Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1565
The 118 chapters of The Count of Monte-Cristo may seem excessively long to many modern readers. The novel is divided into three major sections of unequal length. The first thirty chapters take place in Marseilles before, during, and just after Dantès’s imprisonment in the Château d’If, a prison in the harbor there. After his escape from prison, Dantès assumes the identity of the Count of Monte-Cristo, and the next nine chapters take place in Italy, where the now-wealthy Count of Monte-Cristo is living. The relevance of these chapters becomes clear to readers only in the third part of this novel, which takes place largely in France, where Dantès carries out his vengeance against those who sent him to prison.
The Count of Monte-Cristo
Edmond Dantès is an odd, not totally sympathetic character. Although he was the victim of a legal injustice, his vengeance can only be called extreme. To punish his now-politically influential enemies, he does not hesitate (twenty-three years later) to destroy the lives of their wives, children, and other relatives. As an excuse for his retribution, in chapter 91 Dantès claims that he is merely carrying out God’s wishes. Nevertheless, Dantès was not the only Frenchman to have been imprisoned unjustly during the Napoleonic era and the restoration of the Bourbons to the French throne. Dumas’s own father had been imprisoned unjustly for twenty months; these months in prison had adversely affected his health, causing him to die young. Unlike Dantès, however, Dumas’s father never sought vengeance against those who sent him to prison.
The structure of The Count of Monte-Cristo parallels that of many other detective novels. At the beginning, everything seems to favor Dantès. He has just become the captain of the Pharaon, a commercial boat owned by the kind and generous M. Morrel, and is engaged to Mercédès, whom he plans to marry the next day. Unfortunately, there are two obstacles to his happiness: Fernand, who also loves Mercédès, wishes to stop this marriage, and Danglars, the apparently dishonest accountant for the Pharaon, is afraid that Dantès will discover financial irregularities in the ship’s accounts. Fernand and Danglars are delighted to learn that the dying M. Leclère, whom Dantès replaced as captain of the Pharaon, has asked Dantès to deliver a letter to Napoleon Bonaparte, then a prisoner on Elba. Although indifferent to politics, Dantès takes his letter to Elba and receives a letter from Napoleon for a certain M. Noirtier in Paris. Fernand and Danglars denounce Dantès to the local prosecutor, claiming that he is a traitor who is attempting to restore Napoleon to the throne. A neighbor named Caderousse knows of the plot but remains silent. That evening, Dantès is arrested and then questioned by Villefort, an assistant prosecutor in Marseilles. After examining the compromising letter from Napoleon, Villefort orders that Dantès be taken, untried, to the Château d’If, where political prisoners are kept.
During the first few years, Dantès does not understand the reasons for his imprisonment, finally becoming convinced that it must be part of a divine plan. He believes that someday he will be freed and those who punished him will in turn be punished. The possibility of vengeance brings him extreme pleasure. Thus, even before he escapes from prison, readers do not feel completely sympathetic toward him.
After several years in solitary confinement, Dantès finally makes contact with Abbé Faria, a prisoner in an adjoining cell, who has dug a tunnel between their cells while seeking to escape. Faria helps Dantès recall the events before his arrest and during his interrogation. Thus, Dantès comes to an understanding of how Danglars and Fernand may have profited by his arrest and why Villefort was so displeased by Napoleon’s letter. In the 1790’s, Faria had known Noirtier, the addressee, who was then a fervent Bonapartist. Noirtier is Villefort’s father, and his active opposition to King Louis XVIII might well have endangered Villefort’s career. Thus, it was in Villefort’s interest to destroy this letter and send Dantès to prison without the inconvenience of a public trial.
Readers of The Count of Monte-Cristo must accept an extraordinary number of coincidences, such as the fact that this Italian priest personally knew Villefort’s father. Nor is this the last of the almost unbelievable developments. Faria also reveals to Dantès that a fabulous cache of diamonds and other precious jewels has been hidden since the fifteenth century on Monte-Cristo, a small island near Corsica. Only Faria knows that this treasure exists. After his friend’s death, Dantès escapes from prison by pretending to be the dead man. Bodies at the prison are placed in sacks and large weights are attached to the legs; the sacks are then dropped into the sea. Despite these precautions, Dantès frees himself easily and swims safely to shore—fourteen years to the day after his arrest.
