all, See No Evil, his chapters on Iraq describe how he fawned over all Chalabi did and said, and how Chalabi was the savior of Iraq. The not-too-subtle implication was that Clinton and his NSC were the villians for pulling the plug on the attempted military coup back in 1996. Now Baer admits that the CIA â€knew†all along that the INC were a bunch of fabricators? Who is he kidding? Was he lying then or is he lying now?

    Of course the other possibility is that he’s since seen the light (the fact that he had a good working relationship with the producers of Syriana sort of speaks to this), and realized that he was being played by the CIA all the while. I can’t discount that. But I haven’t seen him out there trashing the admin over the Plamegate scandal either, unlike Larry Johnson has. Be curious to hear your thoughts on Baer.

  2. John Casper says:

    OFF TOPIC: emptywheel, in case you hadn’t heard, Jane Hamsher just posted this at FDL.
    â€Just got back from the hospital, my mom had congestive heart failure this morning and will be there ’til Friday so I’m going to be caring for my sister’s two kids for the rest of the week. It’s been a rather perfect storm on the blog this week but thanks for everyone’s patience and mucho appreciation to Pach, Christy and Jamie for handling things so well.â€

  3. J. Thomason says:

    I hope I don’t regret this as I have tried to keep my fingers out of the weblogs since the holiday fiasco around the chocolate pear cake over at FDL but its not as if V’s debt to the Count of Monte Cristo goes unacknowledged in this highly entertaining peice of work which resonates deeply with meaning.

  4. jwp says:

    Very entertaining, EW. Not really sure what it all means, but the 1840s phenomena is very interesting.

    Read an interesting but tedious 2 volume history of the Rothschilde clan a few years ago (forget the author at the moment, but an established guy) based upon family archives. Hard to follow, but much detail.

    Anyway, one part of the story that stuck out was the tale of the brother assigned to Paris, including the period 1830 to 1850. The guy was nervous as a cat. Main business for him was trading French Govt bonds, and he was constantly consumed by court rumors. Crowds were always in the streets, apparently, or feared to be, and I was never sure why.

    I’ll have to check for the author’s name.

    Anyway, I thought of it when you mentioned the financial press do a serial on the Count of Monte Cristo.

    Also, not sure I ever read the book, but wann’t there a banker involved?

    One last point. I think some of the big intrigues of the day had to do with what banking groups would get control of some railroads being built. (Hope I am not mixing up the decade.) Probably no more potent symbol of coming industrialization in that day than the railroads.

    One final thought. Something about the narrative reminds me of Thunder at Twilight, a wonderful book about the last days of the Hapsburg dynasty, Vienna 1914. I recommend that book to you, if you haven’t already read it. I am sure you will enjoy it.

  5. jwp says:

    looked up the author on Amazon.com

    here is the review they placed

    Founded in the late 18th century by expatriate German Jews, the London-based House of Rothschild was within decades the largest banking enterprise in the world. Its principals controlled a vast portion of the industrial world’s wealth–more so, Oxford historian Niall Ferguson writes, than any family has since–and as a result enjoyed tremendous political influence in the major capitals of Europe, counting as allies such important figures as Metternich and Wellington. That influence would provoke countless anti-Semitic tracts fulminating against Jewish usury and against the power of â€Eastern potentates†in the empires of England and France. Although the Rothschilds were well aware of their power and not reluctant to use it, they operated fairly, Ferguson notes. For example, whereas lending rates in the textile industry, in which the Rothschilds got their start, were often 20 percent, the fledgling house charged 5 to 9 percent. Through shrewd, complex negotiations they helped promote peace and the beginnings of economic union throughout Europe.
    Ferguson’s sprawling history covers much ground and involves a cast of hundreds of players. At the outset he notes that his book was commissioned by the modern descendants of the House of Rothschild; even so, he approaches his task with careful balance and a critical eye, pointing out the Rothschilds’ failings as well as successes. The result is a fine, solid contribution to economic history, one that, unlike so many books in the field, is eminently readable. –Gregory McNamee

