Strange how so many of the French novels contemporary with The Count of Monte Cristo prominently feature prisons. Stendhal ends The Red and the Black in a prison, and much of The Charterhouse of Parma is set in a strange prison tower. Merimée's Carmen is narrated from prison. The last quarter (half?) of A Harlot High and Low takes place in La Conciergerie. Dumas himself returned to the subject with The Man in the Iron Mask. Then there's Victor Hugo, who was obsessed with the subject of prisons and criminals - see not just The Last Day of a Condemned Man, but parts of Notre Dame of Paris, and substantial chunks of Les Miserables.*
I haven't read Les Miserables, but what I know of it makes me wonder if Hugo may have been deliberately responding to The Count of Monte Cristo is some way, maybe showing how to take the subjects of justice and vengeance seriously. The Count seems to share some qualities with Jean Valjean - they both have superhuman abilities. Both, in fact, owe a debt to Balzac's super-criminal, Vautrin (aka Jacques Collin, etc.), who appears in several Balzac novels. The Count, like Vautrin, wanders around disguised as a priest. Both command mysterious resources and have loyal retainers who owe their lives to their master.
The funny thing here is that although the Count is clearly modeled after Vautrin, the last part of A Harlot High and Low, the prison chapters which star Vautrin, were published two years after The Count of Monte Cristo. It's likely that Balzac influenced Dumas who then influenced Balzac.
Italo Calvino's "The Count of Monte Cristo", which ends t zero (1967), spins off from Dumas's prison scenes. Edmond Dantès ponders how to escape from the island prison; meanwhile the Abbé Faria tries to dig his way out, never quite getting it right:
"At times I hear a scratching at the ceiling; a rain of plaster falls on me; a breach opens; Faria's head appears, upside down. Upside down for me, not him; he crawls out of his tunnel, he walks head down, while nothing about his person is ruffled, not his white hair, nor his beard green with mold, nor the tatters of sackcloth that cover his emaciated loins. He walks across the ceiling and the walls like a fly, he sinks his pick into a certain spot, a hole opens; he disappears."
This is typical Calvino stuff. Time and space don't quite behave correctly, paradoxes fold into more paradoxes. Edmond concludes that the way to escape is to dig inward, not outward. Somehow the Abbé digs his way to the study of Alexandre Dumas, where he rifles the manuscript of The Count of Monte Cristo, looking for an escape route. Here's the final paradox:
"If I succeed in mentally constructing a fortress from which it is impossible to escape, this conceived fortress either will be the same as the real one - and in this case it is certain we shall never escape from here, but at least we will achieve the serenity of one who knows he is here because he could be nowhere else - or it will be a fortress from which escape is even more impossible than from here - and this, then, is a sign that here an opportunity if escape exists: we have only to identify the point where the imagined fortress does not coincide with the real one and then find it."
Is there an "escapist literature" pun here? The Italian term seems to be "letteratura d'evasione", so I wonder. The Count of Monte Cristo coincides with our world, the real one, in few points. It's just a marvelous, preposterous work of imagination.
* If I set aside the Gothic dungeons and debtor's prisons - big exceptions, both of them - I don't see such an interest in prisons in English literature. Scott's The Heart of Midlothian - the prison is in the title; Barnaby Rudge; Emily Brontë's poems. What am I forgetting? I'll bet A Tale of Two Cities has some prison scenes. I'll bet the prisons are French. I assume the French preoccupation with the subject is in response to the Revolution and Napoleon.