In 1815, Edmond Dantes was betrayed by his friends on his wedding day and imprisoned for 14 years before making a daring escape from the clutches of his demise. By the time he escaped, he had lost everything he deemed valuable. Invigorated by his desire for vengeance, he actively sought out the whereabouts of his betrayers, not to simply kill them but to cause as much suffering as he could on their unsuspecting lives.
Such is the synopsis to The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. It is one of those tales that makes you sincerely hope that as the story gradually unfolds, Dantes will secure his vengeance and leave you with a sense of satisfaction.
We all have books and authors we deeply admire for teaching us about our reality, endowing us with characters we can relate to, and immersing us in a completely different world that we enjoy interacting with and dissociating from the dissatisfactions of our own world. But something makes The Count of Monte Cristo more exemplary of what the best of literature in that period had to offer and elevates it to become a classic.
So, what makes something a classic and not like any other piece of literature? Søren Kierkegaard, the 19th-century Danish philosopher, answered this question by considering the nature of a classic and how we classify it. Kierkegaard says that a classic relies on the material as much as the artist or author’s talent. The artist or author must match their inward gifts with what is present in the world. For example, the Iliad and The Odyssey by Homer are unique because, along with having rhetorical and grammatical mastery over words, the Trojan wars were presented to him as “epic” material. The harmony found between Homer’s poetic abilities and the events and characters of the Trojan war is what made his work a timeless classic.
Classics, like the Homeric epics, are written in a time where there are shifts in political and cultural attitudes, giving the characters in the books a dilemma in which it becomes character-driven. This gives the protagonists or antagonists the vehicle to steer toward a developed ethic and purpose in life to find their place in the tales of history. A journey much like our own lives take. Therefore, classics are prolific in endowing us with characters and events that have made a tremendous impact on culture and the literature that follows, making them canonical because of their influence and deserving of our attention.
Other classics teach us about the capacity for courage and hope in humans as well as demonstrating how feelings of anguish and confusion during a tumultuous time are not new—inspiring hope for humanity that sees brighter days after a period of darkness. As the cliché goes, “history repeats itself,” and we can harness the best of it for ourselves by reading classical literature.
For these reasons, classic works of literature are not only timeless but unique in what they have to offer. We have all read or witnessed tales of vengeance, but The Count of Monte Cristo distills all of what humanity has to offer—the good and bad—into one tale. Moreover, the diversity of thoughts and philosophies the reader experiences is staggering. It forms the most fertile ground on which the best of ideas can bloom. Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Dostoevsky’s The Karamazov Brothers capture this timelessness even better through philosophical approaches on how one should confront a changing world.
Today, with the COVID-19 pandemic causing unexpected shifts in our societal and cultural attitude as international organizations and nations worldwide work together to fight the viral outbreak, writers are becoming inspired. Perhaps, historical works are being written at this moment with the hope of a better world post-pandemic. But one thing is for sure: the pandemic has prompted challenges for people worldwide to overcome.
Thus, the classics should not only be honoured but appreciated for their value and the inspiration they instill in readers. Even though the aforementioned classics were written in a different time than ours, with a differing political and cultural landscape, we get to engage with the characters and events on a more intimate level instead of a strictly historical perspective.
Besides being a great read, this personal experience of a different time stokes our creative and imaginative impulses to be inspired to deal with the changes that we witness today in the world. Much like the characters in the classics, we are also attempting to find our place in the affairs of history. They are like the roots from which the bark and branches find their strength and grow. Since the classics help us recognize how our society was formed, they also continue to contribute to our contemporary culture. What we do in the present is crucial in deciding what befalls us in the future, and lessons from classic literature can undoubtedly play a role in shaping that future.