Strap on your traveling shoes, because the Count's going to take you all over the world. First thing's first; let's set the historical scene for you.
Separating the historical and political scene from The Count of Monte Cristo is like trying to separate salt from the ocean. In order to really understand what The Count's all about, we need to take a look at what was going on in France at the time. We know that Edmond Dantès's story spans from around the 1815 until around 1838. We know from Danglars's report at the very beginning of the novel that Edmond has stopped at the island of Elba to retrieve a letter on his way back to Marseilles which is addressed to Noirtier. Guess who was exiled to the island of Elba? Right! Napoleon Bonaparte.
Napoleon was a powerful soldier who ruled as Emperor of France in the early 1800s. He was born in 1769 on the island of Corsica, off the coast of Italy. It was part of the French empire at the time, but had only recently been bought by France from Italy. As a young man, Napoleon showed signs of being a great soldier. He eventually climbed his way up the army ladder, until he was leading troops and strategizing battle plans. Napoleon lived during the French Revolution (1789-1799) and saw his country in great turmoil and upheaval. During this time, he became a French superstar for his ability to protect France and to win battles. The French people totally dug him, particularly because he believed in equality and the individual rights of his people – something the past kings had not really believed in.
Following the French Revolution, Napoleon was elected First Consul of France. He did all kinds of great things to improve his country – he built sewers and roads, created a centralized bank (Banque de France), made education more available to everyone, and developed a tax code. In 1804, he crowned himself Emperor of France. The French citizens loved him, but there were many members of the French nobility with ties to the former kings of France who hated Napoleon's guts and who wanted him out. Many of these royalists plotted to kill Napoleon in various ways, to reestablish the monarchy. Napoleon, however, was always one step ahead of his enemies.
During his reign, Napoleon waged war on pretty much every country in Europe. These wars are known as the Napoleonic Wars and were Napoleon's attempt to gain more control and more power. He did things to weaken other countries; for example he stopped both France and Portugal from trading with England in order to weaken England's economy. That it did, and then he temporarily took control of England. When France's relationship to Russia became strained around 1812, Napoleon invaded the country. But the Russians had clever strategies of their own – they kept retreating farther and father into Russia, burning towns and cities along the way so that Napoleon's troops would have nothing to eat. Eventually, Napoleon's army grew very weak, and he had to retreat back to France. During a Russian winter. With no food. He lost nearly 400,000 men during that invasion of Russia. With a weakened army, other European powers believed they had a chance to get rid of Napoleon once and for all, which they did. In April of 1814, Napoleon was officially exiled to the island of Elba off the coast of Italy
But that didn't stop him! In February of 1815, he escaped Elba and fled to France. He returned to Paris and ruled the French for one hundred days (a period in history known at the "Hundred Days"). He was still very popular among the French. But, drat and thunderation, Napoleon's smallish army was defeated again by European powers, and Napoleon was exiled to the island of Saint Helena, far, far away in the Atlantic Ocean.
The Count of Monte Cristo begins right before Napoleon's first exile to Elba, and throughout the novel, we hear about Napoleon's armies, his escape to Paris, and about the royalist parties. Villefort, for example, is a royalist, but his father (Noirtier) fights for Napoleon. The country is in political turmoil, and corruption is everywhere (recall how Edmonds ends up in jail in the first place). Following Napoleon's second downfall, France was ruled by a series of monarchs. The novel ends around the time when Louis-Philippe I ascends the throne and when things are starting to calm down in France.
Alexandre Dumas would want you to know this history and to have it in your mind as you read The Count of Monte Cristo. Several characters are fueled by greed or by a desire to rise politically: Mme. Danglars and Lucien Debray play the French stock market with top secret information Debray learns from his government job. Monsieur Villefort destroys a letter from Napoleon addressed to his father, Noirtier, and has the messenger (Edmond) thrown in prison for life. The Count seems to be pleasantly and surprisingly separated from all of this political hubbub. He exists in a world of his own.
Marseilles is the French seaside town where we begin our tale. It is Edmond Dantès hometown and the home of his dad and his love, Mercédès. It is also the hometown of Fernand Mondego, the Morrel family, and the Villeforts. Today, Marseilles is one of the largest cities in France. Back in the early 1800s, it was an incredibly powerful military base and port for France. Trade flourished here in the early 1800s (the south of France is very close to other booming countries on the Mediterranean Sea), and it was home to lots of merchants and businesses (like Monsieur Morrel's). Imagine great, hulking ships coming and going, sailors everywhere, and goods being loaded and unloaded everyday.
Edmond Dantès spends fourteen years in prison at the Chateau d'If. Chateau d'If is a famous prison on an island in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. Because it is completely surrounded by water, prisoners have a really hard time escaping from it. The prison is damp and cold, but prisoners with a bit of wealth and title to their name (like the Abbé Faria) can request certain things to make their stay more pleasant. This is probably why the Abbé Faria has so many cool trinkets and tools in his cell. At the Chateau d'If, Edmond almost loses his mind after being placed in solitary confinement. He almost loses the will to live until he meets the Abbé Faria. The Abbé grows to consider Edmond to be his son, and he eventually gives Edmond directions to a treasure buried on the island of Monte Cristo. Though the Abbé dies before being able to take advantage of the escape route he and Edmond cooked up, the bonds the two men form in this isolated prison will shape Edmond for the rest of his days, literally and emotionally. You can still visit the chateau today.
The island of Monte Cristo holds Abbé Faria's buried treasure and becomes home to the Count of Monte Cristo. The island is made-up, but a tiny island called Montecristo does exist between Corsica and Italy. It is on this island that Edmond becomes the Count and builds his mini castle beneath the rocks and in the caves of the island. When Albert de Morcerf stumbles across this paradise, he finds lavish rooms decorated in the most luxurious riches one could imagine. The Count furnishes his home with the treasures he picks up on his travels around the world. While on the island, Albert is given lots of hallucinogenic drugs, causing him (and us) to wonder how much of what he saw and experienced was real and how much was part of a hallucination. The island becomes an almost supernaturally powerful place where Edmond transforms himself into the Count. Think about the island's very name: "monte cristo." It means "Christ's mountain" or "the mountain of Christ." What similarities or differences might the Count have to a Christ-like figure?
After a nice visit to the island of Monte Cristo, we follow the count to Rome where he hangs out for a while, staying at a fancy hotel, taking beautiful women to the opera, cavorting with bandits, and chilling with Albert and Franz. We then find him in Paris where he has come to stay for a while. Paris is the metropolitan center of France at the time, and it is where the Villefort, the Morcerf, and the Danglars families all have settled. In Paris, these families have found a way to live expensively and luxuriously. France's economy is gradually picking up. Gradually, and with Albert's help, the Count finds his way into each of the families, becoming a most welcome guest. The Count gets his own apartment in Paris and buys a summerhouse just outside of Paris, near Versailles. The summerhouse once was the site of Villefort and Madame Danglars's affair and is where they attempted to smother their newborn baby and bury him in the garden. The house, beautiful though it may be, is haunted by the past. Interestingly, the Count's only real home seems to be his mini palace on the island of Monte Cristo. Every other apartment or home he buys is as a result of his plot for revenge.