Eugene Sue’s The Mysteries of Paris should need no introduction, and yet, while it remains well-known in France, few English or American readers will have heard of it. The novel was serialized in France in 150 installments from 1842-1843. As Peter Brooks says in the 2015 Penguin Books translation of the novel, it was “the runaway bestseller of nineteenth-century France, possibly the greatest bestseller of all time.” It was so popular that it led to many authors imitating it, including Paul Feval, who wrote The Mysteries of London in French and George W.M. Reynolds who wrote his own The Mysteries of London in English.
But for our purposes with this blog dedicated predominantly to the Gothic, the novel is of interest for two reasons: 1) as the most popular work of an author who would go on to write the almost-as-popular novel The Wandering Jew (1846) which uses the popular Gothic figure of the Wandering Jew as its key character, and more importantly, 2) as a novel about guilt and redemption.
The Mysteries of Paris is famous for being one of the first novels about urban crime, but I admit it was not what I expected. I imagined dens of thieves, something more akin to Oliver Twist (which predates it 1838). Instead, while the novel has numerous criminals in it, most importantly, it is about redemption.
The novel’s main character is Rodolphe. We first meet him on the streets of Paris when a criminal man, known as Slasher, hits a young prostitute named Songbird. Although the novel is not overly explicit about Songbird’s past, she is clearly a prostitute at only seventeen. Rodolphe stops the attack and gives Slasher a good thrashing. The result is that Slasher, who claims to be the second strongest man in Paris, is amazed to have been beaten by Rodolphe. In admiration, he immediately makes friends with him and then the three go to a tavern to dine.
To summarize the novel’s plot would be tedious and complicated, but to make a long story short, Rodolphe helps Slasher to become a decent citizen and lead a moral life. He also helps Songbird, sending her off to a farm where she can live a virtuous life.
As the story continues, the reader begins to pick up on hints that Rodolphe is not the common man he seems. He turns out to be the Prince of Gerolstein, a fictional principality in Germany. More importantly, he is someone set on doing good deeds. He also has a sidekick, Murph, an English knight, who aids him in his efforts. Several scholars have previously compared Rodolphe to Batman (and Murph seems like Alfred, the butler, to me). However, I think the comparison is a bit of a stretch, although the seeds are there, since Rodolphe doesn’t go out and actively fight crime, but he does help people when necessary. Batman may have more fancy gadgets and a costume, but truthfully, I think Rodolphe a more interesting character because he is more human, and more Gothic. Most versions of the Batman story show Bruce Wayne witnessing his parents’ murder by a criminal, which inspires him to fight crime, but Rodolphe has a different motive. He is filled with guilt and believes he must redeem himself. He once raised his sword to his father in anger, and consequently, he feels he deserves punishment. Batman is not a conflicted soul to the extent that Rodolphe is, and that makes him more human and more endearing, at least to this reader.
The reason for Rodolphe and his father’s argument is at the heart of the novel. It is because of a marriage his father disapproved of. Rodolphe had married the Countess MacGregor; he had actually been tricked into marrying her when she became pregnant, and then she later told him their daughter had died, when in truth, she had given the child into the care of crooked people who told her it had died when they had really sold the child. After their child’s alleged death, Rodolphe divorced the countess, who never loved him but only had the goal to wear a crown on her head. Throughout the novel, she searches for and tries to regain him. In her determination to win back Rodolphe’s affections, she begins to suspect he is in love with Songbird and arranges to have the girl murdered, only to learn at the last minute that Songbird is her lost daughter. The countess then plans to reveal this to Rodolphe so he will marry her finally, but it is too late—by this point she is dying, and in the end, when they do remarry, it is only to legitimize their daughter.
Rodolphe aids many other characters throughout the novel against wicked men and women. He continually rewards the virtuous and metes out punishment or justice (depending on how you want to view justice) to various characters. At one point, he blinds a criminal rather than kill him, believing it will cause the criminal to become self-reflective and repent for his crimes. This punishment is extreme and doesn’t really work out to save the criminal’s soul, but most of Rodolphe’s other good deeds end up benefiting their recipients. In all these cases, he is a vigilante, also like Batman, but also like many characters who preceded him, such as Robin Hood.
