Edmond Dantès, a competent and well-liked first mate, takes over command of the Pharaon after the ship’s captain dies. The ship sails safely into Marseilles harbor in 1815. The pleasant, unassuming young man is unaware that enemies surround him. M. Danglars, the agent of the ship’s owner, M. Morrel, is jealous of Morrel’s affection for Edmond and covetous of the young sailor’s impending appointment as captain of the Pharaon. A fisherman, Fernand Mondego, wishes to wed Mercédès, who is betrothed to Edmond.
Danglars and Fernand, under the guise of a jest, compose a note accusing Edmond of conspiracy. They write that Edmond, in carrying out the last orders of his captain, had unwittingly conveyed a letter to the Bonapartist committee in Paris, which is trying to restore the exiled Napoleon Bonaparte to power. Caderousse, a drunkard, witnesses the writing of the note, but keeps silent out of cowardice. On his wedding day, Edmond is arrested and taken before an ambitious deputy king’s attorney named M. Villefort, who, to protect himself from association with his Bonapartist father, Noirtier—implicated in the letter Edmond carries—has Edmond secretly imprisoned in solitary confinement within the dank dungeons of the imposing Château D’If.
Napoleon escapes from Elba to reign briefly again, but Edmond lies forgotten in his cell as his psyche undergoes a series of changes: from hope, because he knows he is innocent of any crime; to despair, because the future looks hopeless; to anger at the people who placed him in his predicament. The cannonading at Waterloo dies away. Years pass. Then, one night, Edmond hears the sound of digging from an adjoining cell. He breaks a water jug and uses a fragment of the pottery to assist in the excavation. Soon, a narrow tunnel is completed, and Edmond meets an old man, a fellow prisoner named Abbé Faria, whose misguided attempt to dig his way to freedom has led him to Edmond’s cell. Thereafter the two meet daily, and the old man teaches the uneducated Edmond history, mathematics, languages, and etiquette.
In Edmond’s fourteenth year of imprisonment Faria, mortally ill, tells Edmond where to find a tremendous fortune should he escape after the old man’s death. When death comes, Faria’s body is placed into a sack prior to being heaved into the sea. Edmond, desperate to escape, changes places with the dead man, whom he drags through the tunnel into his own bed. Jailers throw the sack into the sea. Edmond rips the cloth and swims through the darkness to an islet in the bay.
At daybreak a gang of smugglers rescues him. Edmond works with the smugglers until a stroke of luck brings him to the island of Monte-Cristo, where Faria’s fortune is supposedly concealed. He lands on the island with the crew of the ship and, feigning injury in a fall, persuades the crew to leave him behind until their return trip from a smuggling rendezvous. Edmond explores the island and finds the treasure hidden in an underground cavern. He stuffs his pockets with jewels and returns to the mainland to sell some of the precious stones and gain the money necessary to carry out his plans to bring the treasure from Monte-Cristo. Edmond buys a boat and a title and sets himself up as the fabulously wealthy count of Monte-Cristo, one of many aliases he will hold while putting together an elaborate plot to gain revenge against those who wronged him. Edmond soon learns that his father had died of starvation and that his intended bride, Mercédès, despairing of Edmond’s return, had married Fernand.
Disguised as a priest, Edmond visits Caderousse to seek information about those who caused his imprisonment. Villefort had gained a fortune and risen in legal circles. Danglars is now a wealthy banker and baron. Fernand, formerly a humble fisherman, later a military general, has won wealth and a title in the Greek war and is now count de Morcerf. For this information, Edmond gives Caderousse a valuable diamond.
Edmond also learns that his old shipping master, Morrel, a true friend who frequently questioned the authorities about Edmond’s fate, has suffered the loss at sea of most of his ships and is on the verge of bankruptcy. In gratitude, because Morrel had helped the elder Edmond, Edmond saves Morrel’s shipping business and befriends Morrel’s son, Maximilian.
Edmond—as the count of Monte-Cristo—moves to Paris, where he dazzles the upper echelons of the city’s society with his mysterious background, fabulous wealth, and impeccable social graces. He and his protégé, a beautiful girl named Haidée, an Albanian slave he had bought during his travels in Greece, became the talk of the boulevards. He is invited into all the best homes and salons. Meanwhile, he slowly plots the ruin of those who caused him to be sent to prison.
Caderousse is first to be destroyed. His greed had awakened with Edmond’s gift of the diamond. Soon, Caderousse had committed robbery and murder and had been condemned to the galleys. Now, he escapes with the assistance of Edmond in another guise as a wealthy Englishman, but Caderousse does not use the opportunity to become an honest citizen. Instead, he attempts to rob Monte-Cristo. An escaping accomplice mortally wounds him. As Caderousse lies dying, Monte-Cristo reveals his true identity.
