Little reviews on little (and big!) books

The Ladies’ Paradise by Émile Zola

on February 26, 2016

the-ladies-paradiseCan anyone tell I’m a Zola fan yet? This time, I’m writing about yet another novel in his Rougon-Macquart series, The Ladies’ Paradise or Au Bonheur des Dames. Published in 1883, this novel is Zola’s attempt at describing the relatively unheard-of at the time department store. Modelled on the Bon Marché, Paris’s first big shop constructed of different departments catering to all, Zola’s Ladies’ Paradise is epic in both its reputation and stature.

The novel centres around both the owner of the Paradise, Octave Mouret, and one of the shopgirls, Denise Baudu. Mouret has inherited the Paradise from his first wife and strives to develop his store to become the most powerful in all of Paris. As a result of this, we see the effect this appearance of the department store has on the small businesses which surround the Paradise. Mouret’s monster destroys all in its path in order to be successful – he really doesn’t care whose building or whose livelihood (or indeed who) he kills in the process. Mouret is extremely fiscally motivated, always thinking about bigger and better sales and advancements that he can make within the store to rival his competitors until they eventually give up.

Then we have Denise. She is the niece of one of the shop owners whose business is threatened by the construction of the Paradise. Against her uncle’s wishes, she applies for a job as a shopgirl at the Paradise in order to support her two brothers after the death of their parents. However, all is not plain sailing when she starts her new job. She is victimised due to her plain appearance when she is sent to work in the Ladieswear department. Believe me, this is the ultimate clique! Her dowdy dress is ridiculed and her inability to style her own hair any other way is a source of amusement for the girls who consistently refer to her as unkempt. Zola writes: ‘A further torment was that the whole department was against her. To her physical martyrdom was added the surreptitious persecution of her colleagues. Two months of patience and gentleness had not so far disarmed them. She was the object of wounding remarks and cruel tricks, and constant slights which, in her need for affection, cut her to the quick… Later on, as she quickly became accustomed to the workings of the shop, and proved herself to be a remarkable saleswoman, there was indignant amazement, and from then on the girls conspired never to let her have a good customer.’ Day in, day out, Denise is faced with the 19th century equivalent of mean girls – girls who know the best customers to snatch up before Denise can get her hands on them. In this way, Zola demonstrates not only real life (I’m sure we’ve all had to deal with people like that!), but also the ruthlessness of business and consumerism in not just Victorian Paris but around the world.

This ruthlessness is described as necessity throughout the novel. You can’t run a successful store without some cutbacks! Anybody who is seen as dead weight is instantly thrown out of the Paradise family. And a family it seems to be as the staff all live under the same roof and dine together. Zola writes of the method in which those are fired from the Paradise: ‘In any case, the salesmen accepted their precarious position, for they were forced to do so by necessity and habit. Ever since their arrival in Paris they had roamed about, beginning their apprenticeship in one shop, finishing it in another, getting dismissed or leaving of their own accord on the spur of the moment, as chance and their interests dictated. When the factories lay idle, the workers were deprived of their daily bread; and this took place with the unfeeling motion of a machine – the useless cog was calmly thrown aside, like an iron wheel to which no gratitude is shown for services rendered. So much the worse for those we did not know how to look after themselves!’ Zola’s analysis of consumerism in the novel does not paint the most ideal of lives. Granted, when one is in the right job and position, the rewards can be great, but one false move can decimate years of training. The Paradise is somewhat uncaring in this aspect. Mouret wants people in his store that are fully committed but when supervisors and others deem a member of staff to be useless to the giant wheel that is their department store, the member of staff i.e. the cog is cast aside with little regard for his circumstances. The Paradise is full of people who are back-stabbing each other to get the top, as discussed in the overview that: ‘everyone in the department, from the newcomer dreaming of becoming a salesman to the senior salesman coveting the manager’s job, had only one fixed idea – to dislodge the colleague above them in order to climb a rung of the ladder, to devour him if he became an obstacle; and it was as if this struggle of appetites, this pressure of one against another, was what made the machine run smoothly, stimulating business and igniting the blaze of success which was astonishing Paris.’ This monster store, described as ‘colossal and fantastic’ can be the means to ruin or promotion, depending on how you play your cards.

Mouret’s sole focus, as I have said, is money. His days are spent surveying his store and trying to come up with new ways to get the customers in the door. The only way he can think to do this is to appeal as much as he can to female shoppers. They are the ones who will spend the big francs on silks, gloves, homewares, anything he throws in front of them so he thinks. The reader is informed that ‘Mouret’s sole passion was the conquest of Woman. He wanted her to be queen in his shop; he had built this temple for her in order to hold her at his mercy. His tactics were to intoxicate her with amorous attentions, to trade on her desires, and to exploit her excitement.’ He opens new sections of his department store just for her. He develops new ways of enticing Woman into departments designed specifically for children in order to get even more money from her pocket. A despicable way to trade some may say, but I’m sure a most successful one! He starts sales in his shop on the cheapest of items so any woman shopper would think she urgently needed that item – it must be brilliant, it’s on sale! Then we see the introduction of his returns policy – you can always try it and bring it back, knowing full well they wouldn’t! Say what you will about him, Mouret is a fantastic businessman! He doesn’t miss a trick! He is believed to be ‘drinking the money of Paris as [he would] drink a glass of water.’ Constantly moving departments around so customers would have to walk through certain areas to get where they wanted to go – maybe on the way they could pick up a bargain here and there. Zola portrays Mouret as quite simply the master of the shop, as the master of consumerism! His sales are even described as generating paroxysms in his customers! His sales mean the shops are crammed full of people, resulting in excessive heat and even fevers amongst the women. He knows how to get the money out of his customers without them even realising they’re being duped. As Mouret states himself: ‘Doesn’t Paris belong to women, and don’t the women belong to us?’

