Eugène Sue was one of the most widely read and praised writers of his day, not only in France but also throughout Europe, England, and the United States. His work is no longer read, except for historical interest, because his lack of attention to style—which he believed was unimportant—and the length of his novels make excessive demands on the reader’s patience. Yet his development as a writer traced an interesting course. At first, he wrote because literature was amusing and lucrative; later, he became increasingly serious about the importance of his work as a vehicle of social reform, a means to transform the consciousness of all classes. He believed that “if the rich only knew,” they would act to correct the injustice and misery that existed in their society. Sue’s early reputation was that of a dandy who wrote each new chapter only after putting on a fresh pair of yellow gloves. Most of his novels were first published in installments in the popular press; he drew a large readership for his early historical romances in the manner of Sir Walter Scott and for novels of maritime adventures that earned for him the title “the French Cooper.” Plik et Plok (1831), Atar-Gull (1831; Atar Gull: A Nautical Tale, 1846), La Salamandre (1832; The Salamander, 1844), La Vigie de Koat-Vën (1833; The Temptation; Or, The Watch Tower of Koat-Vën, 1845), and La Courcaratcha (1832-1834) were early successes. These works, although not mystery stories, employed a fantastic realism like that of Charles Dickens, emphasizing the evil and bizarre side of human nature. Sue often investigated the relationship between good and evil, even in a novel of society such as Mathilde: Mémoires d’une jeune femme (1841; Matilda: Or, The Memoirs of a Young Woman, 1843), which explored one of his favorite themes, the ability of the wicked to manipulate the virtuous.
The Mysteries of Paris
There is no doubt that Sue’s reputation as a mystery writer rests on his most famous work, The Mysteries of Paris. This novel, published in installments during 1842-1843, took France, Europe, and then the rest of the world by storm. It also makes clear Sue’s strengths as a novelist: his ability to create numerous unforgettable characters, to create elaborate but interlocking narratives, and to fashion from so many individual stories a portrait of an entire society. He showed how all lives were interconnected by coincidence, concealed interests, and secrets hidden in the past. The novel was translated as it was being written. The word “mystery” caught the attention of readers; soon, many similarly titled works appeared. Every city had its “mysteries” as writers everywhere capitalized on the appeal of Sue’s title.
The Mysteries of Paris was the first novel to use the criminal underworld of a modern urban city as its setting. Sue’s dedication to realism turned his novel into an extensive catalog of the crimes and criminals existing in Paris at that time. Sue had read earlier novels presenting brief portrayals of criminal characters, as well as the nonfictional memoirs of François-Eugène Vidocq, former head of the Paris police. Sue, however, was the first writer to present a detailed study of the criminal world in all of its horror, ruthlessness, and poverty. His interest in the criminal class probably stemmed from an interest in poverty as the cause of crime and from the suggestion that he explore social diseases in a manner similar to that of a physician observing physical diseases. Sue was looking for a new subject for a novel, and his attention was drawn to a famous criminal trial of 1839, in which a gang of thieves and prostitutes was tried for the murder of several merchants. Clearly, the accused served as prototypes for Sue’s characters, who lived in the same neighborhood, drank in the same taverns, spoke in the same criminal slang, and displayed the same matter-of-fact attitude toward their crimes. Sue warned his readers that they would enter regions as uncivilized and barbaric as the Indian-inhabited forests of North America. The Parisian savages were the former convicts, thieves, and murderers living hidden in the midst of a great city. The reader would “penetrate into horrible and unknown regions”; he would meet “hideous and frightening types, swarming in unclean sewers like reptiles in a swamp.” The physical setting of the criminal neighborhood of Paris, “a labyrinth of hidden, narrow, and twisting streets,” became a metaphor for the unfathomable secrets of the human soul. Sue used the word “mysteries” in this larger sense of the unknown; he used it in other titles also, but in this novel, the mysteries or secrets often were hidden crimes.
The novel’s hero, Prince Rodolphe of Gerolstein, expiates his guilt by attempting to aid worthy individuals whose desperate circumstances might tempt them into crime or make them victims of unscrupulous men and women. He is a secret benefactor who shows how social consciousness and money could improve overall social conditions. To help those in distress, Rodolphe assumes a variety of disguises and gathers information via methods employed by modern operatives.
At the novel’s beginning he is disguised as a...
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