Monday, January 9, 2012

Eugène Sue’s Les Mystères de Paris (1843)

I’ve long wanted to read this long serialized novel of the Paris underworld, but somehow never got around to it. It’s both a wonderful and an awful work. At times, the turns of the plot, the illusion of gritty reality, and the delicious viciousness of the villains are delightful. At other times, it feels like Sue is on autopilot, shoveling descriptions and ill-conceived digressions at us at some much per word.

Les Mystères de Paris was one of the most popular books published in France in the nineteenth century, much to Balzac’s chagrin. A melodrama in novel form, true, but when it is at its best (especially in the first few books), the writing is far more vivid than any stage melodrama of the period. The characters are simplistic, yes, but some betray flashes of real individuality, the evil ones, like the one-eyed Chouette and the hypocritical notary Jacques Ferrand, and (most surprisingly) the good ones, like the cheerful and assertive seamstress Rigolette and the maladaptive Le Chouineur, a killing machine converted to the good side, but so deeply scarred that he is incapable of living in god society.

Most complex drawn of all is the hero, Rodolphe, who is the rich and gracious grand duke of a German principality, but who travels through Paris in disguise, a master of both Parisian low-life argot and of self-defense, foiling evildoers and comforting the oppressed. With a mixture of humor, cleverness, pity, anger, and melancholy, he is a far deeper character than I might have expected.

While the scenes among the proletarians, both virtuous and evil, give us a sharp taste of the language and milieu of the lower classes, when the action turns to high society – as it does all too often – the scenes seem contrived and inauthentic, a weak imitation of other bad “society” novels. The intrigues among the well born are rather dull.

Curiously. In this novel there are few representatives of the middle classes, with the glaring exception of the evil notary and his evil accomplice, a physician. Almost everyone else is either a nobleman or part of a nobleman’s suite or a proletarian. And in the era of the dominant Parisian middle class led by a king raised by a middle-class resolution, the gap is a little puzzling. The real mystery of this Paris is the absence of the most Parisian of classes.

Marx and Engels, in their book; The Holy Family and elsewhere, were very interested and very critical of this book, seeing it as an example of a sentimental bourgeois approach to the ills of society. When Sue steps back from the complex intrigue of his many characters, he is eager to preach reform – of the prisons, the hospitals, of money-lending, of charity, of the imprisonment of debtors, of orphanages, of divorce, of old age care. Curiously, all of these same liberal reforms, passed gradually over the next century a half served to undercut proletarian revolution and have, by and large, eliminated the worst depths of misery for the working classes depicted in the novel.

On the other hand, it is not very hard to see the fairy tale structure mixed in with the gritty realism. Rodolphe, like a Parisian Haroun-al-Rashid, wanders in working-class disguise among the poor righting wrongs, handing out money and furniture to the deserving poor, foiling those who would exploit the weak, and, in the end, saving all who can be saved. This is somewhat tolerable in that the prince himself is less than 100% competent, and has a bit of silliness and irony at times. But the implication is that the problems of the poor might somehow be magically resolved by the benevolence of the rich, the very rich whose fortunes are based not on some magic treasure cave but on, as Marx and Engels would note, the exploitation of the same labor pool that toils for mere sous in the garrets of Paris.

At one point in the novel, as Marx and Engels point out, an impoverished, overworked gem cutter at the end of his rope exclaims that if only the rich knew what he and his family had to suffer in their unheated attic, they would be moved to reform the system. My first reaction is a cynical snort. And yet, the consciousness of the sufferings of the invisible poor, so dramatically presented to so many avid middle-class readers by Sue, Dickens, and others, eventually does contribute to the eventual adoption of real reforms in western society.


  1. Dear Steve,

    I just wanted to say thanks for your website French Vocabulary Illustrated. To say that this site is phenomenal is an understatement. It has become the most useful tool to me - on the web or otherwise - in improving my French. I have already recommended the site to hundreds of others.

    Thanks for your great work.

  2. Dear Steve,

    I would very much like to echo the comment above. I am currently working on Flaubert and I have come across your site a few times via google. It has always been a pleasure to find such well thought out, tailored definitions with plenty of illustrations, examples and synonyms.

    I have looked through both of your blogs and am really impressed with your ambitious project. I particularly related to your very first post where you talked about the 'slap in the face' you got when reading the first sentence of 'Eugénie Grandet.'

    I'm a French teacher and know that a lot of what we teach in classrooms, unfortunately, does not prepare students to open up a classic book. This is one of the reasons I created, on which hyper-annotated classic texts can be made/read/interacted with. An example of what our new tool allows can be found here :!/10778/en/d/0/0/0/ (NOTE : does not currently work IE8 or below).

    The aim is to allow students to enjoy a good story, learn the necessary vocab but not have to, as you once did, spend more time with their noses in the dictionary than in the book. I have found that only the most motivated of students are capable of that and many able students are easily put off.

    I would be very interested in knowing what you think of my site. We haven't got many post-graduates at the moment although we do have a few
    (including a professor and some professional translators)!

    Best wishes,