I think The Ladies’ Paradise is one of those novels where you can just picture everything. I love books like that! Zola is one of very few writers that I have come across who can easily paint a glorious picture, even if it’s of the most disgusting of things as we can read elsewhere! Here, his description of the department store is one of the most beautiful you can imagine. He details the gilding of the store, the elevators lined with velvet, the sheer aesthetic pleasure of the shop never ceases to be breathtaking. At the end of the day of Mouret’s biggest ever sale, the setting sun sets the inside of the shop ablaze: ‘A sheet of fire was running through the great central gallery, making the staircases, the suspension bridges, and the hanging iron lacework stand out against a background of flames. The mosaics and the ceramics of the friezes were sparkling, the greens and reds of the paintwork were lit up by the fires from the gold so lavishly applied. It was as if the displays… were now burning in live embers.’ The most magnificent of descriptions, I’m sure you’ll agree! You can just picture the low sun burning through the shop showing the devastation and desolation brought on the store by the shoppers. Yet again, this imagery is what draws not only the reader into the Paradise but also the shoppers. No wonder they are amazed and enthralled by what they experience in this grand building and most regal of palaces! Mouret could offer them anything and they would take it. Zola’s introduction of the grandeur of the department store is a comment on what he describes as the new Paris – a Paris driven by consumerism and wealth – a Paris driven by the excessive need to have.

As predictable as it is, the reader witnesses Denise’s looks capture the attention of Mouret. Try as he might, he cannot get this girl out of his head. The man who wants for nothing, but this is the one girl who we will see continually refuse his advances! He watches her develop in style and confidence, offering her promotions and more money in order to appease her, yet she still will not yield. Mouret is a man who ‘only had to stoop to get the others’ and here we see the resilience of a woman who chooses not to be gossiped about. The whole store knows Mouret worships Denise, leading them to speculate she already has a lover. In reality, Denise does feel something for Mouret, feeling terrible and ashamed when she may have done something to disappoint him. She simply doesn’t want to be the next in a long line of Mouret’s women whom he courts and dumps the next day. She is a woman of morals and standards and as such is highly respectable in her resolve and determinations. In some ways, Denise almost despises herself for the way she feels: ‘Mouret had invented this mechanism for crushing people, and its brutal operation shocked her. He had strewn the neighbourhood with ruins, he had despoiled some and killed others; yet she loved him for the grandeur of his achievement, and each time he committed some fresh excess of power, despite the flood of tears which overwhelmed her at the thought of the misery of the vanquished, she loved him even more.’ She sees businesses ruined, men driven out of their homes, money offered to get people to move on so he can build more wings to his store, she sees her own uncle’s business be driven into the ground by Mouret but still she cannot shake her feelings for him. Perhaps she is altogether impressed by his acumen to grow and change constantly to adapt, like Denise in some ways. She came from nothing and works her way up within the Paradise through sheer determination.

Most notably to me is Zola’s description of the store towards the end of the novel. We read of the attraction and pull of the Paradise to the citizens of Paris, but only a few pages from the end do we hear a comparison with religion. Zola writes: ‘And it was he who possessed them all like that… His creation was producing a new religion; churches, which were being gradually deserted by those of wavering faith, were being replaced by his bazaar. Women came to spend their hours of leisure in his shop, the thrilling, disturbing hours which in the past they’d spent in the depths of a chapel… If he had closed his doors, there would have been a rising in the street, a desperate outcry from the worshippers whose confessional and altar he would have abolished.’ This comparison between the religion of consumerism and actual religion is amazing. People in search of a new faith have left the churches and instead found the luxury of shopping. Now I know some people can be obsessed with shopping (I know I am!) but Zola’s description here is incredible. Those looking for something to believe in have chosen Mouret’s store to salve their souls! Ironic really, since the way he conducts his Paradise and the way in which he treats his staff is anything but Christian! Yet here we have men, women and children ploughing through his doors day in day out, lining his pocket with money. Mouret knows they will return again and again if he does just enough to entice them.

Overall, I thought this novel was great! We’re all familiar in this day and age with the modern department store but it was a novelty in Victorian Paris. It must have been a sight to behold, this fictional colossal building of marble and gold forever expanding along a small street in France! Yet again, Zola describes the effect of this consumerism on the rich and the poor expertly. As we can read in his other novels, he never shirks away from reporting on the good and the bad. I will let you read the novel to find out what actually happens in the end but I really do suggest you pick it up if you can! Oh, and I’ve also just started the BBC series called The Paradise which I believe roughly follows the story – so far the first episode is rather different but I’ll keep going! Let me know if any of you have already watched it!


One response to “The Ladies’ Paradise by Émile Zola

  1. Haha, as I was reading the summary, I thought, “This sounds familiar…” — that’s because I just watched The Paradise on Netflix a few months ago! I didn’t even realize it was based on a novel. It’s certainly an intriguing story.

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