The narrator describes the various states into which Dantes falls during his time in D’If. He has periods where he is angry, where he prays to God and to men (including the unknown men who have done him harm). He paces around his cell, wracking his brain for things to think about, but as the narrator notes, Dantes was only nineteen when he was imprisoned, and he had very little by way of formal learning. In prison, he can only think of himself, Mercedes, his father, and Morrel, and they seem like ghosts to him. After a time, he resolves to let himself die, as he cannot bring himself to commit suicide by hanging. He renounces his food and throws it out a very tiny window whenever the guard leaves it for him. He begins to grow woefully thin.
Here, for the first time, the narrator introduces the idea of Dantes’s lack of formal schooling. The narrator goes on to make the starling claim that Dantes has very little to think about in prison because he is not yet acquainted with the great ideas of the books, languages, and philosophies of the world. Dantes will soon glean these things from the Abbe Faria, his fellow prisoner – but his lack of intellectual nutrition in prison is nearly enough to drive him insane, and to cause him nearly to commit suicide.
After about seven years in the prison, when he is on the verge of death from self-inflicted starvation, Dantes hears a faint scratching sound coming from a wall in his cell. He wonders whether this is a neighboring prisoner or a workman repairing the prison itself. He knocks, figuring that a prisoner who was trying to escape would be afraid to keep scratching away, whereas a workman would continue. The scratching does indeed stop, and Dantes is overjoyed: he has, for the first time in seven years, seen evidence of another prisoner in the Chateau D’If.
In a short span of time, the reader has become so accustomed to Dantes’s solitude that these scratches from the other side of the wall seem to be a godsend. And indeed, this is the first good fortune that has come Dantes’ way since his initial imprisonment.
Dantes begins nursing himself back to health, first by eating the food that has been brought to him. He resolves, too, to begin scratching where he heard the sound. He does this with a broken shard of a pitcher, and, later, with an iron handle on a pot that he convinces a guard to let him keep. After scratching around the grout of a stone, he begins making real progress with the iron handle; eventually, working at night and covering up this work with his bed during the day, he pulls out many handfuls of stone and mortar until he reaches an exposed beam that blocks his way.
These sequences, in which both men gradually wear away at the walls of their prison, symbolize and make concrete the very slow, very small progress they make, day by day, toward gaining their freedom. The narrator indicates that this small hope – the slimmest possibility that they might escape – is enough to keep both men alive. Thus the ideas of patience, and of optimistic thinking, hoping, and longing, are sewn into the text in this early chapter.
On seeing the beam, Dantes shouts aloud to God, cursing that it should be placed in his path. He hears, in response, a voice on the other side of the wall—the prisoner who had been scratching away, and who identifies himself as no. 24. That prisoner, later revealed to be the “mad” Abbe Faria, has also been trying to escape, although he miscalculated and thought that Dantes’ wall was actually the wall to the edge of the prison itself.
Of course, the Abbe’s miscalculation only seems to be ill fortune for a time. For it is this miscalculation that causes him to dig into Dantes’ cell, and prompts the two to become friends and confidants. Thus the narrator indicates that some acts that appear at first to be bad luck can actually be instances of good luck.
Faria is initially distrustful of Dantes, but Dantes tells him that he will be his friend, and even that he will be like a son to Faria. When Faria realizes that Dantes is only 26, and thus “too young” to be a traitor, Faria agrees to join forces with Dantes in an attempt to escape the Chateau D’If. After the jailer leaves the next day, Dantes goes back to the hole on his side. Putting his weight at the bottom of it, he finds that a large portion has caved away, linking to the hole the Abbe has dug on the other side. With the coast clear, the Abbe begins wriggling toward Dantes’ cell.
It is perhaps natural, the narrator implies, for the Abbe to be fearful of Dantes, since neither man has had any contact with another man (other than the jailers) for many years. But the two men soon become inseparably dependent on one another. Thus the narrator, and Dumas, make the claim that the ties of brotherhood between people are strong enough to outweigh the potentially devastating effects of long imprisonment. In short: it is friendship with the Abbe that, quite literally, saves Dantes’ life.