Justice and Revenge in
The Count of Monte Cristo
By William Young
Revenge and retribution, though they seem satisfying, are not a complete index of justice.
When someone does a virtuous or immoral act, it seems obvious that they deserve either to be rewarded or punished. This is known as retributive justice, in which the idea of wrongdoers getting their just deserts plays a central role. Kevin Murtagh, in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, writes: “Concepts of desert and justice occupy a central place in most retributive theories: in accordance with the demands of justice, wrongdoers are thought to deserve to suffer, so punishment is justified on the grounds that it gives to wrongdoers what they deserve.”
In The Count of Monte Cristo, justice and punishment are a central theme. The protagonist is Edmond Dantès, a young sailor with a fiancée and a promising future. He is imprisoned for being a Bonapartist agent. While in captivity, he realizes that this was the result of his friends’ jealousy and cowardice. Resolving to punish the wicked, as they deserve, he escapes prison, acquires a fortune, and plots his revenge. Dantès adopts the persona of the Count of Monte Cristo—named after the island where he found his fortune—to infiltrate French society and trigger the downfall of the four men responsible.
Throughout the novel, we get glimpses of his philosophy. The Count holds to retributive justice. While in conversation with Villefort, the crown prosecutor who denied him due process, the Count says: “My particular study in every country has been justice, assessing the criminal proceedings of every nation against natural justice; and, Monsieur, I have to tell you that the law of primitive peoples, that is to say, an eye for an eye, seems to me in the end closest to God’s will.”
After rewarding the family of his loyal former employer, the Count succeeds in his vengeance. Caderousse, who refused to uncover the conspiracy, is destroyed because of his own greed. Fernand, the man who coveted Dantès’ fiancée, commits suicide after being disgraced. Villefort goes mad after his wife poisons their family. And finally, Danglars, the man who orchestrated Dantès’ fall, loses all of his fortune.
However, despite achieving revenge against his enemies, there is still innocent suffering. His former fiancée Mercedes and her son go into poverty because of Fernand’s public dishonor. The Count’s influence, which leads to the destruction of Villefort, also causes the death of his young son Édouard. When he sees the boy, “He had realized that he had exceeded the limits of vengeance, he realized that he could no longer say: ‘God is for me and with me.’” We learn later that “Since the death of little Édouard, a great change had overtaken Monte Cristo. Having reached the summit of his vengeance by the slow and tortuous route that he had followed, he looked over the far side of the mountain and into the abyss of doubt.” The book ends with Dantès sailing away from his friends, leaving behind his life of loss and his life of revenge.
In The Count of Monte Cristo, we see paradoxically how the pursuit of justice can cause injustice. The Count believed that those who do evil deserve evil, and those who do good, good. But punishing those who wronged him does not make the world better, because undeserving individuals are punished as well. If you punish those who harm you then not only you punish their undeserving family, which is unjust, but (on retributive principles) you give them the right to harm you. In another story about a vengeful sailor, The Odyssey, we see this illustrated when Odysseus slays Penelope’s suitors, causing their relatives to seek retribution. Indeed, from this perspective, if everyone sought revenge on those who have wronged them, then in the long run there would be no one left.
The struggle for vengeance and retribution, rather than satisfying justice, can be a form of injustice. There is more to ethics than justice alone, and justice ought to be pursued in a way that promotes human flourishing and does not harm the innocent.
William Young is a homeschooled high school junior from Tucson, AZ. He enjoys reading, playing video and board games, and thinking about the philosophy of religion, and plans to study philosophy and computer science in college.