Edmond Dantes is a nineteen year-old with a bright future. He is first mate on the ship Pharaon, which docks in Marseille in 1814. M. Morrel, who owns and operates the ship (and who is therefore Dantes’ boss and mentor) promotes Dantes to captain, which upsets the ship’s cargo manager, Danglars. The promotion also makes Dantes’s father’s neighbor, a tailor named Caderousse, jealous. Furthermore, Fernand, a fisherman in the city’s Catalan district, is envious of Dantes’s engagement to Fernand’s cousin, the beautiful young woman Mercedes. Happenstance brings these three men together, and at Danglars’s insistence, they hatch a plot to frame Dantes as being supportive of Napoleon Bonaparte, the deposed emperor of France.
Dantes is arrested for alleged treason while at his feast of betrothal to Mercedes. The deputy crown prosecutor M. de Villefort is initially sympathetic to the young man’s plight, but when he realizes that Dantes has been carrying a message from Napoleon to Villefort’s own father, Noirtier (who is himself a Bonapartist sympathizer), Villefort decides to allow Dantes to be framed for Bonapartist allegiances so that Noirtier’s sympathies will not become public. Dantes, not understanding what he has done wrong, finds himself trapped in the dreaded Chateau D’If, a prison in the Mediterranean, where he suffers in near-silence for fourteen years.
In prison, Dantes is initially angry, then morose and withdrawn. Finally, after many years in solitary confinement in a squalid dungeon, he decides to kill himself by refusing all food. It’s at this crucial moment, however, that Dantes hears scraping on the other side of his prison wall. After digging furiously in the direction of the sound, and noticing that his inmate-neighbor has also been digging, Dantes meets the Abbe Faria. The Abbe, a man of extreme erudition and great generosity of spirit, teaches Dantes everything he knows, from the languages and history of the world to science and philosophy. After planning for over a year, the two men try, and fail, to escape from Chateau D’If: the prison wardens, without learning of their plot, have fortified a weak point through which they might have been able to slip.
When the Abbe dies of a stroke, Dantes winds himself in the old man’s death sheet and is thrown into the Mediterranean by guards. He escapes and swims to freedom, first joining up with a gang of sailors, then making his way to the island of Monte Cristo, on which, Abbe Faria insists, an enormous fortune was buried by Italian nobles in the sixteenth century. Through ingenious methods, and following the instructions the Abbe has asked him to commit to memory, Dantes finds this fortune and begins spending it with one goal in mind: to punish the four men who put him in prison in the first place (Villefort, Danglars, Fernand, and Caderousse). Dantes also wonders, with great urgency, what has become of his father and of Mercedes. But even those attachments of loving devotion pale when Dantes allows himself to consider the vengeance he will exact on those who have wronged him.
Dantes discovers, soon after finding the Monte Cristo fortune, that three of these four men have benefited from enormous good luck following the restoration of the French monarchy (the Royalists) in 1815. Danglars is now a wealthy banker in Paris, married to Hermine Danglars (who is having an affair with the much-younger diplomat Lucien Debray). Fernand came into his own wealth as a solider-for-hire in the wars following 1815, then married Mercedes, purchased a noble title (“Count”), and had a son, Albert, whom Dantes first meets in Rome. Villefort has ascended to the position of crown prosecutor in Paris, and has married for the second time, after his first wife died. He has two children, one from his first marriage, named Valentine, and a second with Mme de Villefort, named Edouard. Caderousse, with his unpleasant wife, La Carconte, is manager of a broken-down inn. Dantes, for his part, assumes many disguises, including the Count of Monte Cristo (an explorer and celebrity of great wealth, erudition, and power, and of indeterminate national origin), the Abbe Busoni (a supposed Italian priest), and Lord Wilmore (an English banker). The Count uses these disguises to gain information about the characters whose lives he sets out to ruin.
Before his trip to Paris, the “Abbe Busoni” (really Dantes) meets with Caderousse and La Carconte at their inn. Busoni asks Caderousse the extent to which he was involved in Dantes’ false imprisonment, and when Busoni/Dantes realizes that Caderousse himself was not the prime mover of the plot, he forgives the innkeeper, giving him and his wife a diamond. After Busoni departs, La Carconte convinces Caderousse to hatch another plot to murder the jeweler to whom they have just sold the diamond. As a consequence of this bungled and bloody episode, which results in the murder of La Carconte and the jeweler, Caderousse goes on the lam, winding up in a prison colony after he can no longer elude the charge of double homicide.
