Les Misérables and Les Mystères de Paris: a comparison

When raving about ‘The Mysteries of Paris‘ last week, it was clear there was an elephant in the room, because when you describe thousand plus page novels using characters to explore social issues in 19th century Paris, no-one thinks you’re talking about Sue’s little-known melodrama.   My excuse is I wanted to stay on topic and the review didn’t feel like the time to explore Sue’s novel in the context of Hugo’s classic.  Instead, I thought I would devote this post to a proper comparison of these two mighty tomes.


The elephant in the room (Gustave Brion’s illustration for ‘Les Miserables’)


Les Misérables Les Mystères de Paris
Length 1,232 pages
(Penguin Classic paperback)
1,392 page
(Penguin Classic paperback)
Date Published 1862 Published serially, 1842-1843
Characteristics of the hero Philosophical

Has superhuman strength

Sometimes struggles to do what is right

Born poor, attained riches, learned through suffering

Tries to do good to everyone

Father figure to heroine


Has superhuman strength

Always does what is right

Was born a prince, suffered through being married to an evil woman

Dispenses justice, rewarding the good and punishing the bad

Father figure to heroine

Characteristics of heroine Abandoned by mother

Abused as a child

Good looking

Devoted to father figure

Abandoned by mother

Abused as a child

Beautiful beyond measure

Devoted to father figure

The good poor Three of the four volumes of the book are named after essentially virtuous people who suffer poverty: Fantine (whose ultimately descends into prostitution), Cosette (who is abused as a child) and Marius (who refuses financial assistance from his family). They are all GOOD, and most of them are rewarded. Other examples of the good poor are the children who happily run around the streets of Paris in implausible, but very attractive, playful innocence. There are plenty of good characters in the book, they would rather starve than steal, and are at the mercy of the rich and the bad poor alike. All are very conscious of right and wrong and the importance of maintaining high moral standards, of working all the time, of not complaining and of not asking anything of anyone. A way of recognising the good poor is that they are rarely disfigured, often sing, love plants and trust the hero in everything he does.
The Bad poor There are also BAD poor people in the book, such as the couple who abuse Cosette. They are consistently and gratuitously evil at every opportunity and are especially good at feigning poverty in order to get money from others. Not all the poor characters are good, some are bad and they can be recognised through their disfigurements (tending to be missing eyes and, in extreme cases, noses).   Poor bad people do the bidding of rich bad people, but they also make up evil schemes of their own.
Setting A historical Paris that was being destroyed as Hugo was writing. Paragraphs are given over to mourning the loss of historical streets and alleyways. Also, key scenes take place in a nunnery. Set before Napoleon III got started with he re-design of Paris, the book is filled with dark alleyways of the criminal quarters of the town. Also, a key scene takes place in a nunnery.

As you can see, the novels do share a lot of similarities, but there is a crucial difference.  ‘Les Misérables’ is a classic that everyone has heard of, containing a fairly small cast of memorable characters and some major historical set-pieces.  ‘Les Mystères de Paris’ is an extremely silly piece of popular fiction that is now all but forgotten.  On a personal level, there is another difference: despite all my best intentions, I’m afraid I still like Sue’s melodrama more than Hugo’s tragedy.  The evident nonsense of the plot ends up making the excessive characters and endless coincidences entertaining rather than irritating, while the laudable ethical underpinning is at least as strong as in Hugo’s most polemical paragraphs.

As far as I know, I’m alone in my preference.  I don’t mind – according to Wikipedia Sue’s novel actually sparked a whole genre of ‘city mystery’ books in the mid-nineteenth century – I’m off to Project Gutenberg to see how many might be available in English for me to look forward to in 2018.

This entry was posted in Eugène Sue, Reading in translation, Victor Hugo and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Les Misérables and Les Mystères de Paris: a comparison

  1. Izzy says:

    I’ve never been a great fan of Les Misérables myself. I’ve always preferred Notre-Dame de Paris and, to be honest, I prefer Flaubert and Stendhal to Hugo. Les mystères were adapted for French television when I was a child and I loved them but the series probably didn’t stand the test of time ! Anyway, great reviews Shoshi !

    • To be honest, I’m not sure the book really stands the test of time either (and I say this with great fondness). It may be that a dated TV adaptation, the more bloated, self-indulgent and over-the-top the better, may be the perfect way to do justice to Sue’s novel?

  2. Les Misérables, I love both the book and musical. It has this beautiful underlying spirituality despite all of the tragic event unfolding, but still is full of hope, compassion, forgiveness, love, sacrifice, humanity and redemption.

    • It certainly contains much more philosophy and meditation than I was expecting when I first picked it up. I love ‘Les Miserables’ for its sheer popularity. It’s great to see a 19th century novel still so beloved and continually reaching new readers.

      • Les Misérables has been around since 1862 and always been popular, but when the musical came up. the popularity grew in even more popularity. Now more and more fans of the musicals are reading the book. Reading the book made me a bigger fan of the musical and I was able to use the musical to understand what was going in the book.

  3. This is an interesting comparison.Which one did you read first (Les Miserables mostly I guess ).Do you think the reading order of these book would matter ?If so which do you recommend .

    • My reading order was ‘Les Miserables’ (many years ago) then ‘Les Mystères’ followed swiftly by ‘Les Miserables’ again for comparison. I would probably recommend starting with ‘Les Miersables’ because, after all, it is a true classic, even though with my fondness for melodrama, I think I was always going to prefer ‘Les Mystères’ in the end.

  4. Rob says:

    Great review, thanks.

    I am still undecided about whether I prefer Mysteries or Les Miserables. I find it funny that Mysteries mentions a man who was sent to prison for stealing a loaf of bread. Hugo started writing Les Miserables in the 1840s after Sue’s novel was published. He even mentions Sue in the book.

    Although both authors clearly sought social reform, Sue speaks of “reform from above” whereas Hugo wants the “people to rise”. But let’s talk about the story. Hugo’s book is much better written. Hugo was also a poet. He was a master of the French language. Sue was competent but no more than that. Hugo’s narrative is tighter. Although Hugo insisted his book was not serialised, it bears all the hallmarks of the classic serial and the “rising action” at the end of each part of the novel keeps the reader in suspense. The book is neatly divided into 5 parts and it’s clear Hugo has a clear structure for the story. No character is wasted. They all serve a purpose. Sue was said to have made the story up as he went along. The denounment, in this and his other novels, seemed rather weak given the progress made by certain characters.

    I like both novels but probably prefer The Count of Monte Cristo over them. I see Monte Cristo as the third in a trilogy of great French melodramas which also includes Mysteries of Paris and Les Miserables. Although there wasn’t any agenda of social reform in Dumas’ novel, Edmond Dantes is a “agent of providence” in the mould of Rodolphe & the theme of unjust imprisonment was also used in Les Miserables.

    I will say one thing though, Rigolette is to me one of the best written female characters by a male author in Victorian literature. Much better than say Dickens. Also her relationship with Germain is very realistic. They started out as friends before becoming lovers and their devotion to each other isn’t overly melodramatic as with Marius and Cosette from Les Miserables or Valentine & Maximillian from Monte Cristo.

    I have a play version of the novel also written by Sue. The ending is more upbeat.

    I wonder if the story will ever be adapted again. There has been no adaptations since the French TV series of 1980.

    Maybe you should read The Wandering Jew next?

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