I’ve been paying a lot of attention to Alexander Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo recently. He’s not an easy character to write. He needs to stretch the limits of our believability by what he knows and what he can do and I think that works as long as we attach to the plot primarily. That is how the book is supposed to work and I know I am crossing some important boundary when I look at the Count himself. It’s like watching a magician perform a trick over and over until finally you see how he does it.
Now you know. But now you don’t get to enjoy the trick anymore.
The Count speaks fluently all the languages that the plot requires. Dumas takes the trouble to note, in the case of European languages, that he speaks them naturally; either with no accent at all or with just the accent his character requires. When you look at the Count himself, rather than at the plot, some account needs to be given for how he does that. It is not said that he is particularly apt or that he has studied long and hard. Everything is swallowed up in that time between his acquisition of his fellow prisoner’s treasure and his appearance as an avenging angel.
Sometimes Dumas goes too far. In an early portrayal of Lord Wilmore, one of the Count’s many aliases, he seems British. Really British. And Dumas makes a point of commenting that the way Lord Wilmore (the Count) walks is unmistakably and naturally British.
That was too far for me. If Dumas wants the reader to keep his eye on the plot and the relationships in which it primarily consists, he needs to be careful not to flaunt a skill that the Count could not plausibly have mastered. After all, Dumas himself has a notion of what the required abilities of each character—both the permanent ones and the temporary ones—have to be. A character like the banker Danglars, would know certain things and be ignorant of others. An invented character, like Abbe Busoni, similarly, would know certain things and be ignorant of others. That really has to be true of the Count, too, no matter how many things he knows how to do (like how to poison people or to fend off a poison).
But I felt that how each character walked or gestured would be outside Dumas’ range of required abilities. Calling attention to them, as Dumas calls attention to the way Lord Wilmore walks, is, in some obscure way, a violation of the rules. He ought not to have called my attention to it.
OK, now I’ve “seen the trick.” I will never drink in the person of Monte Cristo again, as I have so many times before.