The time: February 1815. The place: Marseilles, France. The Pharaon, a three-masted sailing ship coming from Italy, is docking. Like all dockings, this one attracts a large crowd, but this particular ship draws a great crowd because it belongs to a wealthy man of Marseilles, Monsieur Morrel. Strangely, there is a quiet, solemn air about the approaching ship, even though the pilot seems to have her in perfect control. Suddenly, we see a man being rowed out to the ship, where he hails a tall, dark, and slender young man, Edmond Dantès, on board the Pharaon. The man in the rowboat is Monsieur Morrel, the ship's owner, and he inquires about the gloomy mood of the sailors; he is told that their captain died of brain fever, but that the cargo is safe. The handsome young man then gives orders to lower the top sails and invites Morrel aboard. Monsieur Danglars, the purser, comes forward to give Morrel further information about the voyage.
Danglars, a rather melancholy, oily man of about twenty-five, laments the loss of the ship's captain, a man who spent his life at sea. Morrel remarks that a life at sea doesn't necessarily guarantee one's worth as a sailor; he cites young Dantès' obvious skill and relish for sailoring. Danglars' face darkens. Dantès, he says, took command of the ship with no authority and then lingered a day at the Isle of Elba instead of sailing on a straight course for Marseilles. Morrel calls to Dantès and asks him if this is true. Dantès explains that he was carrying out an order of the late Captain Leclère — to deliver a package to a Marshal Bertrand.
Whispering, Morrel asks Dantès about the health of Napoleon, and Dantès explains that Napoleon inquired about the ship and its cargo and that he was pleased to discover that the ship belonged to Morrel. This news pleases Morrel, and he praises Dantès for stopping at Elba. But he warns him to tell no one about the parcel which he delivered. Dantès then leaves to greet a customs officer, and Danglars steps forward, criticizing the handsome young Dantès and asking Morrel about a letter which the captain gave Dantès along with the packet. Sharply, Morrel asks Danglars how he knew about the packet. Danglars tries to explain, but it is obvious that he was eavesdropping; thus, he hastily excuses himself and says that he was wrong to even mention the letter.
Morrel invites Dantès to dinner, but the young man cannot accept; his father awaits him, as does his fiancée, Mercédès. Morrel asks Dantès about Leclère's letter, and the sailor is puzzled. Leclère, he says, was "unable to write."
Then he asks for two weeks' leave — to be married and to go to Paris. He is granted the request; moreover, says Morrel, Dantès shall be the new captain of the Pharaon when he returns from Paris — that is, if Morrel can convince his partner to agree to the captainship. Morrel then questions Dantès about the character of Danglars, the purser of the Pharaon, and Dantès' answer is immediate: Danglars is no friend of his; however, as a purser, he is quite satisfactory, and if Morrel is satisfied with Danglars, then Dantès will respect the purser.
At home, Dantès' sudden appearance causes his father to go terribly pale. Dantès, in contrast, is exultant! He is a captain at nineteen, with a large salary, plus a share in the profits, and he is soon going to be married to the woman he adores! Noticing that his father is obviously very weak, he discovers that his father has very little money. Dantès had left with a debt to Caderousse, a neighbor, and after Dantès sailed, Caderousse demanded full payment, which amounted to almost the full sum that Dantès left for his father.
Caderousse enters, hoping to gain information about Dantès' new post and also to mock Dantès for refusing to flatter Morrel and accept his invitation to dinner. Dantès, however, dismisses Caderousse's criticism and hurries off to see his fiancée, wincing that Caderousse once did the family a great favor long ago. Caderousse leaves, meets Danglars, and the two men go to a tavern to drink wine and speculate about Dantès' future.
Not far away is the village of the Catalans, a community of closely knit Spanish people living near Marseilles. Mercédès lives in this village, and at present, Fernand, a young man from her village, is trying to convince her to marry him. Mercédès is frank with him, declaring her love for Dantès, but Fernand begs her to marry him instead. Dantès appears, and he and Mercédès fall into each other's arms. Fernand leaves and is stopped by Danglars and Caderousse. They invite him for a drink and then make him drunk with wine and thoughts of revenge. Dantès and Mercédès pass the tavern, and Dantès is so happy that he invites all three men to his wedding. After the wedding, he reveals, he must go to Paris to deliver a letter which he received on Elba. Danglars is overjoyed with this news; a plot to foil Dantès' promise of happiness begins to form.
Next day, Dantès' official appointment as captain of the Pharaon is made in the tavern amidst much celebrating. But when the thunder of three loud knocks is heard, all is quiet. Four armed soldiers and a corporal enter. Dantès is arrested — with no explanation.
Meanwhile, in one of the aristocratic residences of Marseilles, another betrothal is being celebrated by several enemies of Napoleon. At the center of this scene is Monsieur de Villefort, who describes Napoleon as more than a man; he was, Villefort says, a symbol, the personification of equality. Those assembled are obviously royalists, and they chide Villefort about his attitude toward Napoleon. Villefort flashes with anger: His father may be a Bonapartist, but he himself is the antithesis of his father.
