Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century French Studies

Workers and Wives as Legible Types in Eugene Sue's Les Mysteres De Paris

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century French Studies

Workers and Wives as Legible Types in Eugene Sue's Les Mysteres De Paris

Article excerpt

Collapsing appearance and identity, Rigolette--the perennially cheerful grisette in Eugene Sue's Les Mysteres de Paris (1842-43)--catches up with an old friend through a glance at her apparel. Informing La Goualeuse that "c'est ta vocation de porter un bonnet de paysanne, comme la mienne de porter un bonnet de grisette," Rigolette responds naively to her friend's appearance as she relies on the metonymic function of clothing and accessories to announce one's occupation and consequent social standing (Sue 833). As she reads a bonnet as evidence of La Goualeuse's transformation from urban seamstress to rural peasant, the grisette indirectly articulates the extent to which sight and appearance (rather than speech) had become privileged modes of transmitting knowledge about people in the nineteenth-century city. In a novel that exposes and catalogues the underground sectors of Paris usually hidden from view, such interpretations of physical appearance seem indispensible as city dwellers strove to attribute a certain degree of legibility to the modern metropolis.

Sue's novel begins in a Paris that is composed of urban types that could be decoded and categorized by the knowing observer--such as one encountered within the popular city guides and tableaux of the 1830s and 40s--but he quickly shifts gears and demonstrates that the city is, in fact, more mysterious than legible. So even as characters, such as Rigolette, rely on visual identifications as they interact with other city dwellers, Sue illustrates how deceit and disguise complicate the legibility of urban types. Readers know, for example, that the grisette's quick physiognomic reading of La Goualeuse is a misreading and, by responding to what she sees rather than what is, she silences her friend who dates not contradict that which her own clothing so plainly, albeit dishonestly, declares. While La Goualeuse's outfit is coded as respectable and allows her to pass for such before her uninformed friend, it merely conceals (but cannot contain) the branded body of a prostitute. Because working women like Rigolette and La Goualeuse, attired in the unofficial uniforms associated with their occupations, were instantly recognizable, they were inherently limited vis-a-vis their share of the metropolis. Showing how these women negotiate the space between the street (or prison) and the working-class home, I argue that, in a novel full of disguised and deceitful characters, they are constrained by perceptions of them as types. La Goualeuse and Rigolette, in other words, find the markings of geography, occupation, and class inscribed upon their bodies even as they move within (and beyond) the city and their former roles in it. Looking at the novel's treatment of the working woman's body as an immutable surface, I examine how preconceived notions regarding class and gender endorsed by popular urban literature--namely, the physiologies produced during the July Monarchy--influence perception and complicate readings of bodies that wittingly express multiple (or even contradictory) things about the self.

Sue's novel, serialized in Le Journal des debats from June of 1842 to October of 1843, follows the progress of Rodolphe, a German prince turned social reformer, as he attempts to infiltrate and demystify the Parisian underworld. The numerous characters and plots of the novel are tenuously connected through this disguised prince, who is, however improbably, a perfect social chameleon. Whether consorting with murderers and thieves in la Cite or attending high society balls, Rodolphe is equally at home in his various roles and with his diverse companions. While his expeditions into the city's slums shocked contemporary readers with their realism, the prince nevertheless occupies a romantic Paris where the prostitute he plucks out of the urban muck turns out to be his long-lost daughter and happy endings are procured for the long-suffering but deserving victims hidden in the obscure corners of the metropolis. …

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