Edmond Dantès, a handsome, promising young sailor, skillfully docks the three-masted French ship, the Pharaon, in Marseilles after its captain died en route home. As a reward, Dantès is promised a captainship, but before he can claim his new post and be married to his fiancée, Mercédès', a conspiracy of four jealous and unsavory men arrange for him to be seized and secretly imprisoned in solitary confinement in the infamous Chateau d'If, a prison from which no one has ever escaped. The four men responsible are:
- Fernand Mondego, who is jealous of Mercédès' love for Dantès;
- Danglars, the purser of the Pharaon, who covets Dantès' promised captainship;
- Caderousse, an unprincipled neighbor; and
- Villefort, a prosecutor who knows that Dantès is carrying a letter addressed to Villefort's father; the old man is a Bonapartist who would probably be imprisoned by the present royalist regime were it not for his son's, Villefort's, influence. Villefort fears, however, that this letter might damage his own position, and so he makes sure, he thinks, that no one ever hears about either Dantès or the letter again.
For many years, Dantès barely exists in his tiny, isolated cell; he almost loses his mind and his will to live until one day he hears a fellow prisoner burrowing nearby. He too begins digging, and soon he meets an old Abbé who knows the whereabouts of an immense fortune, one that used to belong to an immensely wealthy Italian family.
Dantès and the Abbé continue digging for several years, and from the Abbé, Dantès learns history, literature, science, and languages, but when at last they are almost free, the Abbé dies. Dantès hides his body, then sews himself in the Abbé's burial sack. The guards arrive, carry the sack outside, and heave the body far out to sea.
Dantès manages to escape and is picked up by a shipful of smugglers, whom he joins until he can locate the island where the treasure is hidden. When he finally discovers it, he is staggered by the immensity of its wealth. And when he emerges into society again, he is the very rich and very handsome Count of Monte Cristo.
Monte Cristo has two goals — to reward those who were kind to him and his aging father, and to punish those responsible for his imprisonment. For the latter, he plans slow and painful punishment. To have spent fourteen years barely subsisting in a dungeon demands cruel and prolonged punishment.
As Monte Cristo, Dantès ingeniously manages to be introduced to the cream of Parisian society, among whom he goes unrecognized. But Monte Cristo, in contrast, recognizes all of his enemies — all now wealthy and influential men.
Fernand has married Mercédès and is now known as Count de Morcerf. Monte Cristo releases information to the press that proves that Morcerf is a traitor, and Morcerf is ruined socially. Then Monte Cristo destroys Morcerf's relationship with his family, whom he adores. When they leave him, he is so distraught that he shoots himself.
To revenge himself on Danglars, who loves money more than anything else, Monte Cristo ruins him financially.
To revenge himself on Caderousse, Monte Cristo easily traps Caderousse because of his insatiable greed, then watches as one of Caderousse's cohorts murders him.
To revenge himself on Villefort, Monte Cristo slowly reveals to Villefort that he knows about a love affair that Villefort had long ago with the present Madame Danglars. He also reveals to him, by hints, that he knows about an illegitimate child whom he fathered, a child whom Villefort believed that he buried alive. The child lived, however, and is now engaged to Danglars' daughter, who is the illegitimate young man's half-sister.
Ironically, Villefort's wife proves to be even more villainous than her husband, for she poisons the parents of Villefort's first wife; then she believes that she has successfully poisoned her husband's daughter by his first marriage. With those people dead, her own son is in line for an enormous inheritance. Villefort, however, discovers his wife's plottings and threatens her, and so she poisons herself and their son. At this point, Dantès is half-fearful that his revenge has been too thorough, but because he is able to unite two young people who are very much in love and unite them on the Isle of Monte Cristo, he sails away, happy and satisfied, never to be seen again.