At that moment, a servant enters and whispers that a Bonapartist plot has been discovered: Edmond Dantès has been charged as the traitor responsible for delivering correspondence between "the usurper" and the Bonapartist party of Paris.
Villefort leaves to question Dantès, and at the police commission, he meets Morrel, who pleads Dantès' innocence, which is unnecessary, for as Villefort questions Dantès, he sees that the young man is utterly candid and frank — and innocent. Villefort gives Dantès the accusatory note; Dantès, he says, has jealous and dangerous enemies. Dantès then tells Villefort that the letter was entrusted to him to give to a certain Monsieur Noirtier. Villefort pales; Noirtier is his father. He makes Dantès swear that no one knows the contents of the letter, then he apparently frees him, hoping fervently that no one can link him, Villefort, with any traitorous plot of his father's.
Dantès leaves, but instead of being escorted to freedom, he is shut behind the iron doors of a prison. A police van then comes for him, and he is placed in a boat, despite his protests. He is rowed to the Chateau d'If, an infamous prison because of its brutality and its impossibility of escape, and then he is taken to the dungeon, where they throw "madmen with madmen."
The greatness and the enduring popularity of The Count of Monte Cristo is mainly accounted for by the narrative force of the novel. In very simple terms, the novel tells an exciting story in an engaging and straightforward narrative — a narrative that grasps and involves the reader in the action. This novel is, in literary terms, a "well-made Romantic adventure story." By "well-made," we mean that very early in the novel, Dumas sets up his characters, even though they are one-dimensional and predictable, and places them in situations where their actions are such that the reader will respond to them with sympathy or with revulsion and dislike. Thus, in the opening scenes, Danglars is presented as a troublemaker, a jealous and envious person for no other reason than pure jealousy and spite. He makes all sorts of false insinuations against Dantès in order to disgustingly ingratiate himself before the owner of the ship, Monsieur Morrel.
In contrast to Danglars' sniveling and sycophantish behavior, Dantès is open and aboveboard in all his dealings. He immediately evokes trust in everyone except the envious Danglars, and it is Dantès' excellent qualities which win the complete confidence of the shipowner Morrel; in fact, as we learn later, Dantès has won the total allegiance of Monsieur Morrel, for he will risk his business in order to intercede for the imprisoned Dantès.
In the "well-made novel," we are immediately attracted to the hero and are likewise repulsed by people like Danglars and his cohort, Caderousse, the dishonorable neighbor who forced Dantès' old father into virtual starvation by demanding the return of a loan which Caderousse had made to Dantès. Early in the novel, therefore, the forces of good are aligned against the forces of evil and destruction. And in this alignment, Mercédès' friend Fernand becomes a willing partner in the conspiracy to frame Dantès (Fernand mails the accusatory letter), and, consequently, in these first six chapters, we have met all four enemies (Danglars, Caderousse, Fernand, and Villefort), against whom Dantès will ultimately seek revenge for his fourteen years of imprisonment.
By the term "Romantic," we mean a novel that is filled with high adventure, one in which the hero possesses the most noble of qualities and where he is often put to various tests and survives these tests superbly. It is a novel that does not focus on intricate character analysis, but emphasizes, instead, the narrative plot element, and the success of this type of novel is measured by how much it engages or captures the reader's interest in the adventures set forth.
In the first six chapters, Dumas has created his main character, or hero, has shown his superb qualities and capabilities, has presented him as a loyal friend to the late captain and as an honorable man of his word. Dumas has involved his character innocently in a political intrigue about which Dantès knows nothing. Furthermore, he is exposed to an overly ambitious official, Monsieur Villefort, who "would sacrifice anything to his ambitions, even his own father"; in addition, Villefort marries a woman whom he doesn't love in order to advance his financial and political future, and Villefort also uses Dantès as another instrument to further his career when he lies to the king that Dantès is a dangerous rebel involved in a treasonous plot against the king. These false accusations and political concerns cause Dantès to be sentenced to life imprisonment in the infamous Chateau d'If, a fortress legendary for its severe punishment and for its impossibility of escape. Until the time of this story, no prisoner had ever successfully escaped from this fortress, therefore making Dantès' escape a feat of great daring and magnitude.
The reader, of course, responds emotionally to Dantès' plight. While we do not now know who the author of the note is, we can assume that the jealous and spiteful Danglars is the perpetrator since he is the only person to know about the letter which Dantès was to deliver to Monsieur Noirtier. And ironically, if the letter had not been addressed to Villefort's father, an avid Bonapartist, then Villefort, a royalist, would not have used Dantès so badly, but Villefort's ambitions force him to remove anyone who might influence his desperate desire to rise to power. If Dantès knows the contents of the letter, or even the name of the addressee, then Villefort knows that he will be "ruined, ruined forever." Therefore, it is absolutely necessary to do away with Dantès forever, and thus by the end of the sixth chapter, the noble Dantès is falsely imprisoned with no hope of escape and no hope of making contact with anyone in the outer world. In a rather catatonic state, he argues with a guard in the prison, and as a result, he is placed in a dungeon. These first six chapters, then, have shown the hero to be a person of potential greatness and honor being reduced to a hopeless prisoner with no hope for release and no contact with the outer world.