Edmond Dantès is young, handsome and talented. Back home from a long voyage, he's set to become captain and marry his beautiful fiancée Mercédès.
Edmond's really got everything going for him at this point. All he wants to do is serve his boss, respect his father, and love his soon-to-be wife. He's happy, and he has no idea that anybody might be conspiring against him.
Danglars and Fernand – jealous of his success in business and love, respectively – conspire to get Edmond jailed for a crime he didn't commit – or, rather, one he didn't realize he was committing. Their scheme succeeds when Villefort, the assistant crown prosecutor, realizes he can further his career by playing along. Edmond is left to rot in jail.
In a normal novel, we might be halfway through the plot at this point, but for Dumas this is really just set up. This is what sets everything in motion, but things keep moving for a long, long time.
Edmond is driven mad – and nearly to the point of suicide – while in jail, but is saved thanks to a visit from his "next-door neighbor," Abbé Faria. With the Abbé's help, Edmond learns an incredible amount about pretty much everything, including how to find a huge amount of treasure on a desert island. Then he escapes.
This whole sequence of events really changes the game. Not only does Edmond get out of jail, he gets limitless resources and a whole new identity as the Count of Monte Cristo. It's the beginning of a whole new narrative.
Climax and Suspense
We now interrupt your regularly scheduled programming for a special announcement: It'd really be wrong of us to tell you there was a "climax" to The Count of Monte Cristo. Trying to single out one pivotal moment in the course of the story would be sort of like picking your favorite child from a family with a few dozen kids. There isn't really one moment where the Count pulls out all the stops and starts kicking butt. He's classier than that; he knows how to wait, to really savor the moment. Everything the Count does – from saving Albert de Morcerf to getting unlimited credit from Baron Danglars to intimidating Bertuccio – seems like it might be the straw that breaks the camel's back, and yet Monte Cristo is always standing in the background, letting things take their course. Even when it seems like he's going to duel with Albert – and let himself get killed – he gets a reprieve at the last moment.
It's easier to think of The Count of Monte Cristo as a study in suspense. From the moment Edmond gets out of jail, we're primed for some serious action, but it never comes. Even when his adversaries, the men he has sworn get revenge on, begin to die or go mad, we don't really feel great about it. The Count has spent so much time planning that, by the time he gets around to executing his plans, he's come to understand that something's seriously wrong…which brings us to the next stage.
After his intervention in the de Villefort poisoning case leads Héloïse de Villefort to kill both herself and her son Edward, the Count realizes that maybe he's taken things a little too far. His attempts to save Edward fail, and he's thrown into a crisis of conscience. He subsequently allows Danglars to escape from Luigi Vampa with his life, though not before taking every last penny.
The de Villefort incident disturbs the Count's plan and signals a great, if late, shift in the narrative, casting Monte Cristo's whole plan into a new and disturbing light.
Monte Cristo convinces the suicidal Maximilian Morrel to put off ending his life. At book's end he reveals that Maximilian's lover, Valentine de Villefort is actually alive. Morrel is overjoyed, and the Count sails off into the sunset.
Here, the Count is finally able to do something positive, to bring somebody "back to life," instead of driving them to suicide or madness. Leaving behind Valentine and Maximilian, he sets out to start fresh.