However, despite all Rodolphe’s efforts to redeem himself by helping others, he ends up being punished for his crime, not directly, but through his daughter.
For a short time, Songbird and Rodolphe enjoy happiness in knowing they are reunited. However, once Songbird returns with Rodolphe to Gerolstein, where she is a princess, she finds she hates keeping up the charade that she is a virtuous, innocent girl who has lived always with her mother until now. She even receives a marriage proposal from an eligible young prince, but in the end, she refuses him. She feels she cannot be cleansed of her sin—the prostitution which was more inflicted upon her than her own fault. Ultimately, she turns down her suitor and decides to become a nun. Because of how others view her as virtuous and because she is now the Princess Amelie, it is decided that she will take her cousin’s position as abbess on the day she becomes a nun. She does not feel she is worthy of this honor either. Soon after, she dies, needing to free herself from her sin. Rodolphe is grief-stricken by her death but feels it is just punishment for his own crimes and that now his sins have been expiated. As for Songbird, one cannot help comparing her death to that of Richardson’s Clarissa. Clarissa has to die because she has been raped and death was the only way she could prove her virtue. Songbird dies to atone for her past as a prostitute, a past for which she is really not at fault. Her death washes away her sin.
Although The Mysteries of Paris is not a Gothic novel—even the crime-ridden streets of Paris lack the Gothic atmosphere that Dickens might have created—the Gothic theme of guilt and redemption is strong in Sue’s story. So also is the Gothic family plot that includes long-kept secrets that are ultimately revealed. Several of the other characters also undergo spiritual transformations and redemption as they struggle to become better. Slasher ultimately dies trying to save Rodolphe from an assassination attempt, which he also sees as expiation for his sins. He killed, so he must be killed. (He gained his nickname when he worked as a butcher and in a moment of madness slashed a man.)
While Sue was writing the novel, he constantly received feedback from readers, and ultimately, by the time the novel was finished, his constant speeches about how social structures need to be put in place to prevent crime by relieving poverty led him to meeting and speaking with many people and ultimately led to his becoming a socialist. That said, I think this is far less a socialist than a very Christian novel. Sue’s intention is to help the poor, to see them as his brothers and sisters, and to persuade his readers to do something to help them. That is not socialism. That is Christianity pure and simple, and it is beautiful, if dark, in the way Sue treats it. Unfortunately, his Christian characters do not get their rewards or only enjoy them briefly in this life. But no matter; they cannot completely wash away their sins or forget their pain in this lifetime. Only God can wash away their sins, so they die and enter eternal life.
The novel is very powerful—perhaps not quite as much of a tearjerker as Les Miserables, but it certainly was inspiration for Hugo’s novel in its depiction of criminals who were largely forced by society into the crimes they participate in; for example, Jean Valjean stealing to feed his family and Fantine becoming a prostitute to feed her child. I was surprised to learn from the novel’s footnotes that prostitution was not only legal in France during this period but parents could even register their daughters as prostitutes to earn extra income to support the family. That Sue spoke out against such behavior, as I said, is not socialism but Christianity.
The novel’s influence was huge, not just inspiring other city mystery novels but Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas, the latter of whom’s publisher wanted him to write a similar novel which later became The Count of Monte Cristo. The Mysteries of Paris would also be a grandfather to the superhero genre. Rodolphe has extreme if not superhuman strength. Jean Valjean will later also be marvelously physically strong. The influence of French literature on English literature was significant and has never been accurately analyzed, but no doubt many of the great British and American authors read this novel and its influence, overtly or not, continued on until heroes like Batman resulted.
Best of all, the novel remains highly readable today. It deserves to be one of the most read classics of French literature by readers worldwide.
Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D., is the author of The Children of Arthur series, beginning with Arthur’s Legacy and including Lilith’s Love which is largely a sequel to Dracula. His scholarly nonfiction works include King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition and The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption. You can learn more about him at www.GothicWanderer.com and www.ChildrenofArthur.com.