The second half of the novel depicts the Count’s arrival in Paris, his insinuation into French high society, and his careful assembly of plans for revenge against his conspirators. Among his many activities there, the Count hires a Corsican named Bertuccio, who witnessed an affair between Villefort and Hermine Danglars. The affair produced a child, Benedetto, whom Bertuccio later adopts. As it turns out, Bertuccio was hiding in Caderousse’s inn during the murder of the jeweler, and he recounts this story to Dantes. (In another coincidence, Benedetto is sentenced to work in the same prison colony as Caderousse, and Caderousse later extorts Benedetto in Paris when he realizes that the Count has helped fabricate an identity for him, as “Andrea Cavalcanti,” an Italian noble.)
The Count sets up house on the Champs-Elysees with, among others, a black “slave” named Ali and a Greek “slave” named Haydee, whom he has purchased in Constantinople. The Count manipulates telegrams and financial markets to reverse Danglars’s banking fortunes, and he gradually comes to make the acquaintance of Albert and his mother Mercedes, the first of whom becomes his friend, and the latter of whom, though recognizing her former fiance immediately, pretends for much of the book to have no idea who the Count of Monte Cristo really is. The Count soon realizes that Mme de Villefort is using poison to kill members of the Villefort family, so that Valentine’s wealth, from her grandparents the Saint-Merans and grandfather Noirtier, will revert to her son.
These machinations—along with many ornate and festive balls, theatrical and operatic performances, duels and fights, and conversations about love, philosophy, religion, devotion, revenge, wealth, and family—lead to a series of climaxes and then to a denouement in the final chapters of the book. The Count allows Caderousse to be murdered by Benedetto after concluding that he has given Caderousse many opportunities to atone for his initial sins of cowardice and drunkenness, and his later sins of murder. The Count also drains Danglars’s bank account through shrewd manipulation of financial markets, and, after convincing Eugenie to become engaged to Andrea, watches as Andrea’s social fall further disgraces her family. The Count balks at dueling with Albert over a supposed rumor of Fernand’s indiscretions, only for Albert to realize that his father stole his wealth from the Ali Pasha in the Middle East, and that he is no aristocrat at all, rather the son of a treacherous, untrustworthy, and cowardly fisherman of humble origin. These revelations result in Fernand’s suicide, and in Albert’s resolution that he will join the French army abroad. Meanwhile, his mother Mercedes makes peace with the Count after begging him to protect Albert and others in Paris from further vengeance. She vows to live alone, in a mournful peace, in Marseille.
Continuing in his adventures, the Count saves Valentine from the Villefort home, but not before revealing that Villefort has had a child out of wedlock with Hermine, thus ruining his social standing as crown prosecutor. It is at this moment, too, that the Count reaches the limits of his vengeance. For in his willingness to punish Villefort, he allows Villefort’s second wife to poison the Saint-Merans, Valentine, and eventually Edouard, an innocent child. The Count recognizes, after these sorrowful events and his late conversation with Mercedes, that there must be more to his freedom than vengeance.
Soon thereafter, the Count understands that he must seek love, and must attempt to build for himself a structure of family and friends to replace those he has lost during his fourteen years in the Chateau D’If. Fortunately, all along the Count has developed a relationship of mutual goodwill with Maximilien Morrel, son of Old Morrel, the first man outside the Count’s family who believed in him and in his career as a sailor. The Count saved the Morrel family from financial ruin months after coming into his fortune, and once the Count realizes that young Morrel wishes to marry Valentine, he does all he can to save her from her stepmother’s predations and to spirit her away so that she and Morrel can live together.
The novel ends on the island of Monte Cristo, with the Count having left the French capital behind. He has successfully protected Valentine and Morrel from the social chaos his activities have caused in Paris, and has bequeathed them nearly his entire fortune, which is essentially limitless in its grandeur. Having toured Marseilles, the city in which he spent much of his youth, and the dungeon of the Chateau D’If where that youth was almost destroyed, the Count says his goodbyes to Albert and Mercedes, whom he considers innocent players in an otherwise upsetting drama. He also comes to recognize his love for Haydee, whom he has grown to love during their time together in the house on the Champs-Elysees, and with whom he can now imagine spending the rest of his life. The Count’s quest for revenge has been replaced by feelings of love and mutual indebtedness to those close to him. Dantes and Haydee sail away from Valentine and Maximilien, their adopted family-members, and the Count insists that, one day, if they each “hope” and “wait,” they might all be reunited.