Alexandre Dumas was born in 1802, the same year as Victor Hugo (they worked together, also with Alfred de Vigny). His father died when he was 4 so he had an impoverished childhood with little education. 'He joined the household of the future king, Louis-Philippe, and began reading voraciously.' Before he wrote TCoMC he had travelled to Switzerland and fallen in love with Italy, living in Florence for a year in 1841. In 1842 he visited the island of Montecristo.
(Click image for Google map)
Two years after TCoMC was published, Dumas built the Château de Monte-Cristo in 1846 and used it as his country home. He had to sell it when he went backrupt in 1850. Now it's a museum dedicated to him and his works.
It was known Dumas wrote for money 'at so much a line, and that he used at least one collaborator, Auguste Maquet, who would make chapter outlines for him and do research. He was once referred to as 'Alexandre Dumas and Co., novel factory'.
However, he sometimes had to be locked away in a room away from his mistress just so he could finish writing. Must've been a randy fellow.
Dumas died in 1870. Afterwards Victor Hugo wrote to Dumas's son 'praising Dumas as a writer of universal appeal and added "He creates a thirst for reading."'
'Briefly the story is this: Picaud, a young man from the south of France was imprisoned in 1807, having been denounced as an English spy, shortly after he had become engaged to a young woman called Marguerite. The denunciation was inspired by a cafe owner, Mathieu Loupian, who was jealous of Picaud's relationship with Marguerite.
Picaud eventually moved to a form of house-arrest in Piedmont and shut up in the castle Fenestrelle, where he acted as a servant to a rich Italian cleric. When the man died, abandoned by his family, he left his money to Picaud, whom he had come to treat as a son, also informing him of the whereabouts of a hidden treasure. With the fall of Napoleon in 1814, Picaud, now called Joseph Lucher, was released; in the following year, after collecting the hidden treasure, he returned to Paris.
Here he discovered that Marguerite had married Loupian. Disguising himself, and offering a valuable diamond to Allut, the one man in the group who had been unwilling to collaborate in the denunciation, he learned the identity of his enemies. He then set about eliminating them, stabbing the first with a dagger on which were printed the words: 'Number One', and burning down Loupian's cafe. He managed to find employment in Loupian's house, disguised as a servant called Prosper. However, while this was going on, Allut had fallen out with the merchant to whom he had resold the diamond, had murdered him and had been imprisoned. On coming out of jail, he started to blackmail Picaud. Picaud poisoned another of the conspirators, lured Loupian's son into crime and his daughter into prostitution, then finally stabbed Loupian himself. But he quarrelled with Allut over the blackmail payments and Allut killed him, confessing the whole story on his deathbed in 1828.'
Holy cow! Moral of the story: Being merciful is a death sentence.
One of the characters, Madame de Villefort, is also based on someone from these archives.
Some consider TCoMC to be children's fiction for the for fairy tale and Disney-like quality of the adventure / romance / revenge story. However:
'...not many children's books, even in our own time, that involve (view spoiler)[a female serial poisoner, two cases of infanticide, a stabbing and three suicides; an extended scene of torture and execution; drug-induced sexual fantasies, illegitimacy, transvestism and lesbianism; (hide spoiler)] a display of the author's classical learning, and his knowledge of modern European history, the customs and diet of Italians, the effects of hashish, and so on; the length, in any case, would immediately disqualify it from inclusion in any modern series of books for children.'
Never have my Western morals, pre-conceptions and beliefs been more challenged than when reading Stiff. No one wants to consider their own mortality a...moreNever have my Western morals, pre-conceptions and beliefs been more challenged than when reading Stiff. No one wants to consider their own mortality and make any arrangements for the afterlives of their bodies. Being confronted with the cold hard reality of nature, science and history of death was an uncomfortable, disgusting and enlightening experience. Those of a delicate disposition and strong religious belief will find this a particularly difficult and offensive read. But honestly, they should suck it up and read it anyway, hopefully with an open mind. My views were unexpectedly changed on quite a few issues. Nothing was as clear-cut and simple as I assumed they would be.
I share Roach's feelings towards cadavers:
’Cadavers are our superheroes: They brave fire without flinching, withstand falls from tall buildings and head-on car crashes into walls. You can fire a gun at them or run a speedboat over their legs, and it will not faze them. Their heads can be removed with no deleterious effect. They can be in six places at once.’
Cadavers can be:
✺ Used to train doctors. Historically, and currently, controversial. I was surprised by how much respect is shown by students to their cadavers, and I can completely understand why they hold memorial services for them as an emotional outlet for how disturbing it is to injure and deliberately disfigure another (albeit dead) human being. Digital anatomy instruction and/or plastination (I’ll explain later) may replace the dissection of the dead.
✺ Stolen from their graves and sold to medical schools. Thousands of body-snatchers or Resurrectionists (hehe!) made a career out of it, including the infamous murderers, Burke and Hare.
✺ Sex objects, i.e. necrophilia. Self-explanatory, that, eh? *wink, wink*
✺ Used to study decay on body farms, where cadavers are placed in controlled conditions and left to decompose, returning at pre-determined intervals to examine the results, which can later be used to determine cause and time of death.
✺ Embalmed. The ultimate plastic surgery, turning the old youthful once again. Morticians actually have to paint wrinkles on the elderly so their relations can recognise them. Morticians sanitize the body, plug the orifices ("Will we be suturing the anus?") and replace the fluids with formaldehyde, a toxic preservative. Much the same is done with the language used to describe their ‘clients’. Wrinkles are ‘facial markings’, a stiff is the ‘decedent’.
✺ Used to test safety as crash test dummies, improving vehicle safety and ultimately saving lives as a result.