    From Publishers Weekly
    Anyone interested in finance, European history or the rise of one spectacularly successful Jewish family will find the first volume of this history of the Rothschilds spellbinding. Equipped with unprecedented access to pre-1915 Rothschild archives, Oxford historian Ferguson begins the family history with Frankfurt merchant Mayer Amschel, but the real story starts with the arrival of the most capable of his sons, Nathan Mayer, in England 200 years ago. Each of Mayer’s five sons was located in different cities?Paris, London, Vienna, Naples and Frankfurt. Combined with a mandated unity that kept the brothers remarkably close while excluding daughters, in-laws and strangers, this geographic dispersal gave the family’s financial firm an unbeatable edge, despite Mayer’s sons being of unequal competence. N.M. Rothschild is the one Ferguson chooses as his protagonist (his great-great-grandson suggested the project to the author). It was largely because of this Finanzbonaparte that from 1815 on, the Rothschilds were everywhere part of Europe?they dominated the international bond market; bought and sold commodities such as cotton, tobacco, sugar, copper and mercury; and influenced Metternich, Wellington, Queen Victoria, Bismarck, Gladstone and Disraeli. Using his access to the 13,000 entries in the Rothschild files, Ferguson debunks myths and carefully reconstructs the truth. Not only has he done a brilliant job of depicting this far-flung family but he also manages to offer an amazing insider’s look at the financial, political and military aspects of early 19th-century European life. His exhaustive study surpasses anything about the Rothschilds to date.

    Thunder at Twilight was written by Frederic Morton, who also wrote a book about the Rothschildes (that I have not read)

  6. QuickSilver says:

    Haven’t seen the movie, but read all the way up to the spoiler alert!

    It’s a bit OT, but in your study of the feuilletons, did you run across any characters based on Talleyrand? Do the Napoleon characters of the 1840s have any â€shit in a silk stocking†advisors, gourmand diplomats, or conniving courtiers in their midst?

  7. Jay Elias says:

    Interesting. I’m not sure how I feel about your extrapolations of political content in Monte Cristo from the personal values of Dumas. First off, it is important to bear in mind that it was Dumas’ collaborator Auguste Maquet who outlined the plot of Monte Cristo, and that no firm record exists of exactly whom is responsible for some of the major plot points. Also significant is the fact that many of Dumas’ novels used major political figures as backdrop, often altering their roles or later revising them as suited his dramatic purpose (see the revisionism of Cardinal Richelieu in the beginning of Twenty Years After). Dumas was actually far more highly favored under the regime of King Louis-Phillipe than under Louis-Napoleon. He was a partisan fighter in 1830 in the campaign that brought Louis-Phillipe to power, and fled France (mostly from his creditors) in 1851 and did not return until 1864.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Jay,

    Yes, I know this is one of the book Maquet was heavily involved in. While it is clear Dumas visited L-N just before he started the book, I’m not making a theory of authorship per se. In many ways, it’s more important that CMC was kind of a response to MdP from a then-rival losing ground in popularity.

    Dumas was big in 1830. But remember that in 1830, Orleans was effectively a convenient placeholder. Had there been a Bonaparte available, he would have been picked over Orleans. The relationship to L-N was not unlike what many people now have with Bush–he seemed like a good idea before they got him, but then they regretted him later.

    And the way in which Bonaparte was used at this time (and remember, he was used everywhere, in the constitutionalist newspapers as well as this one; the Napoleon figures did not depend on ideology) was again an empty placeholder. What would it take to have justice?

    QS

    Not really, but then MC was not Bonaparte, he was a person like Bonaparte. But I’ve done more work on the roman a clef aspects of Mysteries of Paris than on Monte Cristo.

    Thomasan

    No regrets at all. My point here is not that it’s not utterly apparent that V owes to MC. It’s just that very few appropriations use MC in the way it first worked. Usually, it’s appropriated as a simple tale of revenge, with only half-developed play on identity and even less on the role of the individual.

    viget

    I don’t know that Baer was ever a big Chalabi fan. He describes him in See No Evil as able to get things done, but an unlikely opposition figure (for all the reasons he still is). And he basically inserted himself into Baer’s existing coup plans, making them more risky. And finally, remember that Chalabi forged an NSC letter to strongarm the Iranians, hoping to force the Americans’ hands, and Baer got accused of murder for hire because of Chalabi’s little stunt. He almost went to jail as a result of Chalabi’s actions; he can’t have much love for the guy.

  9. Cal Gal says:

    BTW, no longer the Wachowkski â€Brothers†as one has had gender reassignment surgery (what use to be called a â€sex changeâ€).

    So now I think they have to be called the Wachowski Siblings, no?