In Paris, Monte-Cristo ingratiates himself with banker Danglars, who loses heavily by following the investing example of the count, and so faces bankruptcy. The next victim is Fernand, who gained his wealth by betraying Pasha Ali in the Greek revolution of 1823. Monte-Cristo persuades Danglars to send to Greece for confirmation of Fernand’s operations there. Fernand is exposed, and at a trial conducted by his peers, Haidée, daughter of the Pasha Ali, confronts him with the story of her father’s betrayal.
Albert, son of Mercédès and Fernand, challenges Monte-Cristo to a duel to avenge his father’s disgrace. Monte-Cristo, an excellent shot, intends to make his revenge complete by killing the young man, but Mercédès visits him and begs for her son’s life. Aware of Monte-Cristo’s true identity, she intercedes with her son as well. When the duelists meet, Albert publicly declares that his father’s downfall is justified and apologizes to Monte-Cristo. Fernand, with no way to salvage his name, commits suicide. Mercédès and her son renounce their ill-gotten fortune and leave Paris, almost penniless.
Monte-Cristo has also become an intimate of Madame Villefort and encourages her desire to possess the wealth of her stepdaughter, Valentine. The count has slyly directed Madame Villefort in the use of poisons, and the depraved woman murders three people. When Valentine, too, is poisoned, Maximilian Morrel, son of the shipping master and in love with Valentine, goes to Monte-Cristo for help. Monte-Cristo vows to save the young girl, but Madame Villefort has marked her for death, and Valentine apparently dies of poisoning. Despite this seemingly distressing turn of events, Monte-Cristo promises future happiness to a deeply depressed Maximilian, who is like a son to him.
Danglars’s masculine daughter, Eugénie, rejects several potential matrimonial matches. Disguised as a man, she runs off with her female piano-teacher to seek her fortune. Danglars, facing ruin for misappropriating funds, deserts his wife and flees the country to escape prosecution. When Villefort discovers his wife’s treachery and crimes, he threatens her with exposure. She then poisons herself and her young son, Edward, for whose sake she had poisoned the others. Monte-Cristo reveals his true name to the already unhinged Villefort, who subsequently goes completely insane. Edmond’s revenge is complete.
Monte-Cristo sails to his rocky island with Maximilian, who is suicidal because he believes his beloved Valentine is dead; but she is not dead. Monte-Cristo has rescued Valentine through the use of a death-simulating drug and spirited her to safety from her tomb and away from the turmoil that arose in the wake of the count’s machinations against his enemies. Now he reunites the two lovers, who become beneficiaries of the count’s immense wealth. Edmond, with Haidée, who professes her love for him, sails away, never to be seen again.
The Count of Monte-Cristo, which may be the best example of Dumas’s narrative and imaginative power, is quite unlike The Three Musketeers. It is not historical. The time of its action is not remote, relative to the time of its publication. Its values are not aristocratic but bourgeois. It deals with the power of money, with what currently is called white-collar crime, and with greed. It is about shipping, commerce, banking, bribery, and corruption. Opposing a dishonest group including a lawyer, an accountant, and a banker are an honest shipowner and merchant marine officer.
The novel is also about the bourgeois values of getting demoted and promoted. Dantês, the merchant marine officer, gets promoted, because of his ability, to captain. He is about to marry his sweetheart, Mercédès. He is honest and naïve. He does not think that Danglers wants his captaincy or that Mondego wants his sweetheart. The men falsely accuse him of being a Bonapartist spy. He does not think that the prosecutor Villefort will convict him and send him to prison in order to cover up the wrongdoing of Villefort’s father. Dantês, for being too innocent, is demoted.
He learns in prison of a great treasure hidden on the island of Monte-Cristo. He escapes. Retrieving the fortune, he changes his identity, becoming the Count of Monte-Cristo. He is, in a sense, promoted. Now extremely wealthy, he seeks vengeance on those who have wronged him. He is also healthy and handsome, despite his years in prison.
“Monte-Cristo” is Italian for “Christ mount” or “Cristo hill.” Chatêau D’If, the island prison from which the count escapes (by water, necessarily), is French for “house of the evergreen tree.” In a sense, then, a second son of God (healthy, rich, and handsome) is born from the watery grave at the foot of the Christmas tree. The mission of this second son is to drive the crooked money-grubbers from the temple of the new industrial capitalism. The son has fallen, and he has risen again. In the end, he disappears to even greater adventure over the blue horizon.
Dumas got the gist of the plot from the files of the Parisian police. In 1807, a handsome young shoemaker was sent to prison by a falsehood. In prison, he learned of a hidden treasure. Once free and with the treasure, the shoemaker did not behave as the count does. The shoemaker personally murdered all but one of the people responsible for his misfortune. The one he did not murder murdered him. The count, on the other hand, does not murder his wrongdoers but instead creates events in which each wrongdoer destroys himself.