Now that he is free, Dantès begins planning his “implacable vengeance” against Caderousse, Villefort, Danglars, and Fernand. Were he to forgive these four men, it would constitute a grievous sin in his mind. Although readers may empathize with Dantès, they also realize that a long imprisonment has transformed him into a bitter individual. Soon after his escape from the Château d’If, Dantès reaches the island of which Faria spoke. Without much difficulty, Dantès transports a fortune to Italy, where he will spend most of his time until 1838.
During this period, Dantès does return briefly to Marseilles to save the generous Morrel from financial ruin. Nevertheless, Dantès does not reveal his true identity to the Morrels, who treated him well in 1815. Dantès also learns that his own father died of starvation, reinforcing his belief that the four wrongdoers must be punished. In his mind, they are indirectly responsible for his father’s death. The count uses his enormous wealth and a series of disguises to obtain all the information relevant to his case, including what has happened since 1815 to the four men who sent him to prison.
Caderousse has become a common criminal, often imprisoned. (Dantès provokes Caderousse’s former cellmate, whom he has cheated, to kill him.) Fernand, now known as the Count of Morcerf, is a French general. Danglars is a powerful and wealthy Parisian banker. Villefort has become the chief prosecutor in France.
Dantès’s vengeance against Fernand is especially painful for him because his beloved Mercédès is married to Fernand, who assured her that Dantès died in prison. Mercédès recognizes the Count of Monte-Cristo; he in turn convinces her that she and her son can save their honor only by leaving her husband. They do so and the count pushes Fernand to suicide. Dantès’s vengeance against Danglars is imaginative and incredibly effective. While in Italy, Dantès befriended a notorious bandit named Luigi Zampa, who frequently kidnapped travelers and held them for exorbitant ransoms. Zampa will do whatever his benefactor asks. Zampa kidnaps the wealthy Danglars and proceeds to bleed him dry: Danglars must pay for his meals, and each one costs 100,000 francs, while a bottle of wine or mineral water costs 25,000 francs. Danglars’s immense fortune soon disappears.
Villefort’s punishment is especially cruel. His second wife desires that her son, Édouard, and not her stepdaughter, Valentine, inherit her husband’s fortunes. A number of people are poisoned, apparently including Valentine. Later, however, the reader discovers that Valentine has not actually died, and she weds Maximilien Morrel (the son of the shipowner). When Villefort confronts his wife with proof of her murders, he gives her a choice: If she does not kill herself, he will have her arrested for murder. She goes him one better, killing herself and their young son Édouard. After this murder-suicide, Villefort goes mad. Although Mme de Villefort was clearly an unstable and violent woman, Dumas never fully explains her relationship with the Count of Monte-Cristo, leaving readers to suspect that the count encouraged her murderous penchant.
The death of the young and clearly innocent Édouard de Villefort finally convinces Dantès that his revenge has gone too far, because he can no longer control the destructive forces that he set into motion; he leaves Paris. Before sailing away, Dantès brings together Maximilien Morrel and Valentine de Villefort on his island of Monte-Cristo. In their marriage, they may attain the happiness that Edmond Dantès never experienced.
Although it may be more accurate to describe The Count of Monte-Cristo as a psychological novel than as a detective novel, it does possess several elements common to that genre. The first crime in this novel is a wrongful imprisonment, Faria relies on his own experience to explain Dantès’s punishment, and Dantès then obtains documents and testimony to prove Faria’s hypotheses. A detective novel strives to prove the innocence or guilt of specific characters. The Count of Monte-Cristo does this quite successfully, but it also illustrates the destructive force of hate. The count’s vengeance does not result in justice. Ultimately, readers feel little sympathy for the original victim. Instead, the young Édouard de Villefort is the victim who is remembered and pitied.