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 enmeshed in the same evil conspiracies. No previous work had ever offered the poor such a sense of being a part of the affairs of the world or such wild fantasies of salvation from their most desperate plights. Nor had any previous work of popular fiction addressed the rich with such frankness on the subject of the desperate plight of the poor and the practical possibilities of its alleviation.
Such scenes as the deliberate blinding of the Schoolmaster and the death of La Chouette led Sue’s detractors to accuse him of sadism, but the charge is mistaken. What such scenes actually attempt to give is an appropriate expression of an outrage so profound that nothing but extremes of horror can possibly contain it. There is a key scene set in La Force (the main prison of Paris at the time) in which a petty thief must unwittingly play Scheherazade, spinning out a story to frustrate the planned murder of the unjustly imprisoned Germain. The thief points out—presumably echoing the author’s fascination with an equivalent discovery—that, although the criminals who constitute his audience have no liking for tales in which men like themselves go to the guillotine, they retain a more profound sense of morality that gladly and greatly rejoices in the unusual punishment of the unusually wicked.
Pursuing this aim, Sue distinguishes between those criminals who retain a certain essential “heart” and “honour” and those who give themselves over entirely to predatory cruelty. For the latter, fates as hideous as he can contrive are carefully and fervently designed. The worst of crimes inflamed such indignation in Sue that nothing within the law would serve as recompense, and for him the worst crimes of all were crimes of greed and ambition masked by respectable appearances: the crimes of crooked lawyers, corrupt bailiffs, and poison-supplying doctors. There were many readers ready to agree with him.
In the end, though,...
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Sue could not contrive a wholehearted escape from the prison of contemporary morality, and his failure to carry through the bold thrust of his own ideals is evident in the concluding passage, in which the happy ending he has so cunningly contrived is eaten away as if by a cancer. Sue does not allow Fleur-de-Marie to forget that, no matter how little choice she had in the matter, she had briefly been a whore. That her true place in the world is that of a princess there is not a shadow of doubt, and her saintliness continues to increase when she belatedly comes into that inheritance, but her sense of guilt and shame poisons her peace of mind.