Today, we conduct a study in character:
“He was a fine, tall, slim young fellow of eighteen or twenty, with black eyes, and hair as dark as a raven’s wing; and his whole appearance bespoke that calmness and resolution peculiar to men accustomed from their cradle to contend with danger.”
“Ah, is it you, Dantes? <…> Why have you such an air of sadness aboard?”
The above text appears on the first page of Alexandre Dumas’ “The Count of Monte Cristo.” It’s the first glimpse we see of the story’s main character, Edmond Dantes. Let’s review it to see what we learn from Dumas’ approach.
The narrator conveys the physical appearance of Dantes in a rather offhand manner. Dumas takes the approach of a distant observer. He could have cited his exact age but instead only mentions that Dantes is “eighteen or twenty.” Rather than call him a man or youth, Dantes is described in the rather vague term of “fellow.”
How deliberate was Dumas in making these choices? I surmise that Dumas chose such an indifferent tone to add some degree of credibility to the narrator. We trust this chap telling us the story because he is clearly not attached to Dantes. Even this choice of the narrator’s prejudices influences the perception the reader immediately forms of Dantes.
By calling him a “fine, tall, slim young fellow,” we see that Dantes is a decent sort. The positive connotations of these choices then help us to identify Dantes as the hero. Danglars, the villain, receives a contrasting description two pages later, in part being described as having an “unprepossessing countenance.”
I do find it interesting that Dumas immediately follows these positive attributes for Dantes by describing him as having black eyes and “hair as dark as a raven’s wing.” A raven is sometimes seen as a symbol of knowledge. Dantes later accumulates knowledge of all things. To me, these components of Dantes’ physical description gives a hint of foreshadowing and even foreboding to Dantes’ character. It shows that Dantes possesses a dark side. He is “fine” and “slim” but his soul, perhaps, is “dark as a raven’s wing.”
Am I reading too much into it? Possibly, but most authors are fairly deliberate with their opening pages and the Count is a complex character.
Early in the book, Dantes comes across as innocent and trusting. I was surprised then to consider in fuller thought Dumas’ mention here on page one that Dantes was accustomed from the “cradle to contend with danger.” Why, I wonder, does Dumas throw in this seemingly inconsistent fact along with the other information we at first learn about Dantes?
I can only surmise that it must again be foreshadowing. Dumas hints that the fates have always intended a different life for Dantes. Despite this ominous ending to the above excerpt, its beginning did start rather optimistically. Furthermore, Dantes is viewed only paragraphs later in a positive light by the ship’s owner who praises his actions. If naïve, Dantes is at least shown as competent.
The other words used to describe Dantes are “calmness” and “resolution.” Once more, I love this because it goes completely against my impression that I usually form of Dantes when beginning the book. However, as someone who has read “Monte Cristo” numerous times, I greatly appreciate these once overlooked clues. “Calm” and “resolute” are the very things that Dantes becomes.
Dumas amazingly integrates his later character developments into a description on the first page that works. In a way, these things do fit young Dantes, and each helps establish the character and the opening, but by book’s end, we see that this very opening description also completely offered us a glimpse into who Dantes becomes.
Before going, let me add that I also like the follow up sentence to the BRIEF description of Dantes. Morrell, who figures heavily later in the story calls out to ask Dantes why the ship seems so sad. Rather than the narrator telling us a sad atmosphere exists, we are being shown through dialogue. A technique all writers ought employ.
The subtleties taken to convey and foreshadow the book elevate Dumas’ writing. I am inspired. After this little exercise, I’m determined to work harder to integrate such things into my character descriptions.