19th Century

Blind Justice in Eugene Sue’s “The Mysteries of Paris” (1842–3)

By Stephen Basdeo

In the 19 June 1842, issue of the Parisian magazine, Journal des Debats, a new serialised novel appeared entitled The Mysteries of Paris, which ran weekly until 15 October 1843.

The novel was written by Eugene Sue (1804-57), and the plot concerns a man called Rodolphe who moves through the Parisian underworld doing good works, such as saving young girls from procuresses (women who would pimp other women out). In time, it turns out that Rodolphe is actually a very rich man, and heir to a German dukedom.

The plot was inspired by his political beliefs, for Sue was a socialist, and his rendering of the desperate plight of the Parisian underclasses was intended to inspire sympathy among for them amongst his affluent readers. This is perhaps why E. R. Tennenbaum sees in Sue’s novel the first glimmers of what he calls ‘bleeding heart liberalism’. In addition to having written some fairly successful novels, he took part in the French Revolution of 1848, after which time he was elected to the Parisian Legislative Assembly, however, with Napoleon III’s coup d’etat, he was exiled to Savoy and spent the rest of his days there.[1]


Title page to Eugene Sue’s “Mysteries of Paris” (c) Stephen Basdeo

Richard Maxwell argues that The Mysteries of Paris, along with The Mysteries of London (1845) which it inspired, represented a new genre of fiction: the urban gothic. In these novels the modern industrial city provided the setting for a gothic romance, in contrast to the rural gothic settings of writers such as Matthew Lewis and William Harrison Ainsworth. The City is portrayed in these “City Mysteries” as a maze where all manner of vice and crime exist, from fashionable high class residences to the slum districts.[2]

The novel appears to have been well received amongst readers of all classes; and of course G. W. M. Reynolds was quite taken with it, seeing as he produced his own The Mysteries of Londonand Sue’s novel was also translated into English as a penny blood, or penny dreadful, and went through several editions. In fact, Sue’s serial kicked off a whole ‘City Mysteries’ genre such as the aforementioned Mysteries of London by G. W. M. Reynolds; The Mysteries of Lisbon by Camilo Branco; The Slums of St. Petersburg by Vsevolod Krestovsky; and The Mysteries of New York by Ned Buntline.

It should not be supposed that Sue’s novel, in contrast to many penny serials at this time, was aimed at children (penny dreadfuls typically featured boy thieves and highwaymen from the eighteenth century). Instead this is a serial which was read by adults, and it would be only in the latter part of the 1800s that penny serials would become targeted specifically towards young readers.

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Illustration from Eugene Sue’s “Mysteries of Paris” (c) Stephen Basdeo

Indeed, some of the scenes in the novel are so horrific that, had the novel been one for children, they would have had nightmares.

In the early part of the book, Rodolphe encounters a master criminal who goes by the name of the Schoolmaster. Drawing upon contemporary studies of physiognomy, Sue makes it clear that this man has criminality etched into his appearance. He is guilty of all manner of crimes such as murder, kidnapping, extortion. Yet the Schoolmaster finally receives his comeuppance when he makes an attempt upon the life of Rodolphe and his friend, but ultimately fails.

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The menacing Schoolmaster. Illustration from Sue’s “Mysteries of Paris” (c) Stephen Basdeo

The Schoolmaster is captured, bound to a chair tightly with rope, and taken into Rodolphe’s drawing room where Rodolphe, his Doctor, and his servant are set around a table. An interrogation of the Schoolmaster follows and Rodolphe has to decide what to do with him.

Sue was highly critical of the French justice system, for it seemed to him, and indeed many reformers of the time, to be ineffective at actually punishing criminals and simply allowed them to refine their criminal talents in concert with other reprobates. And neither was simply turning him over to be guillotined going to be any good:

“If on the other hand, you had braved the scaffold – as one having the murderer’s only redeeming quality, personal courage – equally little would it have availed with me to have given you up to the executioner. For you, the scaffold would be merely an ensanguined stage; where, like so many others, you would make a parade of your ferocity; where, reckless of a miserable life, you would exhale your last breath with a blasphemy … It is not good for the people to see the criminal cracking jokes with the executioner, breathing out in a sneer … All crime may be expiated and redeemed, says the Saviour; but to that end, sincere repentance is necessary. From the tribunal to the scaffold, the journey is too short; it would not do, therefore, for you to die thus.”[3]

So what was to be done? Rodolphe begins to speak every more cryptically:

“You have criminally abused your strength – I will paralyse that strength; the strongest have trembled before you – you shall tremble before the weakest. Assassin! You have plunged the creatures of God into eternal night – the shadows of night eternal shall commence for you even in this world. This night – in a few minutes – your punishment shall equal your offences. But … the punishment I am about to pronounce leaves you a boundless horizon of repentance … I forever deprive you of all the splendours of creation … Yes! For ever isolated from the external world you will be forced to look constantly within yourself.[4]

Rodolphe does say, however, that he will be provided for financially and places in the Schoolmaster’s waistcoat 3,000 francs.

