One of the legacies of the French Revolution of 1789 was that the movement toward universal literacy proceeded more rapidly in France than anywhere else in Europe. A circulation war developed among French daily newspapers, and one of the weapons with which the war was fought was serial fiction of a melodramatic kind, whose relentless narrative thrust made readers anxious to acquire every episode. The Mysteries of Paris was the breakthrough work that demonstrated the potential of this curious new medium, revealing the remarkable truth responsible for the seemingly paradoxical face of modern journalism: that most newspaper readers are not much interested in news of political and economic significance; instead, they prefer human interest stories, the more sensational and scandalous the better, preferably spiced with a little local interest and some connection to royalty. Eugène Sue imported this idea into his fiction with great enthusiasm.
The plot of The Mysteries of Paris is firmly located in the well-known streets, prisons, hospitals, and asylums of contemporary Paris. It features a host of nasty villains who add to the cruel blows inflicted by ill-fortune and bad laws upon honest working folk. The desperate attempts made by humbly virtuous individuals to get by in life are here aided by the charitable efforts of a princely paragon of nobility who goes among them in disguise (as some princes have been reputed by legend to do). The multistranded story moves from drinking dens and dungeons to grand houses and palaces but is careful to bind its disparate elements together with a series of careful contrivances. As the plot unwinds, everyone eventually turns out to be related to everyone else, either by blood or by virtue of being unluckily...
(The entire section is 722 words.)