Alexandre Dumas was born in 1802 in the village of Villers-Cotterêts, fifty miles northeast of Paris. His father, Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, had been a general under Napoleon, though in 1799 the two men had a falling out and never reconciled. Thomas-Alexandre never received the pay due to him as a former officer, so his family was left poor. In 1806 the elder Dumas died, and his wife and two children struggled to keep afloat. Despite the problems that Napoleon caused to the Dumas family, Alexandre remained a lifelong admirer of the former emperor. Indeed, there are strong democratic leanings evident in Dumas’s literary works.
The younger Dumas was not a good student, but he had excellent handwriting. When he moved to Paris in 1823, hoping to make his fortune as an author, his lovely handwriting earned him a job as a minor clerk. Dumas spent six years as a clerk, during which time he wrote plays, conducted torrid love affairs, and lived beyond his means, until, in 1829, he had his first dramatic success, with Henry III and His Court. This play thrust Dumas into the limelight as one of the forerunners of the emergent French Romantic movement, which emphasized excitement, adventure, and high emotion in an attempt to rebel against the conservative climate of the Restoration period that followed the French Revolution.
Like his Romantic colleagues, Dumas believed in the principles of social equality and individual rights, and he tried to infuse his dramatic works with these principles. Dumas went further than writing about his beliefs, however. He took an active role in the Revolution of 1830, helping to capture a powder magazine at Soissons, and he was appointed organizer of the National Guard at Vendée. Encountering strong local opposition, Dumas gave up the position, refusing to act against the wishes of the majority.
Returning to the literary community of Paris, Dumas continued to write popular plays, sticking to historical works that he filled with melodrama. He also began to write travel literature, which led to a walking tour of southern France in 1834 (a tour that would later be put to use in The Count of Monte Cristo). In the late 1830s, Dumas began writing novels, as much for financial gain as for artistic reasons. It had become common for cheap newspapers to run novels in serial form, and if a writer was adept at writing quickly and melodramatically, as Dumas was, the financial incentives were enormous. Dumas was so good at this sort of writing that he sometimes had three or four serial novels running simultaneously. His writing soon made him the most famous Frenchman of his day, and he gained renown throughout the Western world. In 1844, the same year he published The Three Musketeers, Dumas began the serialization of The Count of Monte Cristo. He continued writing prolifically for most of his life, publishing his last novel, The Prussian Terror, in 1867, three years before his death.
Dumas also found the time to live like one of his dashing, dramatic, reckless heroes. He was constantly engaged in love affairs, foreign adventures, and exorbitant spending. He was also a generous man, granting money and gifts to virtually anyone who asked. Dumas’s self-indulgent lifestyle and excessive generosity eventually took a toll on his finances. By the time he suffered a stroke in 1870, he was far from a rich man, despite the fact that he had earned millions of dollars in his lifetime. He died in December 1870 at the home of his son, the novelist Alexandre Dumas the younger.
Dumas’s liberal borrowing from outside sources occasionally brought him accusations of plagiarism. While he lifted many of his plotlines from the works of other authors and from historical events, he molded these stories in his own characteristic way, making them his own. The Count of Monte Cristo is an example of the appropriation process Dumas frequently employed. His inspiration for the novel was an anecdote he read in Mémoires historiques tirés des archives de la police de Paris, a collection of intriguing criminal cases recorded by Jacques Peuchet, a former police archivist. The anecdote relates that in 1807, a man named François Piçaud became engaged to a pretty and wealthy girl, inspiring the envy of his friends. One of these friends, Loupian, persuaded the others to join him in denouncing Piçaud as an English spy. Though innocent of the charge, Piçaud was arrested and kept in prison for seven years. While in prison, he befriended a rich Italian cleric who left Piçaud his vast fortune when he died. Piçaud returned to Paris in 1815 as a wealthy man. Using his wealth, as well as numerous disguises, he enacted a complex plan to avenge himself on his enemies, murdering several of them. Though this real-life story has the all the essential plot elements of Dumas’s novel, it lacks the fantastical, epic proportions of great melodrama. Dumas’s greatest gift was his ability to grant epic proportion to existing stories.
The Count of Monte Cristo is a novel set firmly in history, with many key plot points based on external political events. The key figure in French politics during the first quarter of the nineteenth century was Napoleon Bonaparte, who, though he does not appear in the novel, plays such a significant role that he can almost be counted as one of the major characters. Napoleon was a general who rose to prominence during the French Revolution, which occurred in 1789. He saved the revolutionary government from an angry mob and led the French army to victories over Austria, Italy, and Egypt, claiming all of these lands for France. In 1799, Napoleon led a coup against the existing government of France and formed a consulate, installing himself as its dictatorial leader.
In 1804, Napoleon revised the constitution he had written several years earlier, and the French senate voted him emperor of all of the vast lands he had conquered. Napoleon remained widely beloved by the people, largely because in all the lands he conquered, he abolished serfdom and feudalism and guaranteed basic human rights. He simplified the court system, took steps to make education universally available, and standardized national codes of law to ensure that the rights and liberties won during the French Revolution—equality before the law and freedom of religion—could not be taken away.
In 1814, dogged by an increasing number of enemies and looming military defeat, Napoleon was forced to abdicate his throne. He was exiled to the Mediterranean island of Elba, where Edmond Dantès finds him at the beginning of The Count of Monte Cristo. In March 1815, Napoleon escaped from Elba, secretly sailed to France, and marched on Paris, defeating the royal troops. It is information about this return to power that is contained in the letter Dantès is caught conveying to Paris.
After his return to power, Napoleon advocated an even more liberal constitution than the one he had first instituted. After a brief period, however, Napoleon was forced to make a preemptive strike against encroaching enemies, and he met defeat at the Battle of Waterloo. Parisian crowds, supporting Napoleon as fervently as ever, begged him to keep fighting. Several key politicians withdrew their support, however, and Napoleon surrendered. His short second reign is known as the Hundred Days. With Napoleon defeated, France fell back into the hands of the ultraconservative Louis XVIII. Napoleon was exiled to the South Atlantic island of Saint Helena, where he lived until his death in 1821. However, Napoleon’s absence from France only intensified his mythic status, and he became an even greater hero than at any time he was actually present in France. Dumas’s idealization of Napoleon is not at all rare, as Napoleon, in his time, was hailed as though he were a patron saint of France.