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The punishment of the Schoolmaster. Illustration from Eugene Sue’s “Mysteries of Paris” (c) Stephen Basdeo

At this point, the schoolmaster is tied to a chair so tightly that he cannot move an inch, and the doctor arises and wheels him out of the room momentarily. All is silent, and Rodolphe’s servant, the Chourineur, has no idea what is transpiring in the next room. And then the Schoolmaster is brought back in:

“Blind! Blind! Blind!” cried the brigand, in an increasing tone of agony.

“You are free – you have money – go!”

“But – I cannot go! How would you have me go? I cannot see! Oh it is a frightful crime thus to abuse your strength, in order to–”

“It is a crime to abuse one’s strength,” said Rodolphe, in his most solemn tones. “And then, what hast thou done with thy strength?”

“Oh death! Yes, I should have preferred death!” cried the schoolmaster, “to be at everyone’s mercy, to be afraid of everything! Ah! A mere child can beat me now! What, oh! What shall I do? My God! My God! What shall I do?”

“You have money.”

“I shall be robbed.”

“You will be robbed! Do you understand these words which you pronounce with so much terror? Do you understand them – you, who have robbed so many? Go.”[5]

Rodolphe is not totally unfeeling, however, and he commands his servant to ensure that the Schoolmaster is cared for by being given a place to stay the night, and he is subsequently placed in the care of an honest and respectable family who live in a rural part of France.

As a punishment, blinding stopped being used as a punishment for crimes in Britain and France during the early modern period, and even then, it was not used that much. Its heyday as a punishment in England was during the Anglo-Saxon period, when, along with castration, it served as a punishment for counterfeiters.[6] By the time that Sue was writing, it would have been regarded in both countries as a barbaric punishment.

While Tennebaum argued that Sue’s novel represented the beginnings of “bleeding heart liberalism”, Eugene Sue, in spite of his alleged socialist beliefs, was hardly a kind man when it came to the wrongs and crimes of the poor, or those whom he viewed as irredeemably criminal. When he was elected to the French Legislative Assembly, in fact, while he declared his opposition to capital punishment, he did advocate blinding as a means of reforming criminals, or at the very least, placing them in solitary confinement perpetually. In the novel, Sue’s Grand Duke Rodolphe views the righting of the wrongs and crimes of the poor as his aristocratic responsibility; he has much sympathy with the ‘respectable’ poor (those who conformed to the bourgeoisie’s expectations of how they should act: deferential and working for a pittance with murmuring only very little), but he also accepts that there are some members of the poor who stand little chance of being reformed unless they are taken out of society. As Karl Marx and Frederich Engels pointed out in their commentary on the novel in The Holy Family (1844), Sue’s Rodolphe simply wants to remove from society all who do not conform to his world view.[7]

In the end, the blinding that the Schoolmaster receives does not induce him to mend his ways but instead he broods on his punishment, and vows vengeance upon Rodolphe for the rest of his life…

[1] See E. R. Tennenbaum, ‘The Beginnings of Bleeding-Heart Liberalism: Eugene Sue’s les Mysteres de Paris’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 23: 3 (1981), 491-507.

[2] See Richard Maxwell, The Mysteries of Paris and London (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1993).

[3] Eugene Sue, The Mysteries of Paris (London: Boscoe’s Library, 1843), p. 52.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., p. 53.

[6] Alyxandra Mattison, ‘The Execution and Burial of Criminals in Early Medieval England, c. 850-1150: An Examination of Changes in Judicial Punishment Across the Norman Conquest’ (Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Sheffield, 2016), p. 40.

[7] Karl Marx and Frederich Engels, The Holy Family; or Critique of Critical Criticism, Trans. Richard Dixon (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1956) https://www.marxists.org [Accessed 26 July 2018]


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