By Jim Towey
I believe no summer vacation is complete without the sweet conquest of a good book.
Mary and I went decades without this luxury because our five kids, born within ten years of each other, kept us busy having fun in the ocean or on the tennis courts. But family vacations like the one we just had are now different. With all our kids over 20 and happily independent, and our little grandchildren looking to their parents and not us to be their “first responders,” I found myself with real downtime. And that meant book time.
So last week I knocked off a 1,242-page classic by Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo. A couple of my sons had previously read the abridged version (600+ pages) and urged me to take up the full edition. Game on. I thought this 19th century classic would be a good escape from Washington, DC where everything seems subject to political rivalries and influences. It turns out I was both right and wrong. (If you plan on reading the book, note the spoiler alerts ahead, or better still, just skip the next two paragraphs entirely.)
At first hopeless, then hope
The protagonist, Edmond Dantes, (spoiler) the Count, got swept up in the political upheaval of his times. French citizens loyal to Napoleon Bonaparte were in fierce conflict with those loyal to Louis XVIII. Dantes, a sailor with no particular allegiance to either side, and without the benefit of a trial, found himself summarily exiled to a remote prison and solitary confinement. He endured 14 years of hellish, hopeless life that hardened his heart with hatred and immersed his soul in misery. But (spoiler) he miraculously escaped, taking a new identity as the Count (in addition to other ones).
Dumas masterfully details how the Count methodically meted out retribution against those responsible for his false imprisonment and (spoiler) hijacked wedding. During the prosecution of his vengeance, (mega spoiler) the Count inadvertently set into motion the death of an innocent young boy. This tragedy caused him to question whether he was really God’s avenging angel, or rather, a purveyor of evil, just like his foes. Such inner turmoil prompted him at the novel’s conclusion to ask of two beloved devotees, “pray sometimes for a man who, like Satan, momentarily thought himself the equal of God and who, with all the humility of a Christian, came to realize that in God’s hands alone reside supreme power and infinite wisdom.”
What it means to us
Dumas’ narrative plunged me back into America’s current political stalemate. Instead of Bonapartists and royalists, we have an angry divide between Republicans and Democrats, red states and blue states, progressives and conservatives. The leaders of the two sides, Joseph Biden and Donald Trump, appear uniquely incapable of uniting the country. Trump has Napoleon’s insecurity and arrogance. The House of Biden harbors a grifter who, like the Count’s nemeses, seems to have become rich through questionable means. As a result, our country may have a national election where both major candidates are overshadowed by clouds of criminal misconduct (not to mention hobbled by advanced age).
This possibility – perhaps probability – leaves most Americans feeling as hopelessly resigned to a Biden-Trump rematch as Edmond Dantes was to his dismal fate and dark dungeon. But as The Count of Monte Cristo richly demonstrates, one can never lose hope. “In God’s hands alone reside supreme power and infinite wisdom.” The Count gained humility and experienced mercy and (final spoiler, I promise!) spared the life of the last of the three men who had caused him unspeakable sorrow. That is why I am not convinced of the inevitability of a second term for either Biden or Trump. In the twinkle of an eye, hopeless situations and hardened hearts can change. The Count’s parting advice to his devoted friends rings true today: “So, live and be happy, children dear to my heart, and never forget that, until the day when God deigns to unveil the future to mankind, all human wisdom is contained in these two words: ‘wait’ and ‘hope.’”