In his study at the Tuileries in Paris, King Louis XVIII jokes about Bonaparte's partisans causing "trouble" in the south of France — that is, he jokes about it until Villefort's arrival is announced. Villefort brings news of "dire importance" about a traitorous conspiracy: Napoleon has manned three ships, has left Elba, and is undoubtedly sailing for France. Villefort, carefully avoiding all names, says that he learned of this plot from a man (Dantès) whom he immediately ordered to be arrested when he learned that this man planned to carry a message to a dangerous Bonapartist in Paris (actually, Villefort's own father).
At that moment, the Minister of Police arrives and announces that Bonaparte landed near Antibes two days ago and is now marching on Paris. Louis is so angered that he is unable to speak, but in gratitude, he removes the Legion of Honor cross from around his neck and bestows it on Villefort because of Villefort's patriotic zeal. Later, and not without a little envy, the Minister of Police comments that Villefort has made "a magnificent beginning," and that his "fortune is assured." Villefort, we gather, is already impatient for the promising future that seemingly lies ahead for him.
Napoleon returns to France, ousts Louis, and begins what will be his Court of the Hundred Days. Normally, Villefort would probably have suffered the same fate as King Louis, but because of the influence of Villefort's father at Napoleon's court, Villefort retains his post. When Napoleon is defeated at Waterloo and Louis returns to the throne, Villefort is able to use his own influence to reinstate himself politically, and he decides to marry a woman whose family will further his political ambitions.
Meanwhile, Dantès remains a prisoner and knows nothing about Napoleon's return and his crushing defeat, or about Louis' return to Paris. Mercédès lives in absolute despair and is saved from suicide only because of her strong faith. Likewise, Dantès himself so despairs of ever gaining freedom that, finally, he too is on the brink of suicide. All hope seems to be absolutely denied to him. Thus, he decides to starve himself to death.
It is while Dantès is numb with hunger and illness that he hears a curious, animal-like scratching outside his cell, within the earth or within the foundations of the prison. It is not rats, he discovers; it is the famous old "mad Abbé Faria," who, it is believed, knows the location of a fabulous treasure. The Abbé has been imprisoned for twelve years and now believes that he will finally be able to burrow his way to freedom.
The Abbé and Dantès become fast friends, and as the Abbé teaches Dantès languages, history, and science, they begin to make elaborate plans to cooperate in tunneling out of the prison. After some years, they begin their labors, carefully and secretly digging through the earth beneath the foundation of the prison. Finally, they believe that they are almost ready to escape, but the Abbé cannot continue; he collapses in a cataleptic seizure. He simply cannot go on. He urges Dantès to do so, but Dantès cannot; he refuses to desert his friend. Dantès' loyalty so impresses the Abbé that when he recovers, he tells Dantès about the hidden treasure. It actually exists, the Abbé insists, and in the fourteenth century, it belonged to the famous Spada family, for whom the Abbé worked. Since there is no family remaining, the treasure now belongs to whoever finds it. It is buried, the Abbé says, in a cave on the little island of Monte Cristo.
Dantès urges Faria to resume their plans for escape and although he is very weak, the Abbé does, but again he collapses, this time in fearful and harrowing spasms, and then lies unconscious. Dantès tries to revive him, as he did before with the Abbé's potent medicine, but this time, it is to no avail.
Panicking, Dantès scurries along the secret passageway back to his own cell and waits until he thinks that it is safe to return to the Abbé's cell. When he does so, he carefully removes a stone from the cell wall and sees the Abbé's corpse encased in a shroud. His future plans crumble; he cannot think of escape any longer. He and the Abbé have been like brothers, working long and difficult hours in order to reach freedom. Now Dantès is alone. Yet a small flicker of the possibility of escape remains in Dantès, and clutching at freedom like a drowning man, he takes the Abbè's body back along the secret corridor, lays it out on his own bed, toward the wall, replaces the stone leading to their secret passageway, and hurries back to the Abbé's cell, where he stitches himself into the Abbé's shroud. And none too soon, for the prison guards arrive and lift up Dantès' stiffened body. Ominously, one of them comments that the corpse seems unusually heavy, and for an instant, Dantès is filled with fear, but nothing more is said as they carry him out of the prison. Then Dantès hears the sound of waves breaking against the rocks of the Chateau d'If.
"What miserable weather," one of the guards remarks, and they both laugh. Dantès hears a heavy object being dropped on the ground, and then he feels the sudden pain of a heavy rope being knotted around his ankles. There is more laughter, and then Dantès is heaved far out into the depths of the fierce, icy sea — the "cemetery," Dantès realizes, of this abominable prison.
In these chapters, we have two main concerns: First, Chapters 7 and 8 are concerned with establishing the greed and the ambition of Villefort, and second, the experiences of Edmond Dantès as a prisoner in the dungeon of the Chateau d'If. Clearly, Villefort's ambitions are largely responsible for Dantès' imprisonment, and here, we also see additional evidence that "he [Villefort] would sacrifice anything to his ambition, even his own father." Villefort's ambitions also lead him to postpone his marriage to the daughter of the Marquis de Saint-Méran — if Napoleon regains power; if that happens, he will marry someone whom his father would know since his father is one of the most prominent Bonapartists in Paris; otherwise, Villefort will marry the royalist Saint-Méran's daughter — if Napoleon is again exiled. Villefort's ambition caused him to imprison Dantès, and later, because of Dantès' sense of "justice," his ambition will be his downfall.
