At the age of nineteen, Edmond Dantès seems to have the perfect life. He is about to become the captain of a ship, he is engaged to a beautiful and kind young woman, Mercédès, and he is well liked by almost everyone who knows him. This perfect life, however, stirs up dangerous jealousy among some of Dantès’s so-called friends. Danglars, the treasurer of Dantès’s ship, envies Dantès’s early career success; Fernand Mondego is in love with Dantès’s fiancée and so covets his amorous success; his neighbor Caderousse is simply envious that Dantès is so much luckier in life than he is.
Together, these three men draft a letter accusing Dantès of treason. There is some truth to their accusations: as a favor to his recently deceased captain, Dantès is carrying a letter from Napoleon to a group of Bonapartist sympathizers in Paris. Though Dantès himself has no political leanings, the undertaking is enough to implicate him for treason. On the day of his wedding, Dantès is arrested for his alleged crimes.
The deputy public prosecutor, Villefort, sees through the plot to frame Dantès and is prepared to set him free. At the last moment, though, Dantès jeopardizes his freedom by revealing the name of the man to whom he is supposed to deliver Napoleon’s letter. The man, Noirtier, is Villefort’s father. Terrified that any public knowledge of his father’s treasonous activities will thwart his own ambitions, Villefort decides to send Dantès to prison for life. Despite the entreaties of Monsieur Morrel, Dantès’s kind and honest boss, Dantès is sent to the infamous Château d’If, where the most dangerous political prisoners are kept.
While in prison, Dantès meets Abbé Faria, an Italian priest and intellectual, who has been jailed for his political views. Faria teaches Dantès history, science, philosophy, and languages, turning him into a well-educated man. Faria also bequeaths to Dantès a large treasure hidden on the island of Monte Cristo, and he tells him how to find it should he ever escape. When Faria dies, Dantès hides himself in the abbé’s shroud, thinking that he will be buried and then dig his way out. Instead, Dantès is thrown into the sea, and is able to cut himself loose and swim to freedom.
Dantès travels to Monte Cristo and finds Faria’s enormous treasure. He considers his fortune a gift from God, given to him for the sole purpose of rewarding those who have tried to help him and, more important, punishing those who have hurt him. Disguising himself as an Italian priest who answers to the name of Abbé Busoni, he travels back to Marseilles and visits Caderousse, who is now struggling to make a living as an innkeeper. From Caderousse he learns the details of the plot to frame him. In addition, Dantès learns that his father has died of grief in his absence and that Mercédès has married Fernand Mondego. Most frustrating, he learns that both Danglars and Mondego have become rich and powerful and are living happily in Paris. As a reward for this information, and for Caderousse’s apparent regret over the part he played in Dantès’s downfall, Dantès gives Caderousse a valuable diamond. Before leaving Marseilles, Dantès anonymously saves Morrel from financial ruin.
Ten years later, Dantès emerges in Rome, calling himself the Count of Monte Cristo. He seems to be all knowing and unstoppable. In Rome Dantès ingratiates himself to Albert de Morcerf, son of Fernand Mondego and Mercédès, by saving him from bandits. In return for the favor, Albert introduces Dantès to Parisian society. None of his old cohorts recognize the mysterious count as Edmond Dantès, though Mercédès does. Dantès is thus able to insinuate himself effortlessly into the lives of Danglars, Mondego, and Villefort. Armed with damning knowledge about each of them that he has gathered over the past decade, Dantès sets an elaborate scheme of revenge into motion.
Mondego, now known as the Count de Morcerf, is the first to be punished. Dantès exposes Morcerf’s darkest secret: Morcerf made his fortune by betraying his former patron, the Greek vizier Ali Pacha, and he then sold Ali Pacha’s wife and daughter into slavery. Ali Pacha’s daughter, Haydée, who has lived with Dantès ever since he bought her freedom seven years earlier, testifies against Morcerf in front of the senate, irreversibly ruining his good name. Ashamed by Morcerf’s treachery, Albert and Mercédès flee, leaving their tainted fortune behind. Morcerf commits suicide.
Villefort’s punishment comes slowly and in several stages. Dantès first takes advantage of Madame de Villefort’s murderous intent, subtly tutoring her in the uses of poison. As Madame de Villefort wreaks her havoc, killing off each member of the household in turn, Dantès plants the seeds for yet another public exposé. In court, it is revealed that Villefort is guilty of attempted infanticide, as he tried to bury his illegitimate baby while it was still alive. Believing that everyone he loves is dead and knowing that he will soon have to answer severe criminal charges, Villefort goes insane.
For his revenge on Danglars, Dantès simply plays upon his enemy’s greed. He opens various false credit accounts with Danglars that cost him vast amounts of money. He also manipulates Danglars’s unfaithful and dishonest wife, costing Danglars more money, and helps Danglars’s daughter, Eugénie, run away with her female companion. Finally, when Danglars is nearly broke and about to flee without paying any of his creditors, Dantès has the Italian bandit Luigi Vampa kidnap him and relieve him of his remaining money. Dantès spares Danglars’s life, but leaves him penniless.
Meanwhile, as these acts of vengeance play out, Dantès also tries to complete one more act of goodness. Dantès wishes to help the brave and honorable Maximilian Morrel, the son of the kind shipowner, so he hatches an elaborate plot to save Maximilian’s fiancée, Valentine Villefort, from her murderous stepmother, to ensure that the couple will be truly happy forever. Dantès gives Valentine a pill that makes her appear dead and then carries her off to the island of Monte Cristo. For a month Dantès allows Maximilian to believe that Valentine is dead, which causes Maximilian to long for death himself. Dantès then reveals that Valentine is alive. Having known the depths of despair, Maximilian is now able to experience the heights of ecstasy. Dantès too ultimately finds happiness, when he allows himself to fall in love with the adoring and beautiful Haydée.