The hero of the novel is the mysterious and distinguished Rodolphe, who is really the Grand Duke of Gerolstein (a fictional kingdom of Germany) but is disguised as a Parisian worker. Rodolphe can speak in argot, is extremely strong and a good fighter. Yet he also shows great compassion for the lower classes, good judgment, and a brilliant mind. He can navigate all layers of society in order to understand their problems, and to understand how the different social classes are linked. Rodolphe is accompanied by his friends Sir Walter Murph, an Englishman, and David, a gifted black doctor, formerly a slave.
The first figures they meet are Le Chourineur and La Goualeuse. Rodolphe saves La Goualeuse from Le Chourineur's brutality, and saves Le Chourineur from himself, knowing that the man still has some good in him. La Goualeuse is a prostitute, and Le Chourineur is a former butcher who has served 15 years in prison for murder. Both characters are grateful for Rodolphe's assistance, as are many other characters in the novel.
Though Rodolphe is described as a flawless man, Sue otherwise depicts the Parisian nobility as deaf to the misfortunes of the common people and focused on meaningless intrigues.