During the early years of Dantès' imprisonment, Dantès suffers almost every stage of human emotion that can be imagined. He begins his term of imprisonment with pride and hope, being fully conscious of his innocence, but then his pride and hope are replaced by doubt, which is followed by fervent prayers to God. Then his soul becomes dark, and his despondency turns into wrath. In utter despair, Dantès finally decides upon suicide by starvation.
The greatness of a novel is often related to the universal appeal of that novel. For example, Dumas creates very vividly here the idea of a trapped animal which wishes desperately to escape, and we, the readers, respond completely to Dantès' desperate plight and his determination to escape because it is a basic aspect of human nature to sympathize with a trapped animal, whether it is a dog tied on a leash or a human being chained to a chain gang. Correlated with this universal idea is another scene that is now famous to almost everyone in the Western world — that is, in imprisoned solitude, one hears the faint beginnings of contact with another person.
After six years of virtual isolation in prison, Dantès finally hears an unusual and curious noise, the constant and continual scraping sounds of a prisoner trying to escape. The ray of hope that escape is possible restores Dantès to life. This scene, of course, is famous because it, or variations of it, have been the plot of many later books and untold movies about the attempted escape of innocent prisoners. Every detail of this scene has been so often repeated that it is difficult to conceive that this is the original version of the story. One can only be stunned at Dantès' realizing the possibility of human contact after being isolated for a full six years.
His contact with the Abbé Faria will be the most important contact that Dantès will ever make. For eight years, he will be a constant companion with a man who possesses one of the finest minds of that time; this is an immense stroke of good fortune for Dantès, who is himself a quick student with many natural endowments, a prodigious memory, a keen intellect, a mathematical turn of mind, the poetic strain which is in every sailor, and the ability to quickly master languages. Within a year, in addition to the French, Greek, and Italian which Dantès already knows, he adds Spanish, English, and German. Also, Dantès quickly learns history, sciences, and basic human psychology, all of which will serve him perfectly in times to come. For example, Dantès observes the psychological and analytical mind of the Abbé when, by simply questioning Dantès the Abbé is able to identify the persons of Danglars, Caderousse, and Fernand as the people who betrayed Dantès; the Abbé is also able to determine the relationship between Villefort and Monsieur Noirtier, Villefort's father, fully explaining the motivations which prompted Villefort to have Dantès imprisoned.
The purpose of the plan to escape and the completion of the plan come at a time when both men could have escaped except that the Abbé has one of his rare cataleptic seizures. His life is saved by some miraculous drops which he has, but he is so weakened that he is no longer able to carry through with his plans for escape. Thus, he sends Dantès on to escape by himself, but Dantès refuses. The point of this narration is to test Dantès' loyalty — that is, the loyalty of the hero. Dantès' refusal to escape, his refusal to desert his beloved friend (or father figure) shows him to be a person essentially noble of heart and worthy of the secret which the Abbé will now share with him. In works of Romantic fiction, the hero is tried and tested and must be proven to be true and dependable. Dantès easily passes these tests; had he not been found to be true and loyal and noble, he would have escaped empty-handed, but now that he has proven himself to be noble-hearted and devoted, the Abbé will reveal the secret of the hidden treasure to him.
In a realistic novel or in real life, such virtue is not necessarily rewarded. However, in a Romantic novel, virtue is always rewarded and vice is always punished. Consequently, once Edmond Dantès has proved himself to be loyal, faithful, and trustworthy to the Abbé, he is given the history of the Spada family and the secret of the immense treasure which is hidden on the island of Monte Cristo. (One should note that the method which Abbé Faria used to discover the treasure — that is, a document written in invisible ink which becomes legible under heat — is a literary device that has now become commonplace since this novel was published.)
With the possibility of an immense fortune coming to him, Dantès thinks of "all the good a man could do for his friends with such a fortune, and at those moments, [his] face would darken because he remembered the oath of vengeance he had sworn, and he thought of how much harm a man could do to his enemies in modern times with such a fortune." When Dantès escapes, he will use his immense fortune for both purposes — to reward his friends, and to punish his enemies.
Dantès' escape from the Chateau d'If is perhaps the most daring and the most famous escape scene in all of literature. The imagination, the fortitude, and the ingenuity of the escape is equaled only by the courage and desperation that it would take to exchange places with a dead man, concealing oneself in a heavy canvas bag, not knowing if you were going to be buried alive, burned, or otherwise done away with. Few people could be so desperate that they would be willing to face such unknown terrors without resorting to utter panic. Dantès' calmness in the face of such terror and adversity is the very stuff of which Romantic heroes are made. And the difficulty of the escape is correlated with the pleasure that the reader has when that escape has been effected.
Dantès' fourteen years of imprisonment represent a major portion of his life. Now thirty-three, the age at which Christ rose from the dead, Dantès' escapes from prison, and he figuratively "rises from the dead" as he cuts through the burial shrouds and emerges naked into a new world as a reborn man.