✺ Used to determine the cause of plane crashes. Not all wreckage is recoverable and sometimes only the dead can tell you how and why a plane crashed. This chapter was particularly interesting, detailing many facts about the aerospace industry you really don't want to know if you ever want to fly again.
✺ Used to prove or disprove Jesus's crucifixion. Forgive me, but I believe Dr. Pierre Babet was batshit crazy. To put it more mildly, fanatically religious, obsessed devoted to Catholicism, and didn't much care about the people whose limbs he was cutting off, for perhaps mild injuries, to further his quest for the ultimate, undeniable proof that Christ was wrapped in the, now defunct, Shroud of Turin in 1931. If he did indeed amputate healthy limbs, it was uncalled for. No lives were hanging in the balance. So, for once, I can, while reading this book, definitively say that I would be sickened if this was so.
✺ Used to test munitions, though it’s taboo. The purpose is to take lives in order save lives. Ballistics gelatine and animals are the more common targets. The shooting and blowing up of live pigs and other animals for the training of military doctors, is also controversial. But which would you prefer: dead soldiers and alive pigs, or alive soldiers and dead pigs? I think if you had family and friends in the armed forces you’d rather those pigs die. Honestly, I was horrified when I heard about this practice on the news and yet after reading this, I completely understand why it's necessary. If there were no guns or bombs, surgeons wouldn't need these skills in the first place.
✺ Organ donors. Beating-heart cadavers are brain-dead (i.e. legally dead). On the one hand, one person can save many lives. Alternatively, the actual process is quite upsetting. Organs are removed while the donor still has a pulse, including the heart, which is the last to be cut out, and continues to beat ominously afterwards, for a few minutes. Although gender can be discerned from an ECG by a heart surgeon as they beat slightly differently, contrary to popular belief, transplant recipients do not begin to exhibit traits of their donor’s. A wildly inaccurate myth.
✺ Used to experiment with new surgical techniques. Head transplants have been attempted, both with humans and animals. Real-life Frankenstein here, people. Both disturbing and grotesque. I’m not religious, but even I was throwing out words like ‘unnatural’ and ‘barbaric’ while reading the various experiments. Shockingly, a transplanted monkey head was responsive for a few days before it died. Yes, it’s most definitely cruel, though I took Roach’s point that if a way was found to reattach the spinal column/cord, paralysis could be a thing of the past. Still, this head will only ever know one body and will hopefully remain attached until body and brain are decomposing.
✺ Used for food, i.e. cannibalism. Alive aside, this practice generally isn’t acceptable in the West in current times, apart from the placenta. Historically, and in the East, almost every body part was ingested in the name of medicine. Chinese women used to cut off a body part and cook it for their mother-in-laws. Today, the Chinese still find aborted human foetuses a delicacy. I really want to judge them for this, but wild animals eat their dead. Nothing’s wasted. Personally, I’d be worried about kuru, the incurable degenerative neurological disorder contracted via cannibalism.
Roach details the options for your body after death:
(Click table to enlarge)
Plastination, developed by Gunther von Hagens (you may have been to one of his exhibits or seen one of his TV shows), seems rather gimmicky to me and possibly expensive, though Roach never says how much it costs. For me, the tissue digestion seems the most 'natural', but I won't be surprised if human compost becomes popular since Roach notes the interest of the general public, many investors and funeral corporations, especially in Scandinavia. However, in the final chapter, I was swayed by the argument that it should be up to those you've left behind to decide what happens to your corpse. Or at least a compromise on what you're all most comfortable with to avoid conflicting moral or religious belief. That's if you have that conversation at all. Many don't, at least not in any real detail.
But there's another possibility. Even if you choose a traditional burial, future archealogists may dig up your bones hundreds of years from now and decide to display them in museums around the world. Not much you can do about that. And as I said in the table, a number of cemeteries have been moved or built over, so "your final resting place" may not actually be your final resting place. And in a world with finite resources, including the ever-decreasing acres of land in the face of rampant population growth, showing no signs of slowing, this is the most likely scenario. Better to pick something more permanent, if you ask me, or your naked skeleton could be eyeballed by your descendants, without your permission.
Informed consent is a tricky thing. In ye olde times, doctors and students took advantage of the poor and while performing surgery on them, did a little unnecessary exploration resulting in 'gratuitous pelvic exams' and 'superfluous appendectomies'. Donated cadavers were so rare that body snatchers were more likely to steal the bodies of the poor because the rich had the money to employ thief prevention techniques. Today, people want to know what will be done to their bodies when they donate it to science, and we should have that right, but the reality is so off-putting that you won't be told. You can only specify what it can't be used for.
Roach really takes a sympathetic approach to those that work with cadavers. You can tell she had real difficulty in the first few chapters, coming to terms with her first-hand experiences with the decaying and dismantled dead. Her humour isn't particularly humorous in those moments, because she's clearly uncomfortable and doesn't quite know how to process or write about them. I sympathised. Reading it was discomfiting, being there ... I'm not sure I could've merely observed as Roach did, without running screaming or vomiting my breakfast, especially while smelling the foul stench of decay. I'm fairly certain I could never watch the removal of organs from the beating-heart cadaver. The way it's described, it's too much akin to killing someone, even though you know they're brain dead and will never wake up.
It's hard to be judgmental when the author presents a balanced view on all topics. My initial gut reaction regarding a few things was most definitely disgust and horror, but after Roach told the other side of the story, I found some tolerance and understanding beneath the abhorrence. So if you go in with an open mind, you'll be rewarded.
I urge everyone to read this book, and to seriously consider the issues therein. It may help you decide what you want to happen to your body after you die. Anything that makes a difficult decision a little easier, is a good thing.
An essential, thought-provoking and educational read.(less)