Between the Devil and God

devil and god

Will Eisner’s graphic novel A Contract with God, is named for the first story in the book and is about just that: a man named Frimme Hersh making a contract with god. Unfortunately as the story progresses Hersh feels that god has violated their contract and so  forsaken, he decides to shed his pious and goodhearted-nature in favor of a more shrewd and thrifty one. After amassing great financial wealth, Hersh returns to his church to repay them but also to seek their help in the forging of a newer and more clearly written contract. However after the contract is written, Hersh is recommitting himself to a more godly and charitable life when he drops dead. What went wrong? Perhaps if Frimme Hersh had heard of a different man by the name of Edmond Dantes, he might have chosen his business partners more carefully.

Edmond Dantes is the protagonist in Alexandre Dumas’ beloved novel The Count of Monte Cristo in which Dantes finds himself in a particular dilemma. Dantes was a hard-working and genuinely benevolent sailor who was brought down by three conspirators and finds himself in the notorious prison Chateau d’If. Here Dantes transforms into the mysterious Count of Monte Cristo through the help of an abbe. Upon escaping his prison, Dantes travels the world before exacting his vengence upon the conspirators who wronged him. All the while Dantes acts under the guise of providence which he acquired by making a deal with the devil. Dantes describes his encounter with the devil and in exchange for Dantes’ adoration he asks of the devil:

Listen, — I have always heard of providence, and yet I have never seen him, or anything that resembles him, or which can make me believe that he exists. I wish to be providence mself, for I feel that the most beautiful, noblest, most sublime thing in the world, is to recompense and punish (Dumas Loc. 10583).

The devil thus makes Edmond Dantes an agent of providence in exchange for his soul. This Faustian-bargain is interesting for many reasons. Throughout the latter half of the novel, the Count becomes what appears to be an other worldly being. He can do no wrong. One would have to read the novel to understand what I mean. After reading, I’m compelled to believe that the devil did grant Dantes his wish. However his wish was contingent upon god’s consent as well, being an agent of providence. One might argue that the “real estate” agent that Hersh makes a deal with after destroying his contract with god is simply the devil reincarnated. However, textually it seems a simple business transaction and that it is of Hersh’s own accord that he becomes the ruthless and callous businessman. This differs from Dantes’ motives which are expressed throughout the novel as fulfilling god’s will, and as an agent of providence, who can say he’s wrong?

These two texts together provide an interesting look into making deals with the divine, and while it appears one cannot make a contract with god himself, he can simply try the angel that fell down to an earthly level.